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Joe Biden to Ireland: We’re back in the game

President Biden in the Oval Office on St. Patrick's Day this year, surrounded by Irish shamrocks.
President Biden in the Oval Office on St. Patrick's Day this year, surrounded by Irish shamrocks.Andrew Harnik

Not that long ago, if you had asked who President Biden should select as ambassador to Ireland, I’d have said someone with a strong business background.

The relationship between the United States and Ireland has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Ireland, which for nearly two centuries sent us its people, is now more likely to send us its business. The United States is Ireland’s second largest export market, with nearly 800 Irish companies located here.

It goes both ways. More than 800 US companies use Ireland as their gateway to European consumers.

So someone with a deep understanding of the economic links between the two countries would have been a sound pick.

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But that calculus has changed. What Ireland needs most from America right now is political engagement, so Biden’s selection of someone with considerable political skill, Claire Cronin, the Massachusetts House majority leader, makes sense.

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh’s fingerprints are all over this, in a good way. He’s encouraging his boss to re-engage in Ireland.

I don’t know Cronin. Those who do say she’s smart and savvy, a good negotiator. She’s an attorney who has worked as a mediator.

Mediation and negotiating skills are in high demand on both sides of the border in Ireland these days, and it’s the very nature of such borders, real and imagined, that could use American diplomacy.

Biden went out of his way at the G7 summit to meet with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to re-emphasize American support for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland as we knew them.

The Good Friday Agreement took the gun out of Irish politics and was a brilliant achievement in making the border in Ireland irrelevant. All sides agreed Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority there voted otherwise.

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Brexit changed all that. By leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom has created a new trade border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU.

How to manage that border has brought to a head the status of Northern Ireland in an Irish, British and European context.

An equally challenging matter is how to manage the anxiety among unionists, those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. That should be made easier with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson becoming leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most unionists in Northern Ireland.

Donaldson is the most articulate and savvy unionist politician of his generation. He is committed to reconciliation and healing. Significantly, he is not threatened by American engagement and welcomes it. As one of those who hammered out the Good Friday Agreement, Donaldson knows that compromise is the only way forward in a divided society. He replaced as DUP leader Edwin Poots, a fundamentalist Christian who made the party’s anti-Catholic founder, the Rev. Ian Paisley, look like a reserved Quaker pacifist.

There is deep unease among unionists, a sense that the United Kingdom has given up on them, which is essentially true in Johnson, whose Tories, unlike previous party incarnations, don’t need the handful of unionist seats in Westminster to retain power.

When the Clinton administration stuck its nose into the conflict in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s, the move was initially unwelcome to unionists. But George Mitchell, the US envoy and former Senate leader from Maine, was able to show that he and the administration he represented were honest brokers who wanted to end violence and create a future on the island as sensitive to unionist concerns as to those of nationalists who aspire to a united Ireland.

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Jean Kennedy Smith, Clinton’s ambassador to Ireland, played an oversized role in reassuring unionists. The ambassador’s residence in Dublin’s Phoenix Park opened its doors, and its bar, to as many unionists as nationalists.

Claire Cronin has the opportunity to become the most significant American ambassador to Ireland since Smith.

Like Smith, she’ll have the most important thing any ambassador can possess: the president’s ear.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.