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Ireland-US Relationship Needs To Alter From Supplicant To Peer

Irish Times


March 16, 2005


By Trina Vargo


Ireland can have a continuing, influential role in the US by doing a better job of both selling itself in America and understanding America. This can be assisted by the politicians, businesses with an interest in the US and, perhaps most significantly, by Ireland's wealthiest citizens.


When I served as foreign policy adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy, I saw how he and a handful of his colleagues were routinely relied on to sort problems that arise in the relationship - from immigration matters to business taxation issues or the Northern Ireland peace process.


But US demographics are changing, and Irish Americans no longer have a lock on American politics. And Ireland and Irish America have never come together in a co-ordinated way that will have long-term influence on policymakers and the broader relationship. I founded the US-Ireland Alliance in 1998 to address this deficiency.


The relationship with the US is the most important one Ireland has. The more than 500 American corporations in Ireland and wise Irish government policies contributed greatly to the Celtic Tiger. If even a handful of large US multinationals left Ireland, the economic consequences would be severe.


And America is also an important market for Irish goods and services. The US presence has also cultivated an entrepreneurial culture that has resulted in indigenous Irish companies that are doing well in the US. And there are the historic, familial and cultural ties that assure us that what we have in common is far greater than our differences.


Don't stop visiting. America is a different place since September 11th, and there is concern that visa requirements have made it more difficult to enter the US. Efforts are under way to address this. It's unfortunate that many young Irish are not coming to the US on a J-1 visa. That experience is equally important to both our countries.


While some of this decline may be attributable to perceived and real restrictions, and the value of the dollar versus the euro, I hope young Irish people will return for the reason many have before - the experience, the craic, summer jobs at the beach and a warm reception from Americans.


It would also be to Ireland's advantage to engage with "red" America (people in those states, between the two coasts, who mainly voted for President Bush). Ireland does not have a single consulate in a red state. That's historically understandable as consulates were established where the Irish were. But it's time to add a consulate in a red state.


Ireland should be more confident in its approach to the United States. While US corporations have created nearly 100,000 jobs in Ireland, Ireland is responsible for nearly as many jobs in the US.


Ireland is also one of the top 10 foreign investors in the US, but there wouldn't be a handful of people in the US who know these facts.


Ireland is now one of the world's wealthiest countries. For nearly 20 years, roughly $20 million of US taxpayer's money has gone annually to the International Fund for Ireland.


That should end. Ireland no longer needs US foreign aid, and politicians from North and South should tell that to members of the US Congress in order to end the contribution on a positive note - as Ireland's initiative. Most importantly, it would psychologically alter the relationship.


There is more to the US-Ireland relationship than the Northern Ireland issue and the Irish Government and all Irish who interact with Americans should also highlight mutually beneficial and successful business, cultural and educational relations.


Ireland shouldn't settle for the Irish America it knows - it should help create the Irish America it wants. There are 38 million Americans of Irish descent. There are as many Protestants as Catholics and as many Republicans as Democrats, and the vast majority don't know who the Taoiseach is, or even what a taoiseach is. Only a very small number are politically active, and most do not reflect the vast majority of the 38 million.


The stereotype of an Irish American is wide of the mark. Our joint challenge is to begin to engage the many more Irish Americans and non-Irish Americans who could be interested in contemporary Ireland. Business, education and entertainment are all paths to engaging them.


Contribute to this relationship. The US-Ireland Alliance educates Americans about contemporary Ireland. This is something that wealthy Irish individuals, and companies which benefit from this relationship, could help exponentially with their support.


For example, our flagship project, the George J. Mitchell scholarship programme, brings future leaders to the island of Ireland for a year of study. It benefits Ireland to have future American leaders develop a strong affinity for the island and it benefits Americans to have an experience abroad to learn how others view America.


Wealthy Americans have, for decades, sent vast sums of money to Ireland. But Ireland no longer needs charity from Americans, and some reverse philanthropy is needed to help America understand what it has to gain from a relationship with Ireland. Regrettably, there are still too few philanthropists in Ireland. The Irish Government could also encourage private philanthropy with greater tax incentives.


There are good reasons for American companies to base their overseas operations in Ireland, and the work of the Government and the IDA over the last 10 to 15 years is proof of that. But additional efforts can help bring to Ireland American decision-makers who have many countries vying for their attention.


Our annual golf tournament in Ireland brings senior American executives to play against their Irish counterparts. Business deals and jobs for Ireland have come from this. The chairman of Walt Disney Studios contributed to the decision to maintain the tax incentive for film production in Ireland.


Inviting US studio executives has led directly to multi-million-dollar film projects being steered to Ireland. We are currently working with the Irish Film Board and others on a high-profile event in Hollywood that will contribute significantly to business relationships in the entertainment industry.


After we brought the vice-chairman of Wal-Mart to Ireland, he made subsequent trips, and now several Irish companies are talking to Wal-Mart about possible deals that can mean more jobs and revenue for Ireland. We introduced an executive at Walt Disney to a representative of the Irish Pub Company and an Irish pub will soon open at Disneyworld in Florida.


We plan to bring more members of the US Congress to Ireland. They're often not Irish, but the decisions of the committees on which they sit can have huge repercussions for Ireland. A senator from Wyoming learned about jobs in his state because of CRH and a congressman from Los Angeles heard about Ireland's links with Hollywood.


These kinds of ties exist but are often unknown, and we need to work together to shed light on them. We are compiling a state-by-state breakdown of jobs in America attributable to Irish companies - information of infinitely greater importance to a US congressman than that his granny came from Cork.


These are just some examples of what is being done. Even greater opportunities exist. It requires a shift in how Ireland thinks about the US, and we urge those Irish who want to contribute to a shift in American thinking about Ireland to join us.

•   Trina Vargo is the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance.




© The Irish Times