A bipartisan group of US Congress members has written to President Joe Biden, urging him to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland.
The letter, a copy of which has been seen by the Irish Times, says an envoy should be appointed “in order to continue to support the peace process during this critical time.”
“We believe this decision would not only demonstrate America’s enduring commitment to peace in Northern Ireland but would directly encourage regional peace and stability,” the letter states.
The intervention comes as Mr Biden prepares to name several ambassadors, including the next ambassador to Ireland, in the coming weeks.
Congressman Bill Keating, who chairs the House foreign affairs sub-committee which oversees Europe and has led the initiative, told The Irish Times that he believed the appointment of a special envoy to Northern Ireland was vital at this time.
“I think it is recognised that the peace agreement would not have occurred without the participation of the United States. We feel that we’re a part of that Good Friday Agreement as a country, and we want to make sure that the agreement, and the peace that was achieved against all odds, continues. But there is concern that it is now in jeopardy.”
Pointing to last week’s hearing on the Belfast Agreement convened by the sub-committee on Europe, Energy, the Environment, and Cyber, he said that the hearing had confirmed that a US special envoy is needed. “This would be a time where the US involvement could be helpful and critical,” the Massachusetts congressman said.
“The uptick in violence in Northern Ireland has been a great concern,” he said. “There are people that weren’t even born when the original agreement was signed but are getting caught up.”
The letter which was sent to Mr Biden on Wednesday was signed by 25 members of Congress including several prominent Irish-Americans such as Richard Neal, Brendan Boyle, Dan Kildee and Mary Gay Scanlon.
It comes as Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Britain’s EU negotiator David Frost briefed several members of Congress on Tuesday. According to people on the call, among the issues that were raised from the US side was concern about unilateral action by the British government, both in relation to the Northern Irish protocol, and reports that British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland would be given legal protection through new legislation at Westminster.
The letter that has been sent to Mr Biden as he prepares to name his pick for various ambassadorial positions sets out in detail the rationale for appointing a special envoy to Northern Ireland, noting the role previous envoys like Senator George Mitchell, had played in securing peace.
Outlining America’s role in the signing of the Belfast Agreement, the letter also warns about renewed instability in the region, prompted in part by the Northern Ireland protocol.
“Twenty-three years later, peace and stability in the region have recently been challenged by the cumulative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions related to Brexit, as well as enduring local economic and social issues.” It continues: “Unfortunately, in late March and early April of this year, Northern Ireland saw a spike in unrest and violence that many be attributed in part to the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol, a key tenant of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.”
The recent outbreak of violence, though condemned by all the major political parties, shows that “uncertainty and serious potential for violence in the future have not abated,” it adds.
Mr Keating also noted the role women have played in achieving peace in Northern Ireland, a role that should be recognised in any future appointment. Among those who testified at last week’s hearing on Capitol Hill were Professor Monica McWilliams of Ulster University and former deputy speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly Jane Morrice, along with Mitchell Reiss, former special envoy to Northern Ireland.
“We also ask that you task any future Special Envoy for Northern Ireland with a mandate to encourage the inclusion of women and ensure that their voices are heard and that they are represented at the table,” the letter states.
HSE working to amend booster system as people receive multiple appointments
The Health Service Executive (HSE) is working to amend the coronavirus vaccine system, as multiple channels offering third jabs has caused challenges for the booster campaign, HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor has said.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Ms O’Connor explained that the booster vaccine was available through vaccination centres, general practitioners and pharmacies.
Some people had gone to their local pharmacy to get their booster vaccine and then had received an appointment at a vaccination centre, she said. She called on people to cancel their vaccination centre appointment if they had received their booster through their GP or pharmacy.
Ms O’Connor’s comments come after Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Tuesday that there were 87,000 no-shows for boosters last week, and the chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation’s GP committee, Dr Denis McCauley, described the non-attendances as “very disrespectful”.
Ms O’Connor said the priority for the HSE was to get as many people fully vaccinated as possible.
When asked about the lower levels of people in the 60-69 age cohort who have received their booster vaccine, Ms O’Connor said that not everyone in that age group would have had their second vaccine more than five months ago. That was “a natural limiter”.
Ms O’Connor said people possibly were apprehensive or busier, now that many were back at work or were preparing for Christmas, but the vaccine was important as was the booster.
To date more than a million people have received their booster vaccine, she added, and appointments will be offered to people aged between 50 and 59 from Thursday.
“We will also have walk-in centres open to people to get their vaccine and as ever we encourage everybody to avail of the vaccine. It’s really important, especially with a new variant, that we try to protect as many people as possible,” Ms O’Connor said.
Meanwhile, Dr McAuley told Newstalk Breakfast that there were very few no-shows to booster appointments at GP surgeries, because people know their GP personally.
