Plans to trump envoy removal

While much of the world’s media attention focused on US President Donald Trump’s decision to abolish the country’s special envoy on climate change, little attention was paid to the other potential casualties of the proposed State Department reshuffle, including the US’s special envoy to Northern Ireland.

Opposition has been raised to the Trump administration’s announcement that it plans to dramatically reduce funding to the State Department which manages the US’s relations with foreign countries and governments.

In a letter to the chair of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined plans to cut over half of the US’s 66 special envoy positions including: for climate change, the Iran deal, Afghanistan-Pakistan, disability rights, international labour affairs, closing the Guantánamo Bay detention centre and the Northern Ireland role.

The Trump administration has chosen not to fill the role since the departure of the most recent envoy Gary Hart, who had to vacate the position when Barack Obama left office.

Although US involvement in the peace process has diminished in recent years, critics claim that the challenges of Brexit and the failure to reinstate an Executive are prime reasons why America should retain its interest.

Despite receiving support from numerous quarters during the Troubles, a special envoy to Northern Ireland was not established until 1995, a year after the IRA ceasefire. Originally viewed as a ‘symbolic’ rather that overly-active role, the UK Government originally viewed the appointment with scepticism. The first envoy, George Mitchell, remains the most well-known after he chaired the talks that would eventually result in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

His successors include Richard Hass (2001-2003), Mitchell Reiss (2003-2007), Paula Dobriansky (2007-2009), Declan Kelly (2009-2011) and Gary Hart (2014-2017).

While the earlier envoy appointments played a role in cementing the Stormont institutions in their initial years after the Good Friday Agreement, subsequent envoys have played a key role in helping Northern Ireland’s economic growth, often providing a key channel for Northern Ireland business and politicians to access the US market.

The most recent envoy, Gary Hart has described the proposal to scrap the role as “tragic”. Hart framed the move as part of a larger international disengagement being pursued by the Trump administration.

In response to Tillerson’s claim that the Good Friday Agreement has been implemented, suggesting that the role was no longer necessary, Hart added: “There is unreconstructed devolved government in Belfast, and Brexit is a critical, critical issue and there ought to be some person on the case who knows Ireland, who understands the issues and who can get along with the two governments, but we don’t have that person,” he told the Irish Times.

“This is a systemic problem right now. We are partly disengaging from the world and it is coming from a President who has no diplomatic experience and no foreign policy experience other than some experience conducting business deals overseas.”

Currently the post of the ambassador to Dublin also remains unfilled, although this position is not listed as one of those set to be axed.

US Senator George Mitchell, President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Northern Ireland.

The ability of the Trump administration to carry out the cuts will rely on approval from Congress and while some have suggested the role may be spared, there is no guarantee that Trump would opt to fill the position.

Over 25 congress members, both republicans and democrats, have signed a letter addressed to Rex Tillerson, urging him to reverse his decision.

In July, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed bipartisan legislation that would require the Department to notify Congress which special envoys it would like to keep in place and nominate all special envoys for the Senate’s approval going forward.

The legislation recognised that urgent developments may require the creation of a special envoy and allows to immediately begin carrying out their duties, providing a 90-day period for the administration to submit an individual for confirmation.

Outlining the Government’s thinking on the reductions, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said: “Through the years, numbers of special envoys have accumulated at the State Department, and in many cases, their creation has done more harm than good by creating an environment in which people work around the normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them.

“That is one reason our committee took bipartisan action last month to require Senate confirmation of special envoys while empowering the Secretary to reduce bureaucracy by reining in these often unnecessary positions.”

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, the oldest and largest Irish-Catholic organisation in the United States has lobbied Congress to voice their objections to the move. In a statement the group said it was “shocking” that the plans had been announced at a time when many of the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement are yet to be realised and “when the agreement, and the peace it fostered, is at risk”.

“Apparently, Secretary Tillerson, and many in the Government on both sides of the aisle, have confused the transitory peace which is a cessation of violence with the much greater vision of a permanent peace articulated in the Good Friday Agreement; a peace based on ‘parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment’.

“In the nearly 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland has yet to materialise and attempts to address the legacies of the past with justice have continually met with obstruction.

“Brexit, which the communities of Northern Ireland as a whole rejected, threatens economic upheaval to a fragile Northern Ireland economy and a return to “hard borders” in Ireland both physical and psychological.

“Americans take pride in staying the course until the job is done. It is for this reason that the proposal to eliminate the position of Special Envoy to Northern Ireland while the promise of the Good Friday Agreement has yet to be achieved is appalling.”

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