Special Envoy to the United States

Matters of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 7 June 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:15, 7 June 2021

Mr Pat Sheehan has been given leave to make a statement on the appointment of a special envoy to the United States that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. Members who wish to be called should indicate that they wish to do so by rising in their place and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order until this item of business has finished.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

It was with some surprise over the weekend that I heard that Trevor Ringland had been appointed by Brandon Lewis as a special envoy to the United States for the North. When an appointment of that nature takes place, one would assume that there would at least be some sort of consultation or discussion with the democratically elected Executive here, but there was not. It is an indication of the level of arrogance and disrespect that the British Secretary of State shows to the Executive and the devolved institutions here that there was not even a hint of consultation or discussion about the appointment. It is all the more surprising given that the Executive already have a permanent diplomatic mission in Washington DC that is very effective at engaging with the US Administration, Congress and the Irish-American community.

I listened to Trevor Ringland on Radio Ulster this morning. It was a bit of a car-crash interview. He did not even know what his job is and was not sure who his employer is, but he was happy to say that he will represent the views of everyone in the North. Well, he will not represent my views and the views of Sinn Féin in the United States. We already do a good job of representing our views. We do not need a unionist over there pretending that he represents the view of republicans. That is not what he will be doing.

The appointment comes on the back of another Whitehall Department saying that it will open an office in Belfast.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

There is absolutely no need for it. It again indicates the level of arrogance and disrespect for the institutions here. In the long term, it can serve only to undermine our devolved institutions. We, as a party, will challenge Brandon Lewis at the earliest opportunity to explain the appointment.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I begin by welcoming the appointment of Trevor Ringland. It is a hugely positive story. It is hugely positive that anybody would go from these shores to represent the views of our people in a positive light. From listening to Sinn Féin and to Pat Sheehan, it seems that there is a wee bit of jealousy that somebody else who may articulate an opinion that is shared by us all has turned up to the party in the United States. For too long, Sinn Féin has very much had it its own way in the United States, with a one-sided narrative about what happened in the past and a one-sided narrative about what is happening now.

As a member of the Democratic Unionist Party and as somebody who shares the views of many in our society, I feel that Trevor Ringland's appointment is welcome. I will talk about what his purpose is, because I did not listen to a car-crash interview this morning; I listened to a man who is very much stepping up to go to the United States to sell our story and to portray Northern Ireland in a positive light by telling them about cross-community projects or talking up moneymaking opportunities in the Province. That is what Mr Ringland said.

We know that there is huge interest in the United States in engaging with Northern Ireland. There is a massive amount of goodwill throughout the United States for helping and supporting us as we go along on our journey. That can be done only if we hear views from all sides of the argument. I am afraid that, while the Sinn Féin rhetoric today and its views in relation to the appointment are not surprising, they are deeply saddening for many of us across the Chamber. We need to see renewed engagement with the United States. We have heard much misrepresentation by elected officials in the United States regarding our position on the protocol.

For some time, Sinn Féin has gone about its business of trying to undermine this place and the unionist community in it. I look forward to Trevor Ringland representing the facts to the United States, and I put on record that many had the opportunity to do so.

I pay tribute to the work of the Northern Ireland bureau throughout some very difficult times and, in particular, the work of the late Norman Houston, who was an absolutely stellar ambassador for this place. In many of the conversations that I had with him, he said that the United States is always open to listening to voices from here, and, wherever those voices come from, I will welcome the fact that we can now put our positions on the record to the United States Government and officials so that we all feel that we have voice at the table.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:30, 7 June 2021

The last thing on anybody's mind is to make this debate personal. It could easily be seen as a personal attack on Trevor Ringland, and I have no wish to be part of that at all.

I want to express my party's very serious concerns that, once again, the Secretary of State is doing things on the hoof and without structure or process. That is not good enough. He is not some old-fashioned British governor of a British colony. He is the Secretary of State, and we are the legislative Assembly. Where was the advertisement seeking applications? Where is the job description? What is the job specification? What is the structure of accountability? Where is the transparency? What was the process? I was not even aware that there was a vacancy, and I was not aware that there was a vacuum. Our party was completely blindsided, as were all parties in the Assembly, and I believe that that is disrespectful to the Assembly.

