By Ray O’Hanlon
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is assigning prime responsibility for Northern Ireland and the peace process within his department to Richard Haass, a former foreign policy expert in the 1989-93 Bush administration.
Haass, a Rhodes Scholar who spent much of the ’90s working at the Brookings Institution, is to be the State Department’s director of policy and planning.
He is also being assigned a roving ambassador’s position and that will require Senate approval.
The announcement that Haass will effectively become the Bush administration’s front man on Ireland confirms recent indications that U.S. Irish policy, which mainly rested with the White House during the Clinton years, will be mainly the State Department’s responsibility under President Bush.
Bush has previously indicated that he is not planning to appoint a special envoy to oversee the U.S. stake in the Northern Ireland peace process.
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At the same time, the assigning of Haass is likely to lead to speculation that he is in a position to assume a full envoy role, if required.
One Irish government source took the view that Haass would be a welcome addition to the administration’s team in an Irish context.
"He is conservative, smart, open and flexible and could play the role of an official fire brigade if need be," the source said.
The view in one British newspaper was somewhat different.
Northern Ireland was being "downgraded as a policy issue by the Bush administration" as a result of it being passed back to the State Department, the Daily Telegraph reported.
"Under President Clinton, the National Security Council handled Irish matters from the White House. President George W. Bush has made clear that he will not take the same close interest," the paper stated.
Secretary of State Powell, meanwhile, testified last week in front of the House International Relations Committee.
In reply to questions from Rep. Peter King, Powell said that with respect to Northern Ireland, President Bush would be engaged as requested.
"In the State Department I have made sure that we are following things closely and I have designated one of the new members of my team [Haass] to be my personal representative to monitoring the situation and getting involved as necessary," he said.
Pressed by King as to whether the Irish issue would be primarily dealt with by the State Department or the National Security Council, Powell said that he and National Security Adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, had not yet had a "full discussion on this."
But, he said, "my expectation is that it will for the most part be driven out of the State Department with whatever we need to do to make sure that the NSC is fully involved, participating, coordinated with us in representing the views of the president."
King told the Echo this week that he had previously met Haass at a dinner.
"He seemed a very decent guy and he asked a lot of questions," King said.
King said that Powell had resolved any questions he had at last week’s committee hearing.
"There was nothing that showed any change in the Clinton policy on Ireland other than with regard to style," he said.
King, meanwhile, along with Reps. Jim Walsh and Ben Gilman, have received a reply from NSC head Dr. Rice to a recent letter from them urging that President Bush meet with any and all North party leaders who visit Washington for St. Patrick’s Day.
In her reply, Rice stated that President Bush would tell Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that the U.S. was fully committed to the peace process.
"To this end, Rice wrote, "the President plans to greet representatives of the key political parties from Northern Ireland at the Speaker’s lunch on March 15 and at the White House on March 16.
"Vice President Cheney, Secretary Powell, and I have each held recent meetings with political leaders from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the Administration will have further meetings across the political spectrum in connection with St. Patrick’s Day events here in Washington."