White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has defended President Obama’s choice of St. Louis lawyer Kevin F. O’Malley as the next US ambassador to Ireland.

“Kevin maintains a deep understanding of the political relationship between Ireland and America,” McDonough said during a conference call with Irish and Irish American reporters on Friday.

He said that O’Malley, who is of Irish heritage on both sides of his family, will bring “a strong understanding of the religious and cultural underpinnings," and the "very important foreign policy and national security” relationship between the US and Ireland to the role.

McDonough also asserted that, despite the unprecedented 18-month delay in naming a successor to previous US ambassador Dan Rooney, Ireland and Northern Ireland remain a “fundamental national priority” for the US and a “personal priority” of President Obama.

“[O’Malley] is a close personal friend of the president which, as with Ambassador Rooney, was something that was quite important to the president in this nomination,” he said.

It is unusual for the White House Chief of Staff to speak to reporters on specific diplomatic appointments. McDonough, who has Galway roots, is considered exceptionally close to the president.

The June 4 announcement of O’Malley as Obama’s nominee for Ambassador to Ireland was met with some surprise by the Irish/Irish American community and media, as the St. Louis attorney was hardly known.

McDonough said that “having read some of the reporting on O’Malley” he “thought it made sense to talk as a fellow Irish American, someone who feels quite strongly about Ireland and the US, to explain why we feel so strongly about the nominee.

O’Malley is a highly regarded trial lawyer specializing in litigation and is also a former Assistant US Attorney. A second-generation Irish American with roots in Mayo, he is, McDonough said, widely respected in the Irish American community in St. Louis and the Mid-West, and is also respected in the Catholic community.

He said that O’Malley, who spent two years studying to become a priest and remains a prominent parishioner in the St. Louis diocese, “will bring a strong understanding of the cultural importance of religion in Ireland,” in addition to a solid grasp of Irish history, culture, and political dynamics.

“Kevin has dedicated his life to this country and our community in public and private service,” he added, referring to O’Malley’s time in the US Army Reserve.  

He called the ambassador-to-be “one of the longest supporters” of and “a close friend” to President Obama.

“The president is confident that when the Senate confirms him, he will be an excellent ambassador,” McDonough said.

A date has not yet been set for O’Malley’s Senate confirmation hearing, but the Chief of Staff said that his administration was looking forward to a swift confirmation.

When asked about the specific policy issues O’Malley will work on as ambassador – such as the continuation of the Northern Ireland talks chaired by Dr. Richard Haas – McDonough said it would be premature to discuss any expectations until O’Malley is confirmed.

Prior to Obama’s announcement of O’Malley as his nominee, the long delay in appointing an ambassador to Ireland had been widely criticized, most recently by Congressman Joe Crowley (D-NY) who expressed concern that a lack of US representation was jeopardizing peace in the North.

Though he did not give an explanation for the delay, McDonough was emphatic that the White House is committed to seeing peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

Asked if he was concerned by the surprise with which O’Malley’s nomination was met, McDonough said that this was often a factor and expressed the administration’s confidence in the decision.  

“Am I worried about it? I get paid to worry, I worry a lot. But I also know that the more people get to know Kevin, the more impressed they will be.”