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An American Special Envoy?  Be Careful What You Wish For

By Trina Y. Vargo

 Irish Times, June 9, 2018


At a recent hearing in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives, a Democratic Congressman urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to appoint a Special Envoy to Northern Ireland.  Thirty-two Members of Congress signed a letter requesting the same, and Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald have stated support. This is perplexing, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been wise in not seeking a Special Envoy.

There hasn’t been a real need for a Special Envoy in more than a decade.  In a book published during the 2008 US Presidential campaign, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote about the positive role Senator Mitchell played as President Clinton’s Special Envoy but also warned that “such tools can be overused.”  There has long been a sense in the State Department that Special Envoys had become too numerous, and therefore not so special.

While calling for Special Envoys is easy, one should be careful what one wishes for, particularly with a Trump Administration.  

To suggest that US Government involvement is necessary to bring about the restoration of Stormont, or that the US has any negotiating role related to Brexit, is wrong, paternalistic and possibly dangerous.   

On Stormont, if the UK Government would just stop paying salaries to politicians that haven’t been in session for nearly a year and a half, minds would focus.  The US isn’t needed, Northern Ireland leaders simply need to lead.

On Brexit, President Trump may be more pro-Brexit than the British Prime Minister.  He said in an interview at Davos in January that the European Union is not all it’s cracked up to be and that he “would have taken a tougher stand in getting out.” Last year, President Trump’s Ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, said that that he thought the British made the right decision in voting for Brexit.  Does one really believe that President Trump cares whether or not there’s a hard border?  He loves borders.  There is no reason to believe that a Trump envoy would be helpful in such important and nuanced negotiations.  It is highly unlikely that he would appoint someone like George Mitchell.  

Of course, much remains to be done in Northern Ireland and the US Congress should pay close attention and be helpful where possible.  But with the erratic behavior demonstrated by this President, it may be wiser to leave these matters to professional diplomats in the Department of State.  

If I were the Irish Government, I wouldn’t even be overly eager for a US Ambassador to be appointed. Do you really want someone in Phoenix Park who will regularly remind President Trump about Ireland’s low corporate tax regime?  Remember his comment to the Taoiseach during the St. Patrick’s Day festivities at the White House.  The President joked, "Whenever there's a problem you call - we'll solve it," and then added, "except trade.  They've got those taxes so low ... you're a tough one to compete with with the taxes."  As Cliff Taylor noted in this paper at the time, “Many a true word is spoken in jest, as the old saying goes, and many a barb is dressed up as bonhomie.”

A US Ambassador in Ireland would likely be charged with working to get American multinationals to return to the US.  In an interview with Jason O’Brien for The Irish Independentduring St. Patrick’s Day, White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said of her boss, "He hasn't been shy about the fact that he wants to build up the jobs market in the US, and to bring back good talent from overseas. Ireland is one of those places."

As the parties in Northern Ireland frequently and mistakenly think only in terms of a zero-sum game, President Trump feels that way about trade, jobs and taxation – for America to win, the rest of the world has to lose.  Even with the current threat of an escalating trade war, I don’t see President Trump worrying about Ireland, which he feels is doing well at America’s expense.

Late in 2017 and early 2018, there was a trade dispute between Boeing and Bombardier which threatened Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturer.  While Bombardier ultimately prevailed when the US International Trade Commission ruled in its favor, Trump officials did not consider the impact on Northern Ireland in backing Boeing.   It was reported by James Moore in The Independent(UK) that Prime Minister Theresa May’s “frantic phone calls to the Oval Office … achieved precisely nothing. Ditto the pow wows with Robert “Woody” Wood Johnson”, the US Ambassador to the UK.  And US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, took Trump’s “America First” line as the Administration had threatened to impose massive duties.  In this battle between airline manufacturers, the impact on the Northern Ireland economy was of no concern to the Trump Administration.

I am also concerned about the suggestions that a hard border -- as unhelpful, problematic and undesirable as it would be -- would necessarily lead to a return to violence.  A hard border would likely result in great damage to the economy in Northern Ireland and violence would be counterproductive to any hopes that some hold for a united Ireland.  Demands for an immediate border poll are equally counterproductive.  Many moderate Unionists voted to remain, and it is more likely that some could come to see the value of a united Ireland when the British Government inevitably leaves them high and dry after Brexit.     

When Bill Clinton ran for President, some Irish Americans demanded that he promise to appoint a Special Envoy as soon as he took office.  When he became President, both Taoiseach Albert Reynold and British Prime Minister John Major told the new President that an envoy wouldn’t be helpful at that moment in time. Clinton rightly held off.   

US Members of Congress should take the lead from Taoiseach Varadkar on this occasion as well. 



Trina Y. Vargo is the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance and is currently writing a book about the relationship.