By Ray O’Hanlon
Just days ahead of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations President Trump has appointed Mick Mulvaney as U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland and the peace process.
The move came after years of urging from Irish American organizations and activists and encouragement from Irish government leaders.
Mulvaney is making the move after being relieved from his position as acting White House Chief of Staff.
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As of Monday morning he is the envoy “designate” as his new job will require Senate approval.
The New York Times described Mulvaney’s new role as a “consolation,” though Mulvaney’s interest in Ireland has been long known, and widely appreciated.
The appointment was welcomed by Congressman Richard Neal, co-chairman of the Friends of Ireland in Congress and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Said Neal in a statement: “The United States played an indispensable role in the peace process and is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 international peace accord that ended years of conflict on the island of Ireland.
“With the appointment of a new Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, the United States is demonstrating its ongoing commitment to the region at a critical time, particularly as the implications of Brexit in Ireland, north and south, become known. I welcome the announcement and believe it could help strengthen relations on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Mulvaney will need all his political skills in his new job, not only in dealing with the North’s fractured politics but also because his role could involve him in any further fallout from Brexit and the already fraught negotiations underway between London and Brussels.
Irish American organizations have been expressing fears that a failure to reach a deal on Brexit could have damaging implications for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.
President Trump, Mr. Mulvaney’s boss, is pro-Brexit and not overly sympathetic towards the European Union.
At the same time, a majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and there is deep concern there over the potential damage that an ultimate failure of EU/UK talks could deliver.
Additionally, a potential new trade deal between the UK and U.S. could also pose difficulties, the North being part of the UK.
Members of Congress, led by Congressman Neal and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have warned that a transatlantic trade deal would be blocked if it in any way adversely affected the current situation on the island of Ireland where the border is all but invisible.
Against the backdrop of strained relationships between the White House and Speaker Pelosi, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have made it known that they will not be attending the traditional Speaker’s lunch during the St. Patrick’s celebrations and visit to Washington later this week of acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
The lunch is set for Thursday, March 12. Mr. Mulvaney’s lunch plans on that day have not yet been revealed.
The new posting for Mulvaney was announced, as is typically the case, with a presidential tweet. Mulvaney is being replaced in the White House job by Tea Party Stalwart, Congressman Mark Meadows.
The Irish Times reported that Mr. Mulvaney has a long-standing interest in Ireland, is a regular visitor to the country and “was interested in the (envoy) position for some time.
He visited Northern Ireland late last month where he met with First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill. He also travelled to Dublin where he met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and held meetings with the new Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, in London.
That trip could well be viewed as a sign of things that were to come.
The Times reported that spokesman for the Irish embassy in Washington had welcomed the news of the Mulvaney appointment.
“This is a positive development demonstrating the United States’ long-standing commitment to the peace process. Mick Mulvaney has always had a great personal interest in Northern Ireland and we look forward to continuing to work with him on this and other issues,” the spokesman said.
The Times report added: “It is also understood that London is supportive of the appointment.”
The absence of an envoy was keenly felt these past three years by those in favor of continued direct U.S. involvement in the North peace and political process.
Such feelings were heightened by the political stalemate in the North and the suspension of both the Assembly and Executive at Stormont.
Both are now up and running again, a fact which should lighten Mr. Mulvaney’s workload a tad in the weeks and months ahead.
Additional reporting and more reaction in Wednesday’s St. Patrick’s Day special print issue if the Echo.