Analysis | The Biden administration should appoint a new U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland. Here’s why.

Ryan Conner

On January 13, 2022, Vice President of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič (left) met with U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (right) to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol. (Image: U.K. Government on Flickr)

Last week, the U.K. government introduced legislation that unilaterally alters the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key provision of the Brexit deal with the European Union. This U.K.-E.U. legal agreement aims to preserve the free movement of goods and people between Ireland — which remains part of the European Union — and Northern Ireland — which left the European Union along with the rest of the United Kingdom in 2020. Free movement across the Ireland-Northern Ireland border is a critical element of the peace process, and the protocol aimed to protect it by placing customs checks in the Irish Sea. However, in practice, the protocol’s implementation has been incomplete due in part to opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the U.K. government itself. After elections in May, the DUP refused to elect a speaker in the Northern Ireland Assembly or form an Executive until the U.K. government changed the protocol. Since the new legislation allows U.K. ministers to disapply parts of the protocol as they see fit, the European Commission has issued two lawsuits in response, accusing the U.K. government of breaching international law.

Now is the time for the Biden administration to act. It should appoint a new Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, with two objectives: first, to persuade the DUP to restore the Assembly and form an Executive, and second, to facilitate a U.K.-E.U. negotiated settlement on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly two and a half years have passed since the United Kingdom and European Union first agreed to the protocol, and eighteen months have passed since it went into effect. For nearly two years, the United States has urged the U.K. government to abide by the agreement for the sake of peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Since September 2020, U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly warned that a U.S.-U.K. trade deal is at stake. Congress has held hearings, sent letters, and passed resolutions. It is closely aligned with Ireland and the European Union on the issue. Yet neither the United Kingdom nor the European Union are closer to a negotiated settlement. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s decision to opt for unilateral action pushes the parties even farther away from an agreement. This situation warrants that the United States change its approach from the last two years.

The U.S. response to date has raised the profile of a peace process once thought settled. Last year, former U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Mitchell Reiss urged the Biden administration to appoint a new envoy after Mick Mulvaney resigned from the position on January 7, 2021. Reiss argued that the United States could use its credibility with the Irish and British governments to help them address political instability in the wake of Brexit. A bipartisan group of members of Congress soon followed suit. They issued a letter arguing for a U.S. Special Envoy; the United States had played a constructive role in the past, and would likely do so again. The members of Congress expressed concern about the U.K. government’s potential unilateral action on the protocol. The timing was critical: violence in Belfast last spring gathered widespread media attention, illustrating the risks of political instability in the region. Despite calls then and now for a new Special Envoy, the Biden administration has not yet appointed one.

U.S. Special Envoys helped support the early years of the peace process when political stability, as now, was anything but guaranteed. For example, the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement affirmed that all paramilitaries would decommission their weapons within two years after voters endorsed the agreement in referendums, which took place the following month. However, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), the paramilitary wing of Sinn Féin, refused to do so. In July 2001, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), resigned as First Minister, leading to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. For the unionist parties, the major issue was that the Provisional IRA had not yet given up its weapons.

Enter Special Envoy Richard Haass and his successor Mitchell Reiss, each appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell: Haass put pressure on Sinn Féin after alleged connections between the Provisional IRA and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) came to light in late 2001. Reiss built coalitions within Irish America, Congress, and the British and Irish governments to increase the pressure on Irish republicans between 2003 and 2007. Scholars, including Mary Alice C. Clancy, Andrew Sanders, and Richard Hargy, tend to agree that the Special Envoys’ strategies paid off: the Provisional IRA fully decommissioned its weapons by September 2005, and Sinn Féin endorsed the newly reformed police service in January 2007, enabling the restoration of power-sharing in May 2007.

Haass and Reiss were successful, according to these scholars, because they each had significant autonomy within the State Department. Each had substantial foreign policy experience, but neither had a strong interest in Irish politics prior to their appointments. They engaged with the unionist parties and showed coercion toward the Irish republicans. The Special Envoys, as a result, were seen as less partisan to Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA than the Clinton administration, which had engaged Irish republicans in the mid-1990s peace talks.

This problem of perception has already re-emerged in the present. A Congressional delegation recently traveled to Belgium, Ireland, and the United Kingdom to encourage London and Brussels to reach an agreement on the protocol. Although the delegation met with all political parties in Northern Ireland, the DUP, in response, accused the delegation of failing to understand unionist concerns, implying that the United States is partisan to Sinn Féin. The DUP’s main argument is that the European Union is imposing trade rules on Northern Ireland without any accountability or input from members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). According to unionists, the agreement fails to account for concern from one of the political communities in Northern Ireland, undercutting the cross-community spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Biden administration can mitigate unionists’ concerns by appointing an envoy that lacks a vested interest in the political balance of power across the island. The early involvement of the Special Envoys shows that trust is critical to peace and stability in Northern Ireland. For one to succeed now, the DUP would need to trust the United States was not overly sympathetic to Irish nationalists. The Special Envoy must have enough expertise yet distance from Irish affairs to be seen as credible by all parties in Northern Ireland. It must persuade the DUP leadership that the United States is not there to strengthen Sinn Féin — but rather to cultivate trust, restore power-sharing, and facilitate a trade settlement.

The early involvement of the Special Envoys also shows that, to be successful, they must have enough discretion to set their own diplomatic strategy. If the Biden administration moves to appoint a Special Envoy, it should look to senior diplomats who have sufficient autonomy within the State Department and detachment from Irish and British politics to devise a strategy as they see fit. Otherwise, the administration will likely fail to produce desired outcomes — that is, restoring Northern Ireland’s system of power-sharing and avoiding a trade war between the United Kingdom and European Union.

Ryan Conner is a research assistant at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and an M.A. student in European Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Since starting his graduate work, he has interned at the Washington Ireland Program and the U.S. State Department. Ryan has also conducted independent research about Northern Ireland with support from Georgetown’s Global Irish Studies Initiative. He writes in a personal capacity.

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