Irish America’s day o’ days, the Feast of St. Patrick, is almost upon us. This morning, Ireland’s Taoiseach, or prime minister, Enda Kenny visits the White House, where he will present President Barack Obama with yet another bowl of shamrocks, a tradition for longer than anyone wants to remember. While he is there, Kenny should press Obama to nominate a new ambassador to Ireland, a position that has been vacant since Dan Rooney stepped down in December 2012. This is the longest Ireland has gone without a U.S. ambassador.
The leading candidate for the post, after the Bill Clinton rumors faded, appeared to be Missouri wind-farm developer and political scion Tom Carnahan. But that was before the Obama administration came under fire for appointing campaign fundraisers to plum ambassadorships. Carnahan was a leading bundler for the president’s 2012 re-election campaign, collecting $1 million. His wind-energy business was awarded more than $100 million in federal stimulus funds in 2010. Attempting to get Carnahan through the confirmation process probably would be a headache the Obama administration doesn’t need.
Obama should have nominated Bill Daley for the job as soon as he dropped out of the race for governor of Illinois last September. He has experience at the highest-levels of the federal government, both in the White House and as secretary of commerce, as well as business acumen and strong connections in Irish America. Dublin, still struggling to recover from the financial collapse, could do no better.
As the wait drags on, Irish-American leaders are unhappy. “There are 40 million Irish-Americans, surely there is someone who can fill this job,” said activist Brian O’Dwyer. Stella O’Leary, the founder Irish American Democrats, offered the same critique: “There is no shortage of qualified Irish-Americans for the job.”
They are right. But who said the job belongs to an Irish-American? It shouldn’t.
For ambassadorships, cultural connections to a country should be a plus, not a prerequisite. The Dublin post traditionally has gone to someone with Irish heritage largely to appease Irish-American leaders who consider it theirs – a patronage birthright. It would be a mark of how far the Irish have come in America for someone of non-Irish descent to be nominated.
The president should still nominate Daley, for his resume, not his roots. If Daley isn’t interested, there are plenty of candidates without deep family ties to Ireland who are qualified to be on the short-list. Here are a few:
Richard Haas. A lifelong diplomat, Haas served as the U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001-2003 and is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Last year he led conflict-resolution negotiations in Northern Ireland on sensitive sectarian issues. He is eminently qualified, and his knowledge of the political situation in the north would strengthen cross-border relations.
Nancy Soderberg. As the third-ranking member of National Security Council and alternate representative to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, Soderberg was involved in Clinton’s efforts to broker peace in Northern Ireland. Previously she had served as Senator Edward Kennedy’s chief foreign policy adviser, where she often handled Irish issues.
Bill Weld. The former governor of Massachusetts was Clinton’s pick to be ambassador to Mexico, but his nomination was blocked by Senator Jesse Helms. Weld would bring Boston and New York business connections to Dublin — and as a Republican, he would help the Obama administration get past the ambassadorship-for-sale charges.
It is unlikely the White House will nominate someone without Irish heritage, but highly qualified people ought to be given full consideration, regardless of their ethnic background.
One way or another, the president ought to act quickly — or the folks back in Moneygall will start wondering if their cousin in the White House has forgotten his roots.
(Francis Barry is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @FSBarry.)