Now was not the time for “messing”, he said in relation to people failing to attend their appointments at vaccine centres.
“If you get a vaccine appointment, make sure that you go there rather than getting your hair done or going shopping – or if it is a work thing, stay on the helpline to get a new appointment.
“Be respectful of the mass vaccination centres. These are people who are working very hard and it is very disrespectful to have over 80,000 people not turn up in one week. It is not appropriate. You wouldn’t do it to your GP so why are you doing it to these healthcare workers.”
There was also a concern that some people were waiting to see what happens with the Omicron variant before getting their booster. Dr McCauley said that the booster would greatly reduce the chances of picking up the virus or having to go into hospital
Dr McCauley said there needed to be “a call to arms” for people to get vaccinated and he warned that when more information about Omicron emerged, booster appointments could be harder to come by.
All you need to know on getting the Moderna vaccine as a booster
People due to receive their Covid-19 booster vaccine in coming weeks will primarily be offered the Moderna dose at HSE vaccination centres.
The HSE is reported to have large supplies of Moderna due to expire next month, so that will be the main vaccine administered over coming weeks to the over-60s, over-50s, healthcare workers, and younger people in vulnerable groups – though it will be restricted to people over 30.
Anecdotally there are indications some people may be reluctant to take the Moderna vaccine. This may be due to Irish stocks about to expire shortly and/or confusion about its efficacy. This follows the company’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel warning last week the Moderna jab may not be as effective against Omicron as it had been with the Delta variant.
The HSE has confirmed recipients will have no choice on what vaccine they are given.
What type of coronavirus vaccine is the Moderna jab?
It is a new kind of synthetic “mRNA vaccine” – the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is from the same stable. They provide excellent protection against severe illness and hospitalisation – and have played a critical role in reducing Covid-19 deaths since being approved. A downside, however, is that the Moderna version must be kept at -20 degrees.
Should people be worried about receiving a soon to be out-of-date vaccine?
|Total doses distributed to Ireland||Total doses administered in Ireland|
In short no, as they retain the ability to boost antibody production within currently approved time spans – though inevitably potency wanes over time. The Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen (Johnson&Johnson) vaccines were put on the market with emergency use authorisation of up to six months.
This compares with a shelf life of two to three years for most vaccines and other medicines. This is an “inevitable consequence of getting the vaccines out of the door as quickly as possible”, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Gino Martini told the journal BMJ.
Months later, these “emergency” expiry dates remain in force for these vaccines. For approved Covid-19 vaccines, the initial shelf lives were based on data available at the time of submission for regulatory approval.
The long-term shelf life has not been extended for any of the vaccines. A shelf life extension would require supporting evidence from relevant stability studies. Vaccine manufacturers are monitoring batches of vaccines with the aim of providing a longer shelf life; probably the usual two years.
What about the Omicron threat?
While Moderna said existing vaccines including its mRNA version will probably be less effective against the Omicron variant, most experts believe they will continue to provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisation. It should be stressed, however, definitive indication has yet to emerge. That will be a matter of weeks, if not days.
Moderna has confirmed it is developing an Omicron-specific booster though manufacturing the new vaccine would take time. Tens of millions of doses could be available in the first quarter of 2022, but scale-up would not happen until the second quarter – provided it is shown such boosters are required.
What is the latest indication on the benefits of mixing vaccines?
Evidence supporting a mixing of vaccine doses has hardened over recent months. A study this week shows combining a first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine with a second dose of either the Moderna or the Novavax jabs results in far higher levels of neutralising antibodies and T-cells compared with two doses of the AstraZeneca jab.
This finding also has important implications for lower-income countries that have not yet completed their primary vaccination campaigns as it suggests you do not need access to mRNA vaccines – and therefore ultra-cold storage facilities – to trigger an extremely potent Covid-19 vaccine response.
The study also bolsters confidence that using the Moderna vaccine as a booster dose in people who have previously received the AstraZeneca jab should result in high levels of neutralising antibodies and T-cells.
It follows separate data published last week suggesting the Pfizer and Moderna booster jabs can dramatically strengthen the body’s immune defences.
Woman (90s) dies following single-vehicle crash in Co Clare
A woman in her 90s has died following a single-vehicle crash in Co Clare in the early hours of Tuesday.
The incident occurred at about 12.30am at Annagh, Miltown Malbay. The woman, who was the driver and sole occupant of the car involved in the crash, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Her body was removed to Limerick University Hospital, where gardaí say a postmortem will take place at a later date.
The road has been closed to facilitate an exam by Garda forensic collision investigators, and local diversions are in place.
Gardaí have appealed for witnesses – particularly road users who may have camera footage – to come forward. Anyone with information can contact Kilrush Garda station (065 908 0550), the confidential line (1800 666 111), or any Garda station.
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