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Dan Rooney called front-runner for ambassador to Ireland

Dan Rooney's friends are encouraging the Steelers owner to pursue the ambassadorship to Ireland, said a former ambassador there who believes Rooney would be "great for America" in that role.

The Irish Times, a Dublin newspaper, reported that Rooney is among the front-runners to succeed Thomas Foley in the post, along with Caroline Kennedy and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. The White House declined comment, and Rooney could not be reached.

Rooney, whose ancestors are from Newry in Northern Ireland, long has been involved in the peace process there. He was among the first prominent Pennsylvanians to endorse Barack Obama in his presidential run early last year. The two campaigned together.

When asked in a KDKA-TV interview Jan. 19 whether he would want the job, Rooney said that it "would be interesting," but he didn't want it to appear as if he endorsed Obama in order to get it.

Rooney co-founded The American Ireland Funds in 1976, an international foundation that supports 200 programs in Ireland that work to bring together Catholics and Protestants. The foundation has raised $300 million since its founding, said CEO Kieran McLoughlin.

Rooney visits the country every year to check on the programs and meet with local leaders, McLoughlin said. McLoughlin said he won't endorse anyone because he'll have to work closely with whomever Obama appoints as ambassador.

James C. Kenny, U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 2003 to 2006, said that Rooney impressed him during his annual visits and understands the complexities of Northern Ireland's long-running religious conflict.

"He's done great, great work. When we got to sit down and talk, it wasn't about the Pittsburgh Steelers," Kenny said. "I have a lot of respect for someone like him, and I wish him well. I know a number of his friends are encouraging him to do it. That'd be great for America."

Though violence in Northern Ireland has subsided, deep divisions remain, McLoughlin said. Studies found children as young as 3 "maintain sectarian attitudes," he said. Part of the problem is segregation in schools; only 6 percent of Catholic and Protestant children are educated together, McLoughlin said.

One organization the foundation supports is Peace Players, a sports program that brings children together for basketball, McLoughlin said. Football is too divisive, because rugby is the version Protestants play and Catholics play soccer, so even the shape of the ball would highlight differences, McLoughlin said.

"Basketball is owned by no particular part of society," he said.

Because some paramilitary organizations haven't disarmed, much work remains, Kenny said. The first step is bolstering the area's economy so people have jobs -- something he said The American Ireland Funds has helped provide.

"This money not only went to the Catholic side, it went to the Protestant side, as well," which helped people believe the United States was an honest arbiter of the conflict, Kenny said.

"They've all done a heck of a job. ... To teach people that there's a way forward and a way out of being involved in conflict has been a great help."

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