I also put on record our deep appreciation for the work of the Northern Ireland bureau. It has proven to be an excellent conduit for developing trade relations here in Northern Ireland, and I have no doubt that Trevor Ringland will fit into the existing structures somewhere. However, this has clearly all been done in a rush and on the hoof, as I said. The appointee was clearly not given a detailed job spec for his new portfolio. The British Government are really quite shabby when it comes to their engagement with this Administration. Having said that, I offer Mr Ringland my best wishes in his new role, whatever that appears to be.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank Mr Sheehan for bringing this matter to the Assembly today but not necessarily for the manner in which he has done so.

First of all, I make a declaration of interest: Trevor Ringland and I served for a long time on the board of the British-Irish Association. I have never met anybody who is better at putting forward a good case for Northern Ireland and, indeed, at fostering not just North/South but east-west relationships. He has been absolutely outstanding, whether working with the International Fund for Ireland or for Co-operation Ireland or in a vast raft of activities in representing all the communities in Northern Ireland.

I have seen him in Washington. I have seen what he has done. The fact that he will be there as an envoy representing Northern Ireland should be welcomed by everybody in the Assembly. Indeed, it will be welcomed by everybody in Northern Ireland, particularly amongst the Northern Ireland business community, because he has strong links to businesses and a great understanding of the Northern Ireland business landscape. He will be in the United States four to six times a year representing those views across the United States, not just inside the Beltway but in other areas. That is a great opportunity for us, and we should be working to support it. Indeed, the fact that we have a Northern Ireland envoy sends a very strong message to the United States about the interest that our country — the United Kingdom — has in fostering relationships with the United States of America. Our nation has decided to send an envoy there. That is a very positive development for everybody here in Northern Ireland, and we should be seeking to support that.

There are some other issues that we need to address. I know about the great work that the Northern Ireland bureau has done, but, when you go to the United States, you sometimes think that you are walking into a parallel universe. I have another declaration of interest: two thirds of my family are from the United States, but they are not from Washington or New York. They come from middle America: from Georgia, Tennessee and areas like that. Those people do not see Northern Ireland in the way that it has been presented many times in New York and Washington; they see Northern Ireland as a great place to do business or to come and visit and a great place that has opportunity. Those are the people to whom Trevor Ringland will reach out, and we need to support that as well. I look forward, as time goes on and as COVID restrictions are released, to being able to get back to the United States and pass that positive message on, because Northern Ireland is a great place to do business. We in the Ulster Unionist Party thank Trevor Ringland for what he is about to do and wish him very well.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

The Alliance Party is not opposed to the appointment. The Secretary of State is, of course, free to do as he pleases within the confines of his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, we should express some surprise and concern that there has been no consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive with regard to a very sensitive and perhaps even quite challenging and difficult role for anyone to play in representing Northern Ireland on the big international stage of the United States of America. The individual will have to work very hard with the Northern Ireland bureau to represent Invest Northern Ireland, to represent the political views of this Chamber — we have heard today how difficult and diverse they are — and to be the voice from Northern Ireland that can be respected in the United States. They will have to try to project the politics of Northern Ireland to the United States of America.

The Secretary of State has perhaps acted in some haste in respect of this. He has perhaps acted injudiciously by not consulting the Northern Ireland Executive or the Assembly. The appointment has been made, like many that the UK Government make, with little transparency or openness, yet that Government rightly require the Assembly and legislature in Northern Ireland to be very open and transparent in all our public appointments. While I wish Mr Ringland well in his appointment, I trust that he will be sensitive to the voices that he has heard in the Chamber today and not represent just one voice or one political party in the United Kingdom when he stands in the halls of business, politics and commerce in the United States of America.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I welcome the timely appointment of an envoy. I note the manner in which Sinn Féin raised the issue; it is in the old vernacular of a "not a unionist about the place" approach. Sinn Féin does not want to see any challenge to its monopoly of misrepresentation in the United States. The appointment is a good move. I am sure that Mr Ringland will not always please me in what he says, but it is important that Northern Ireland is so represented.

