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Building A New Relationship With America

Irish Times


November 14, 2008


By Trina Vargo and Mary Lou Hartman


THE ELECTION of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States marks a turning point for the US and presents an important opportunity for Ireland to re-examine and rejuvenate the deeply valuable and historic relationship it shares with America.

The Taoiseach's recent call for a review of US-Ireland relations couldn't come at a better time. For the review to be truly effective, it is essential to begin with a realistic understanding of what Irish America is, and is not, and to pose this important question: what do we want the US-Ireland relationship to be in the 21st century?

It is necessary to understand that there is no such thing as a monolithic "Irish-American vote". Irish-Americans are Democrats and Republicans, Catholics and Protestants, wealthy and working class.

They want our economy back on track and they want decent jobs with fair wages so that they can support their families. They want a healthcare system that is not so expensive that it forces them to choose between buying groceries and buying their medications. They want college to be affordable. They want us to stop ignoring the increasingly serious problems of the environment.

There is no such thing as an "Irish-American" vote motivated solely, or even primarily, by issues relating to Ireland.

What does this mean? In the New York Times Magazine of August 10th, in an article entitled, "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?", Matt Bai wrote: "For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama's candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle - to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream."

If there was ever a time to recognise and embrace the fact that Irish-America is now part of the US political mainstream, it is now. The Obama administration offers an opportunity to redefine the US-Ireland relationship - one that is built on mutually beneficial objectives and a recognition that, in addition to the enduring value of the ancestral ties and shared history of the two countries, Ireland has much to offer the United States and the world.

Many leading political figures in the United States, for example, have cited the peace process in Northern Ireland as a lesson in conflict resolution which can be used to bring people together and help countries around the world to both avoid and resolve conflicts.

When we look ahead, we see boundless opportunities to strengthen old ties and create and establish new and important links between the United States and Ireland.

First and foremost, economic innovation should be a key part of the relationship. In the recent US presidential campaign, Ireland was cited repeatedly for its low corporate tax rate.

Senator John McCain wanted to lower the US corporate tax rate to encourage overseas American companies to come home to the US, and Senator Obama suggested closing tax loopholes that now encourage American firms to move overseas.

What will this mean for Ireland? It's impossible to know at this point, but it is hard to imagine any sudden exodus of US companies from Ireland. Recent years have demonstrated that Ireland has a global economy, but the strength of the Irish economy should not rely predominantly on multinational investment. In other words, Ireland should not put all its eggs into the one basket of its low corporate tax rate.

Instead, Ireland should be equally, or better known, for a world-class innovation economy. Ireland can and should be a leader and a model in the creation and development of "green jobs" - jobs focused on environmental protection, whether through alternative energy, technology, or jobs such as retrofitting homes and office buildings for energy conservation.

With this in mind, the US-Ireland Alliance has been having conversations with Irish business and political leaders about convening a US-Ireland conference on The Green Economy - Jobs and the Environment.

Ireland has the ability, the natural resources, the branding and the structure to become a global leader in this field. It is a natural partner for the United States on this vital 21st century issue, not least because Barack Obama has already declared that alternative energy and job creation, particularly "green" jobs, will be a priority of his administration.

Irish and Northern Irish universities already have strong environmental programmes in place. They should be strengthening and developing these programmes, and also working together to position themselves at the forefront of the environmental movement. Leadership from Ireland on these issues will help create a new conversation with America.

Education is another area in which the US-Ireland relationship can flourish. We have seen this already with the George Mitchell Scholarship programme, which gives future American leaders an opportunity to study on the island; the goal is to create and nurture interest in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Because of the success of the programme, colleges and students across America are turning their attention to Irish universities like never before. The publicity surrounding what has become one of the most prestigious scholarships in America has given Irish and Northern Irish universities a higher profile than money could buy.

It is extremely important that, despite the unfortunate downturn in the economy, Ireland does not lose sight of the long-term value of a strong third-level educational system, with its obvious ripple effects.

The idea that "if you build it they will come" is fundamentally true. We have witnessed this truth with the Mitchell scholars, whose connection to Ireland lasts far beyond their year on the island. Education is a powerful and constructive way to connect new generations to the island, and it is imperative that Irish universities be world class.

This past year, Trinity and UCD moved up in global university rankings. Such progress is necessary, but hardly sufficient.

One of the strongest cards Ireland has to play is the culture card, which has the potential to attract tourists to Ireland and can be used to promote Ireland abroad. In fact, the extraordinary literary, dramatic, and musical traditions of Ireland appeal to many people, not just Irish-Americans.

In other words, it's time to think outside the checked Irish-American box, particularly in light of the declining demographic of Irish-America. For example, in February, the US-Ireland Alliance honoured James L Brooks, producer of The Simpsons, at our annual Oscar Wilde event, which honours the Irish in film. We selected Brooks (along with Fiona Shaw and Colm Meaney) because The Simpsons is wildly popular in Ireland and we knew that Brooks himself was a fan of Ireland.

The Irish Film Board was unhappy because, "He's not Irish." But Brooks was thrilled to be selected, and gave a delightfully amusing acceptance speech noting that he had grown up thinking he was Irish until he discovered that his grandparents' last name was Jewish. Since then, an "Irish" episode of The

Simpsons has been made and Brooks has expressed an interest in making a film in Ireland.

As more and more people recognise, Irish-America must be reimagined, and it has immense potential. The US-Ireland Alliance is eager to embrace that potential. We hope that the Taoiseach's review will lead to initiatives that seize the moment and build a new relationship for the years ahead based both on our remarkable shared history and the extraordinary possibilities for the future.

There will always be resistance to change. But change, as Obama's campaign and election make clear, is coming. Ireland must either participate or be left behind. Is féidir linn!

• Trina Vargo was an adviser on Irish issues to the Barack Obama election campaign. From 1987 to 1998, she was foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy. In 1998, she created the US-Ireland Alliance and serves as its president.

• Mary Lou Hartman is the director of the George Mitchell Scholarship programme. She is a former Peabody Award-winning television producer for CBS and CNN.

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© 2008 The Irish Times