I was delighted for two reasons on Sunday afternoon when I saw this tweet from the Northern Ireland Office.
Published: 8 June 2021
“Secretary of State @Brandon Lewis has announced Trevor Ringland MBE as the UK’s first Special Envoy to the United States on NI. He will promote local interests, drive inward investment & build further close ties between our two nations.”
Reason Number One was that for three decades I’ve been frustrated by the timidity of the British government when it comes to challenging misinformation about Northern Ireland being fed to the US.
Reason Number Two was that I could not imagine a better envoy.
I began going regularly to the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s to give history lectures and was appalled by the sheer ignorance displayed by academics and politicians about the reality of life in Northern Ireland.
From 1994, when I unexpectedly became a political commentator, I was increasingly alarmed.
The sight of Gerry Adams being fêted by Hollywood ignoramuses who believed republican lies was troubling. Like credulous Irish-Americans, they swallowed an interpretation of the Troubles that had Catholics denied the vote in Northern Ireland and persecuted by sectarian and brutal police until the IRA freedom fighters forced the evil occupiers to give them basic human rights.
I knew good people in the British Embassy and the Northern Ireland Bureau trying to counter misinformation, but as the Provos’ grievance factory cranked up production and deliberately created the crises over Apprentice Boys and Orange parades that almost destabilised the province, UK representatives in the US were too few and too trammelled to challenge effectively the bare-faced lies.
Ministers and diplomats obsessed with keeping a precarious peace always erred on the side of caution, so there was little countering of the blackguarding of the decent security forces saving Northern Ireland from civil war who were slandered as death squads.
So the appointment of a high-profile envoy to bolster the work of the Northern Ireland Bureau and show Northern Ireland as it is rather than how it has been misrepresented was very welcome.
At last, I thought on Sunday, a Secretary of State is being pro-active, and he could not have made a better choice than Trevor Ringland, whose life-long cross-community work and campaigns against sectarianism won him wide respect. Though always open to dialogue, he tolerates no weasel words and cannot be intimidated.
My initial fears that the envoy role might be bureaucratically restricted were dispelled by Joint First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s tweet denouncing it: that it had been made without consulting “the democratically mandated Executive smacks of Tory arrogance and disrespect”.
There was, said her statement “a permanent diplomatic mission based in Washington DC which comprises civil servants under the auspices of The Executive Office” which had proven to be effective “and we do not need interference from the Tories in how we engage with the US administration, Congress, or the Irish-American community”.
Now, halleluiah, Ringland would be reporting directly to the secretary of state and the prime minister.
“No, Michelle, it was fine,” tweeted Katy Scarletta. “When the British passed two laws without cross community consent here, you loved that.”
My reaction chimed with John Moore’s “Flip me. The shinners really are a miserable bunch. The appointment of a Special Envoy to the US from NI is good news and is to be welcomed. This could bring great opportunities and benefits. Why would anybody oppose that?”
I enjoyed this exchange too: Larry Duff: “Why is Brandon Lewis appointing this person rather than the executive?”
Marty: “Are you having a laugh. Ffs, they couldn’t even appoint the head of the civil service”.
Then there was the victims champion Ann Travers: “Michelle why on earth would you have such a problem with the appointment of Trevor Ringland to such a role? He has more than proved himself with all the cross community work he does through sport and the arts. He is a wonderful representative for Northern Ireland.”
Mick Fealty of the incomparable Slugger O’Toole blog offered: “No better man to do the job fairly and with ALL the people of Northern Ireland in mind than the Former #Ireland winger, and my friend, Trevor Ringland.”
There were good wishes from Arlene Foster and Doug Beattie and John Kyle of the PUP who thought him a “tremendous choice for NI special envoy to US. A man, respected internationally who will work for all the people of NI. A trusted and knowledgeable advocate further strengthening links with US”.
Because he is a unionist, many nationalists held back on being positive. Do they not remember that the reason he left the UUP and joined the Conservatives was because its then leader refused to go to a GAA match?
Ringland has been clear about his ambitions for his (unsalaried) job. He wants to portray NI positively by talking about cross-community projects, talking up investment possibilities, or challenging simplistic views, like the “occupied island mentality.”
He’ll be telling them about the Northern Irish people who choose to live within the UK but “also realise we’re part of the island of Ireland”.
“Anybody objecting to Trevor reveals far more about themselves than about Mr Ringland”, tweeted Eddie Murphy.
Their sectarianism, in many cases.