The thing that I find quite staggering in this debate is the total lack of recognition that international relations are not a devolved matter. They are a matter exclusively for the Secretary of State. There is all this whinging about not consulting the Executive, but he had absolutely no need to consult them. It is not a devolved issue; it is a matter totally within his competence. Of course, if he had consulted the Executive, he would have been bogged down in months of disagreement, so I am glad that he got on with the job and did it. I wish Mr Ringland well in that regard.

Moreover, it is important that the appointment is made in this, our centenary year. Indeed, today — although, shamefully, we are not marking the day in any way in the Assembly — is the 100th anniversary of the very first time that the predecessor legislature of this place met in Northern Ireland. I salute the men of that generation who settled down, made provision and bedded in Northern Ireland in very turbulent years. Many have much to be thankful for in that regard. They were neither flip-floppers nor rollovers, but they did a good job, and I place that on the record. It is to the shame of this House that all those events have been brushed under the carpet. There is no centenary stone and not even a rose allowed to blossom or a flag on this Building today to mark the 100th anniversary of when the legislature of Northern Ireland first met. That is a calculated slight and one that I repudiate.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I welcome the appointment of a special envoy for Northern Ireland to the United States. Ms McLaughlin said that she did not want to make this personal; I want to make it personal, because I want to congratulate Trevor Ringland on that appointment. He is from Larne in east Antrim, and we are very proud that he is taking up that post. We wish him well because the United States is a hugely important partner for us in Northern Ireland. There are very strong social and economic ties that we want to continue and develop. I wish him well. He has my support and my party's support as it seeks to promote Northern Ireland and defend its interests in the United States.

The Executive Office's office in North America has been mentioned. It serves North America well, looking out for our economic interests in particular. However, as Mr Allister stated, international relations are for our Government to oversee. I think that it is a positive move, and I wish that it had been welcomed by everybody across the House today. I understand why Mr Sheehan is disappointed: Mr Ringland will not be over there to say that Northern Ireland is a failed state, because it is not. He will not be over there to say that it is an occupied territory, because it is not. He will not be over there to say that Northern Ireland is represented only by Sinn Féin, because, of course, it is not.

The balance that he will bring to the discussions that take place there is to be welcomed. At this time, it is important that we have somebody over there from the UK Government's position to explain a little bit more about Northern Ireland, because I think that it is fair to say that there has been more than a little bit of a lack of understanding about Northern Ireland, particularly about what the Good Friday Agreement says and how the protocol is damaging the Good Friday Agreement. That is clear for us all to see, yet many Members in this House fail to grasp or acknowledge that.

It is a good day for Northern Ireland. We should all always welcome the fact that there are people over there who love Northern Ireland, who want the best for Northern Ireland and who are defending and promoting our interests there. It should be strongly welcomed.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, as my colleague Sinéad McLaughlin said, it is worth saying that, on a personal level, many people admire Trevor Ringland's record not only on the rugby pitch but in multiple areas of peace-building through Co-operation Ireland, various funds and the British-Irish Association, as mentioned. He has clearly done a lot of work in that area and is well thought of. It is, however, important to place on record and to clarify a few things that have been said today.

It has been said repeatedly that Mr Ringland is being appointed to represent Northern Ireland's interests in North America, specifically in the United States. That is not what the press release that announced his appointment said. It says that he is there to represent the UK Government's interests on Northern Ireland in the United States. I am afraid that those are quite distinct and different things. While I do not mean to carp or to impugn Mr Ringland or his record, let us be absolutely clear: representation for Northern Ireland, the power-sharing Executive and this institution occurs through the Northern Ireland bureau in Washington DC. I am pleased to see the number of people who have reiterated the great job that it does. It does a job in a very unique and occasionally difficult context. Tribute has been paid to the wonderful, late Norman Houston. That, I am afraid, is not what this appointment is.

It is completely reasonable for Members on any side of the House to ask real and substantive questions about what Mr Ringland has been appointed to do and to point out, as it was on the radio this morning, that he does not appear to be entirely clear about the nature of the role.

It has been said that the Secretary of State is entitled to appoint whomever he likes. It has also been said by a couple of people that the Secretary of State is responsible for international relations in Whitehall. I am sure that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Dominic Raab would have something to say about that.

