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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reflections on Barak Obama and the Irish Envoy

By Michael P. Quinlin

Irish advocates across the United States should be reassured by presidential candidate Barak Obama’s statement on Ireland, Northern Ireland and Irish-America, which he released the week of the Democratic National Convention.

It was the fourth of five Irish statements Obama’s campaign has issued in the past year, and it addressed immigration reform, investment in the island of Ireland and keeping the peace in Northern Ireland.

It also included a welcomed shout-out to Irish-Americans, focusing on the domestic policies Obama hopes will help blue-collar ethnic communities across America.

You can read the entire statement here.

What drew some attention is Obama’s passage on the US Special Envoy position to Northern Ireland, which reads:

Barak Obama will consult with the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister, and party leaders in Northern Ireland to determine whether a special U.S. envoy for Northern Ireland continues to be necessary or whether a senior administration official, serving as point person for Northern Ireland, would be most effective. As president, Barack Obama will personally engage on Irish issues whenever necessary.

I am encouraged by how this statement acknowledges the intricacies and nuances of Northern Ireland, and how it points to a fresh new approach to American foreign policy that has been sadly lacking these past eight years.

Barak Obama explicitly did not say that he would do away with the Special Envoy post, as some critics are unfairly suggesting. What he did say is that we need to evaluate the position to see how it serves the peace process.

Indeed, why shouldn’t a new president reach out to the people of Northern Ireland, to British and Irish government officials, and to party leaders? I would be happy if that brand of consensus-building becomes the hallmark of an Obama/Biden administration, not just in Northern Ireland but around the world.

But consensus-building is notably absent from the McCain campaign regarding this issue. Instead of consulting the people of Northern Ireland, as Obama would do, the McCain campaign is demanding that we automatically rubber stamp the Special Envoy position. End of conversation, no discussion needed.

It’s an unusual argument, given that Mr. McCain has not weighed in on the Special Envoy issue much over these past fourteen years. Now, some 50 days before the election, he wants it to be a permanent fixture in our foreign policy.

It’s also a faulty argument. The fact is the Special Envoy job has never been etched in stone, neither in definition, style, nor even in name. It is an evolving position that responds to the urgency of the moment in Northern Ireland, and to the priorities of the United States, especially after 9/11.

Over the past fourteen years, the United States has dispatched four Envoys to Northern Ireland – George Mitchell, Richard Haass, Mitchell Reiss, and Paula J. Dobriansky - spread across four terms of Democratic and Republican administrations.

President Bill Clinton first appointed George Mitchell in 1994, not as a Special Envoy, but as an Economic Envoy. Mitchell organized a successful White House Conference for Trade and Investment in May 1995, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Mitchell fully took on a Special Envoy role, heading up a three-man international commission to study the question of arms decommissioning.

Mitchell helped to usher in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, and many believe that may have been the high point of the Envoy role to date. Since then the other three envoys have done a commendable job keeping the peace process on track by essentially mediating and cajoling the people of Northern Ireland into governing themselves.

Paula J. Dobriansky is the current US Special Envoy, and has held the post since February 2007. By all accounts she is an outstanding public official and has carried out her tasks admirably. But she also has a much larger portfolio than just Northern Ireland.

As US Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, she is the point person on global human rights and labor; environment, oceans, health and science; population, refugees and migration; and women's issues. She is Special Coordinator on Tibetan Affairs, serving as a liaison between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama. This year alone Ambassador Dobriansky has been involved in Asian-Pacific Partnerships, US-India Global Issues, a Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People, and of course the US-Northern Ireland Investment Conference held in Belfast last May.

So, given the complexities and the range of American diplomatic issues in a post 9/11 world, Obama’s promise to evaluate the Irish Special Envoy post seems particularly timely and relevant. It will enhance everyone’s understanding of the position, not diminish it.

He has formed a Committee of our best Irish-American politicians to advise him. They include former Special Envoy George Mitchell, Senators Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd and Patrick Leahy, Congressmen Richard Neal and Joe Crowley and Governor Martin O’Malley. Along with vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, these politicians have decades of experience on Northern Ireland and a genuine commitment to the peace process.

When I read Obama’s statement that he will “personally engage on Irish issues when necessary,” it reminded me of a younger Bill Clinton, whom many of us campaigned for during the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. Bill Clinton made good on his promise, and I believe Obama will too.

Former Envoy George Mitchell agrees. In a comment published in this week's Irish Echo, Mitchell said, "I don't think there is much doubt that he (Obama) will in fact continue the recent practice of appointing a special representative to the position that I myself held. I don't think it's an issue. I think he will do that."

What I admire about the Obama/Biden approach is the tone of respect it seeks to establish toward the Irish-American community. Both men understand the intricacies of the world we live in, and are determined to keep the peace process moving forward, not just in Northern Ireland but across the world.

That’s good for the United States, and frankly, that must be the foremost concern of every American voter.

But it is also good for Northern Ireland. Obama’s approach bespeaks diplomacy and statesmanship to the core, and after all, isn’t that what the Special Envoy position is all about?

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this post. I think it was entirely appropriate for Obama to say it was time to review the position of the special envoy. Northern Ireland is now at peace.Irish American relations are naturally going to change.

    Furthermore, Obama is often accused of being a populist, of telling people what they want to hear. He cannot be accused of that in this case. His decision on the envoy was wise, pragmatic and potentially unpopular. Yet he made the right call. It is McCain who appeared clumsy as he said he would maintain the envoy in any case. A blatant attempt to do the popular thing in an effort to win Irish American votes. As an Irishman I can say I am more impressed by Obama's handleing of Irish issues than McCain's.