Acting US consul general Kevin Roland bids farewell to a ‘more hopeful’ north of Ireland

Taking leave of US’s diplomatic core in the north

By Gemma Burns

A s a blue-collar boy from the streets of Baltimore and a trained pizza chef who has served with the US foreign service on the war torn streets of Baghdad, Kevin Roland brought a wealth of experience to his role as the US government’s representative in the North.

However on Holy Thursday, the acting US Consul General said goodbye to his Belfast home of three years to take up a role in the private sector in Dubai.

The highflying US Foreign Service agent arrived in Belfast over the Twelfth period in 2009 after more than a year in Iraq.

Over the past three years the father of two has travelled all over the North, representing his home country, forging relationships, building bridges and promoting US investment here.

But the affable American, who said it was his love of people that first drew him to his diplomatic job, has also found time to experience life as a Belfast native, a regular face who enjoyed a well-earned drink in Madden’s, he supported local sports and entered into  community life with gusto.

And as he prepared to wind things up after three years in Danesfort in Stranmillis, Kevin told the Belfast Media Group that, after spending most of his working life for the US government in the Middle East and Africa, it had been a welcome change to be posted here particularly as he has family roots in Ireland.

“I arrived in Belfast in July 2009 and I sort of knew what to expect because 15 years previously I had worked as an intern in the US Embassy in Dublin and had some exposure to ‘up north’ then,” he said.

“We also have had a family home in Co Clare for almost ten years and family roots in Co Mayo and Galway so I felt very fortunate to be posted to Belfast. I had always followed how things have progressed here.”

When Kevin arrived the north was in the unique situation of ‘peacetime’ but with many bridges still to be built, a lesson he learned quickly arriving in the midst of the Twelfth Ardoyne riots.

“I saw that you had achieved a political settlement and stability but was asking ‘where do we go next?’ and ‘how do we put a strong focus on the economy?’

“Secretary (of State in the US) Clinton’s instructions were to move the issue (of building bridges) forward. We also had to get the focus on the devolution of policing and justice as well as helping with social and transformation issues.”

Growing up in a working class family in Baltimore, a city he likens to Belfast with a shipping port and historical reliance on industry, Kevin said it was never a given that he would end up working for the US Foreign Services and end up his country’s representative in the North of Ireland.

Modest about his past achievements, saying proudly he is a trained pizza chef after working in a pizza restaurant during college, his impressive CV shows just how strong the US’s interest is, sending their best assets to Belfast.

An Arabic speaker and alumnus of the Foreign Service Institute’s Advanced Arabic Language Field School in Tunis, Tunisia he has received several State Department Superior and Meritorious Honor awards for his service.

He has also served in Baghdad, Cairo and Amman as well as Pretoria in South Africa.

He said what the people of the North have in common with those in the war zones that he has been posted to, is their kindness and welcoming nature.

“The people of the Middle East are incredibly hospitable, they are some of the most warm and welcoming people you will meet,” he said.

“Regardless of politics, whether it was during the war in Iraq or the second intifada, everyone had the option to shut doors to me but they didn’t. Of course there were healthy arguments about policy but they were always warm and welcoming.

“In Belfast it felt like I could have been sat in my aunt and uncle’s house, I feel so at home. We have such a kinship, be it familial or cultural, with each other and so many Americans are proud of their heritage here.”

Despite arriving in Belfast fresh from the Middle East and into some anti American opinion generated by the war in Iraq he has never shied away from talking to people with opposing views.

“I served in the Middle East, we respect that (different opinions), we respect people’s right to hold an opinion and I am always happy to engage in tough conversation.”

It is clear he and his family were keen to experience normal life in their adopted home city and pictures of his children dotted around his office in the US Consulate show them posing with the Sam Maguire cup.

On a personal level, Kevin has put down roots in Belfast and said he was sad to be leaving the city he and his family have called home for the past three years.

“I enjoyed Bittles Bar, the Duke of York and Madden’s, being out with people and having the craic and I think I take away those human relationships.

“What we do (as US Consul General) is not political science, it is about building relationships.

“My kids are invested in sport and they take away the relationships they developed and I think we take away a lot of friends.”

Next month Kevin’s replacement, Gregory Burton will arrive in Belfast fresh from Kabul in Afghanistan.

After three years in Belfast which have brought great progress, including the devolvement of policing and justice powers and the breaking down of sectarian barriers but have also witnessed an increased threat from dissident republicans, Kevin said he is leaving a more hopeful North of Ireland but one that still has work to do.

“I have always been amazed at the amazing stuff going on here that people don’t know about,” he said.

“Particularly at a community level with reconciliation, cross community issues and amazing entrepreneurs. I think there is a legacy of the conflict that people don’t necessarily trumpet what they are doing.

“But we have been able to get out there and see what is going on. Be it in Lurgan, Coleraine, everywhere… and make connections on the ground. I’m not Pollyanna, I’m not overly optimistic by nature, it is going to take more people pulling together and more people doing it for themselves but you see people on the ground improving stuff.

“And we have helped with that whether it be through bringing like-minded people together, providing resources where we can, bringing potential partners together and I have always been happy to do that. I think there are great things ahead for here.”

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