It has also been stated, in slightly contradictory terms, that Mr Ringland will be a trade envoy. Given the amount of interest that Invest NI clearly has in Northern Ireland's dual market access, which means its access to both the European single market of half a billion people and the UK market under the protocol — I hear sighs coming from a sedentary position; I am afraid that some people do not like the truth about the opportunities from the Brexit that they forced on us — the first thing that lots of business leaders in North America will say to Mr Ringland is, "I hear that Northern Ireland is in a unique position and has access to two major markets. Is that what you want to pitch to us and why you want us to invest?". What will Mr Ringland say then? If he is willing to say "Yes. Invest in Northern Ireland, because the protocol offers us access to two major markets", good on him; I will support him in that. However, if, as he did this morning, he will dissemble and continue with UK Government lines on the protocol, I am afraid that it will not be a good thing.

I wish him well. My party has concerns about the appointment. Mr Ringland is clearly a —

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

— person of substance and a good person, but we have concerns about the way the appointment has been made.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I think this is a very clever move. It is the business equivalent of the reverse takeover, when the smaller organisation makes the move. Rather than waiting to see what Joe Biden's Administration will do, the Northern Ireland Office has gone first. I applaud it for that imaginative thinking.

I should also declare an interest in that Trevor Ringland and I were colleagues during the 2010 general election campaign. I wondered whether that would be the elephant in the room, but Mr Sheehan said quite clearly that he does not want a unionist representing him. The only problem that I have with that is that what we have here is a consociational arrangement for government, and I have to accept that, on some days, I will be represented by a republican, on other days, by a member of the nationalist community, and, sometimes, by a member of the DUP. I will leave it to your imagination to figure out which I would find least agreeable.

Mr Ringland supports the Union, as do the UK Government, in just the same way that the Government of Ireland supports constitutional change. I do not believe that needs to be an issue, because, whatever your constitutional preference, surely what we need to do is make Northern Ireland work. That will be measured in a variety of ways, including by the quality of our public services and by attracting inward investment from the United States, which, I think we can all agree, is no bad thing.

Mr Buckley says that perhaps the problem here is that republicans have had it all their own way for too long. I gently suggest to Mr Buckley that we also need to examine unionism and put a mirror up to ourselves, because, if we do what we have done before, such as when Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux cancelled their trip to America in February 1994 because Gerry Adams had been granted a visa to appear at the same conference, we cannot then turn round and accuse the White House of being green in its Irish politics. We could, but, frankly, that would be bonkers, because we have to have a presence. Engagement is key, whatever your constitutional preference.

The point has been made about why the devolved Administrations were not consulted. Let me give you a theory. I will speculate that the Secretary of State and his advisers looked at 'New Decade, New Approach' and saw a commitment to appoint a panel of experts to advise the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights, which has now met for over a year and still awaits the appointment of that panel of experts. Maybe he concluded that consulting the Executive Office would be the political equivalent of putting it into a cosmic black hole from which nothing, not even light, ever emerges.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I was not going to speak on the matter, but much has been said about the connections between the US and Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland bureau. It would be wrong of me not to mention, in the spirit of today, an exchange programme that I was involved in a few years ago that was funded by the US Department of State.

Many youth voices from here and the Republic of Ireland were flown out, and we spent nearly four weeks travelling around the US speaking to people, learning more about each other and being part of the project. Nearly 30 of us were there, and I am pleased to say that I continue to keep in touch with those people, and we share our experiences. We shared our experiences of the George Floyd protests that were discussed earlier and the impact of riots, as well as youth issues, education, food poverty and all the shared interests that we have between here and the US. I am pleased to say that I keep in touch with all those people, who are from Washington, Minneapolis and Oklahoma, and friendships were made in the process. It is that kind of relationship that should be continued and fostered as part of shared understanding and peacebuilding. I speak today with those sentiments in mind.

Like others, I was surprised to learn of the appointment. Then again, we are used to surprises coming from the UK Government and the Secretary of State. Questions have been, and will be, asked on the process of the appointment, and that is OK. However, I worked with Mr Ringland in my constituency, and he is an absolutely outstanding member of our community, especially when it comes to local sports. I appreciate how hard he works, and I wish him all the best. It is with those sentiments in mind that I say that today.