We may not be in Nato, but O'Malley spoke up for us
The proposed US Ambassador to Ireland will need his lawyer's nous to navigate the Irish 'illegals' issue, says Colum Kenny
Do some US senators think that Ireland is in Nato? At a US Senate hearing last Tuesday, called to consider US President Barack Obama's long-overdue nomination of an Ambassador to Ireland, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said of that nominee, lawyer Kevin F O'Malley: "He has that military background also, which I think is essential as he represents our interests in one of our important allies, especially at this time of conflict around the world. Cementing our relationships with our colleagues that are our allies, the Nato allies, is very, very important."
In his own statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, O'Malley changed a line in his prepared script that indicated he had intended to say that "Ireland is today one of our most reliable allies", describing it instead as "one of our closest friends."
He added that, "While always adhering to its neutrality, Ireland is our constant partner in dangerous peacekeeping missions throughout the world."
O'Malley's service as an officer in the US Army Reserve was also singled out by the other senator for Missouri, Roy Blunt.
The ambassador's post had been vacant for an unprecedented 20 months, much to the dismay of the Irish Government. This is thought to have been due to internal Democratic Party politics.
Missouri businessman and lawyer Tom Carnahan, a leading fundraiser for President Barack Obama, was last year tipped for the post. Tom's brother, Ross, was also mentioned as a contender. But both were seen as potentially controversial appointments.
O'Malley is said to be a personal friend of Obama. He is a highly respected lawyer from St Louis, known especially for his defence of medical malpractice and personal injury cases. Both his parents were Irish, from Westport, Co Mayo.
O'Malley's nomination comes as the Irish government is eager to see an outcome to the US immigration controversy that will suit Irish "illegals" in America.
At the US senate hearing last week, he praised the contribution of Irish immigrants to the United States. But in another of many running edits to his testimony, he dropped a sentence that had said, "The United States is, of course, a nation of immigrants."
His editing on the hoof no doubt reflects diplomatic skills that Obama clearly recognises. For illegal immigration is once again a hot topic in the USA.
O'Malley last week appeared polite, considered to the point of hesitancy and precise. Every inch the cautious attorney.
Senators went gently on him. A few simple questions about Northern Ireland were handled by his recommending that the parties there get back to business on the Haass proposals. A couple more about Irish attitudes to austerity drew an understatement that, "The dust hasn't quite settled yet from the elections" in May. He spoke up for Ireland.
He was barely pressed on Ireland's tax rate. In fact, the only senator asking, Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, at first appeared to think that the issue related to Northern Ireland. And Johnson merely said that there "seemed" to be some resentment about it.
Moreover, Senator John McCain did not pursue the issue, although he has raised Irish tax rates in the past. Instead, the former US presidential candidate made a vague point about hoping that O'Malley would deal with some unspecified issue about the Shannon Airport Pre-Clearance Agreement.
McCain added, "So many of our military personnel file through Shannon Airport, where they are most hospitable and very nice people there no matter what time of the day or night we happen to arrive."
McCain spent most of his allotted five minutes pressing the nominee for Ambassador to Turkey very hard. For O'Malley did not have the 90 minutes all to himself, but shared it with the nominees for Turkey (population 74 million) and France (66 million).
In a remarkable tribute to little Ireland, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee had opened the session by saying that these ambassadorships "represent three of the iconic diplomatic posts for the United States around the world."
But only O'Malley of the ambassadorial nominees present also had senators from his home state show up to back him verbally. That both did so, one Democrat and one Republican, suggests that the full senate is highly likely to endorse his nomination.
O'Malley comes to Dublin a prominent Missouri Catholic, who had dual American and Irish citizenship until this nomination obliged him to surrender his Irish one.
He has travelled across Ireland, which he described last week as "more than just a place". He told US senators that it is "a way of life: hard work, spiritual values, family, determination and wit."
Senator Johnson expressed disbelief that disagreement about flags could matter in Ireland. He put it to O'Malley that "there has got to be more significant issues than that?"
O'Malley replied, "To the north Irish these are significant issues. They have a resonance there that you or I may not fully appreciate or fully feel."
O'Malley is by no means the first Irish-Missourian to return to the auld sod. In the 1920s, James O'Shaughnessy, prominent first CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, gave advice to Irish admen and was made the first honorary patron of their association in Dublin.
The University of Missouri Press will publish this summer a study that I have written about Irish immigrants, and about O'Shaughnessy's family in particular. It is entitled An Irish-American Odyssey.
Kevin F O'Malley's odyssey has taken him as a trial lawyer through the federal courts of California, Illinois and Nevada. His overseas working experience has included trips to Moscow and Prague.
O'Malley was formerly a Special Attorney of the Organised Crime and Racketeering Section of the United States Department of Justice, and an Assistant United States Attorney in St Louis.
In 2009, Governor Jay Nixon appointed O'Malley as the only non-physician member of the Missouri Board of Healing Arts, the state's licensing and disciplinary body for physicians. Its members recently elected him their president.
Now, as O'Malley gets ready to pack his bags for Dublin, they need to make a new appointment.