Rooney's Irish road trip
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulates Steelers owner Dan Rooney, President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to Ireland, yesterday at the White House.
Hines Ward greets team owner Dan Rooney on the stage during a parade for the Super Bowl XL champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006.
Share with others:
As ambassador-designate, Dan Rooney is heading to a Dublin whose economic troubles pose a challenging new context for the traditionally strong ties between the U.S. and the Republic of Ireland.
After decades of involvement in the American Ireland Fund, Mr. Rooney is familiar with even tougher challenges in Irish politics. He and the organization he helped found persisted as voices for peace through some of the worst years of violence as citizens on both sides of the Republic's border with Northern Ireland endured politics of division.
"I think people will cheer on both sides of the Atlantic," said Ted Smyth, a former Irish diplomat who was a firsthand observer of the birth and work of the American Ireland Fund. "Dan has an extraordinary record of commitment to the peace process in Ireland."
Mr. Smyth noted the millions raised by the fund, but added, "More than that, Dan raised awareness across America that there was a peaceful way forward, and the way of the gun was not the way to go. In retrospect, it looks like the peace process was inevitable.But it was never inevitable."
President Barack Obama, who nominated Mr. Rooney yesterday, pointed to the ambassador-designate's record as he met with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen for the traditional shamrock ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Before a small group of members of Congress, American and Irish diplomats, he called the Steelers owner "an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture and education."
Mr. Obama and Mr. Rooney forged personal bonds over the political strife of the presidential campaign, when the lifelong Republican endorsed Mr. Obama before the Pennsylvania primary and campaigned for him extensively through the general election.
"Dan is a great friend," Mr. Obama added. "He and his family are as gracious and thoughtful a group of people as I know."
On the eve of the president's inauguration, Mr. Rooney presented him with a game ball from that weekend's AFC championship game. While accepting the Super Bowl trophy two weeks later, Mr. Rooney drew some Republican criticism as he said, while holding the Lombardi trophy on national television, "I would like to thank President Barack Obama."
American politicians of both parties praised the nomination, which must be ratified by the Senate. Echoing his host, Mr. Cowen said, "Dan has been a great personal friend of mine down the years, too, and I really very much welcome his appointment."
In a subsequent interview with CNN, the Irish politician recalled that "He and [former Heinz CEO] Tony O'Reilly set up the Ireland Fund that's been a great source of cross-partnership, trust and community projects for many years. Even in the very bad times during the conflict and the violence, Dan Rooney has been instrumental in bringing together many people of good will."
In a brief interview with KDKA at the White House yesterday, Mr. Rooney said he was "honored" and "thrilled," at the appointment.
"I'm just there to serve any way I can," he said.
During the West Wing ceremony, Mr. Rooney sat behind his new boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose defeat he sought throughout the state's primary struggle. Her broad smile suggested she had forgiven the slight. Also in the audience was former Sen. George Mitchell, who, as President Bill Clinton's special envoy to Northern Ireland, won praise for brokering the 1998 Good Friday agreement that marked a pivotal turn toward peace in Northern Ireland.
While three shooting deaths in Northern Ireland over the last week were a reminder of the troubles once so prominent a force throughout Ireland, they also suggested the progress since the Good Friday agreement.
"The Northern Ireland problem had gone sort of off the radar in the last few years and has just suddenly come back with the three killings in the last week or so," said David Miller, a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. "What's most remarkable is the definite intent on the part of almost everybody to resist going back to where they were before."
"I'm not nearly as worried about that as I am about the economy in Ireland, both north and south," he added.
Tony Novosel, who teaches Irish history at the University of Pittsburgh, also cited the economic crisis as perhaps the greatest challenge to Ireland, and, by extension, the envoy who represents the United States there.
"Their economic collapse make our problems look like a hiccup," he said of a nation whose once-soaring economy won the designation "Celtic Tiger."
In a CNN interview yesterday, Mr. Cowen noted that after more than a decade of Gross Domestic Product growth averaging between 6 percent and 7 percent, the republic's economy was expected to shrink by 6 percent in 2009.
Unemployment, just 4.5 percent at the beginning of last year, is now more than 10 percent.
"I don't know that there's much an American ambassador can do about that," said Carnegie Mellon's Miller.
Still, said Mr. Smyth, the former Irish diplomat, "It can make an enormous difference because the ambassador is the face of the nation in the other country. ... It's a two-way street; you're representing your county abroad and you're conveying the concerns of that country. With that common touch Dan has, he'll relate very well."
In addition to a salary of between $150,000 and $163,000, according to the State Department, Mr. Rooney will receive the keys to one of the finest houses in Dublin. The American ambassador's residence, on 62 acres of lawn and gardens in Phoenix Park, was built the year of America's Declaration of Independence. For much of its existence, it housed the British chief secretaries for Ireland, among them, the Duke of Wellington, and Sir Robert Peel, both future prime ministers of the United Kingdom.
The embassy's Web site points out that, as a child, Winston Churchill played on its grounds while his father, Randolph Churchill, served there as a junior diplomat.
After the Irish Republic gained its independence in 1922, the British were out and the home became the U.S. embassy. Mr. Rooney is a member of a long line of private citizens who have been appointed to serve there.
Only the first post-independence ambassador was a career foreign service officer.
In a telephone interview as he was leaving the announcement, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said, "You know it's a good day when you show up at the White House and there's green water coming out of the fountains."
He said the Steelers executive "has all the skills you'd want for this job. He understands government. He understands large organizations and he understands the peace process."
Mr. Casey sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is charged with performing what is expected to be a pro forma review of the nomination.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, another member of the White House audience, also lauded Mr. Rooney's qualifications, noting that he "spent years behind the scenes working to promote peace, justice and prosperity in Ireland."
First Published March 18, 2009 12:00 am