Ted Smyth

Post Gazette


Mr. Ambassador

February 10, 2009

By Ted Smyth

Irish newspapers are reporting that Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney appears to be President Barack Obama's top choice to become U.S. ambassador to Ireland. This is not as strange as it might seem to those who know Mr. Rooney only as a sports figure.

Americans revere Mr. Rooney as the popular owner of America's favorite football team but people in Ireland also admire him as the co-founder of the American Ireland Fund, a key contributor to the successful Irish peace process.

Back in 1976 when I was a diplomat in the Irish embassy in Washington we desperately needed allies in America to support a peaceful solution to the divisions in Northern Ireland. Sen. Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Tip O'Neill became two strong friends in Congress but we needed additional help in the heartland to convince Irish Americans not to support terrorism in the land of their birth.

Two unique individuals decided to take on this relatively lonely and courageous task, Tony O'Reilly, then CEO of the H.J. Heinz Co., and Dan Rooney, then president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Having formed a friendship forged by mutual love of sport, they founded the American Ireland Fund to support peace and charity in Ireland.

At countless events over three decades, Dan and Tony used their diplomatic and persuasive skills to convince thousands of Irish Americans to help their homeland by eschewing violence, donating to peace projects and investing in job-creation programs. One of the earliest successes was the establishment of integrated schools in Belfast where, for the first time, Protestant and Catholic children could be educated together.

Of course, there were many skeptics who believed the divisions could not be overcome, that the peace process was hopeless, but Dan and Tony (now Sir Anthony in recognition of his contribution to peace) continued to travel from city to city, from Boston to Chicago to San Francisco to Dallas, especially when St. Patrick's Day came around, preaching the positive message of reconciliation and equality between the two sides. Dan also traveled extensively to Ireland to ensure the peace and education programs he funded were legitimate and effective. He often would rent a small single-engine plane and fly it himself across the beautiful green countryside.

By his earnest and sincere manner, Dan and his educator wife, Patricia, earned the trust and respect of young men and women in Belfast and Derry who were slowly persuaded that if they gave up the gun and bomb, America would lobby the British government to support their right to equality and justice.

The peace process continued year after year, despite countless setbacks and atrocities. Irish politicians like John Hume and Seamus Mallon were constantly encouraged by Americans such as Dan to never give up. Like the Steelers, they had to keep fighting for respect, winning people over one by one.

Since 1976, the American Ireland Fund has blossomed into a worldwide network called the Ireland Funds, representing not only the 40 million Americans of Irish descent, but 70 million people in the global Irish diaspora. Assisted by additional leaders such as Loretta Brennan Glucksman, the fund has raised more than $300 million for peace and education programs in Ireland, dedicated to reconciliation and regeneration.

More recently, Dan and other leaders have focused on trade between the United States and Ireland, expanding business, educational and cultural links. Dan and Patricia have also established the Rooney Fellowship, which brings young people from his ancestral town of Newry to America for career development.

Dan has used the diplomatic skills he deployed in Ireland as a leader in the NFL, as well. He insists on high standards and has introduced important innovations like the "Rooney Rule," which significantly expanded the talent pool for coaches and general managers by requiring teams to interview minority candidates for these positions.

Last year, Dan demonstrated prescient judgment by being one of the first to identify the unique qualities of Barack Obama to lead our nation and the world. He went out on the road to scores of meetings in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, an authentic folk hero lending his credibility to the young candidate.

"Pioneers get scalped," Andrew Carnegie used to quip, but Dan has never feared to be a pioneer in the causes of peace, equality and improving society.

There are many wonderful Americans who could represent the United States in Ireland but surely there are none who would receive the same resounding cheer on both sides of the Atlantic as Daniel M. Rooney.

Ted Smyth , a former Irish diplomat, is a trustee of the Ireland Funds. A longtime senior executive for the H.J. Heinz Co., he is moving this month to the McGraw-Hill Co. in New York.