Tillerson: Trump to appoint special envoy to Northern Ireland over impasse

The impasse in Northern Ireland has prompted the White House to fill a diplomatic slot that has gone mainly unnoticed since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Rex Tillerson will recommend the appointment of a special envoy to deal with the collapse of the executive, according to the Irish Times, at the prompting of the foreign minister in the Republic of Ireland:

The United States is preparing to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has confirmed.

Responding to questions from reporters ahead of a meeting with Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at the US state department in Washington, Mr Tillerson said: “We’re giving some names to the White House as we currently speak.”

Tillerson and Coveney appeared briefly before the press on Friday, which asked about the open envoy slot:

This story got lost amidst the CPAC shuffle, but it’s worth watching as the Trump administration calculates its relationships in western Europe. It’s also worth watching in terms of the White House’s relationship with Congress, as impatience over the open slot broke out into the open on Thursday:

Meanwhile, in Washington, the bipartisan Friends of Ireland caucus in Congress also called for a special envoy.

“With the breakdown of cross-border talks in Belfast last week aimed at restoring the power-sharing institutions, we once again urge president Trump to name a new Special Envoy to Ireland at the earliest opportunity,” said the statement signed by 22 members of Congress – both Democrat and Republican.

This appears to signal a reversal on the question of special-envoy positions at State. Tillerson had earlier pledged to eliminate such positions as part of streamlining at State. A review of diplomatic appointments shows a number of them unfilled, especially at the United Nations but also at other multilateral organizations such as ASEAN, OECD, OCSE, and even the European Union. When Trump met with Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), however, he pledged to fill the Northern Ireland envoy role.

Had the two main parties in the province managed to cut a deal this month as was widely expected, that pledge might have been forgotten. The collapse of the negotiations prompted Neal to round up a bipartisan group in Congress to press Trump to fulfill his pledge by making the appointment. Tillerson made the announcement the next day.

The impact of this appointment goes beyond the moribund Stormont. Coveney also met with Jared Kushner on the status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which Ireland has some interest. If Trump wants to get Ireland’s support for Kushner’s initiative, he needs to be more responsive to their concerns at home. Speaking of which

Confirmation that the position will be filled will be welcomed by the Government and comes ahead of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s visit to the US capital next month as part of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

“We made it very clear that we would like to see a special envoy to Northern Ireland again. I think it would be helpful,” Mr Coveney said. “We would also like to see an Irish ambassador named. Obviously the St Patrick’s Day celebrations and events would be a great opportunity to bring some clarity there.”

This has been one of the more curious omissions in the White House track record of appointing ambassadors. Ireland is usually considered a plum assignment for a Friend of POTUS, especially when the Northern Ireland envoy position tackles the thornier issues between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Big-time donors usually vie for this position. Trump did have a candidate in mind early last year, but Brian Burns had to withdraw for health-related issues in June. Michael George, a Belfast native, Wall Street investor, and a friend of both Kushner and Don Jr, was an earlier contender and might be the pick now. If he is, it’s being kept mighty quiet, which would be curious indeed.

Clearly the Irish are running out of patience, and it’s not tough to understand why. Both positions are going to be important for the US as the UK goes through its Brexit transition — and perhaps especially so if it doesn’t. Theresa May needs the DUP to maintain her government, and the DUP wants May to abrogate the Good Friday Agreement and restore direct rule, and also want Brexit fully implemented in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has demanded no “hard border” between them, and the EU has made that a principle in its negotiations with May.

If the US wants to have any influence on these events, they need to put influencers in place, sooner rather than later. St. Patrick’s Day may seem like a tight deadline, but these slots should have been filled months ago. Perhaps the public nudge will produce results.