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Diplomacy in the midst of a pandemic

I have been a member of Ireland’s diplomatic service for more than four decades now during which I have served in eight countries. I have dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami (while I was Ambassador to Malaysia), the financial crisis of 2009/10 (while serving in Berlin) and the fallout from the UK’s Brexit referendum (when I was in London, 2013-17), but the past fifteen weeks have easily been the most challenging of my 40-year career. 
In the first two months of 2020, life followed its normal pattern for me with extensive contact with the Administration and members of Congress, visits to a number of US States, attendance at a range of events and the delivery of speeches about aspects of Ireland to audiences in universities, think tanks and Irish organisations. I travelled to Ireland in early March to speak at the annual Conference of the American Chamber in Croke Park, where I took part in a panel discussion with the US Ambassador to Ireland, Edward Crawford, when both of us spoke about the unique, mutually-beneficial economic ties between Ireland and the USA characterized by substantial two-way flows of trade and investment.   
By the time I returned to Washington on March 9th, the threat posed by the coronavirus was already looming larger by the day. As I boarded my flight in Dublin that day, I did pause to wonder when I might next see Ireland and the members of my family. 
That week was a very busy one for the Embassy as it coincided with the annual St Patrick’s Day visit to the USA by the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar. On account of the virus, which reached Ireland in late February, the Taoiseach’s visit was shorter than it might otherwise have been, but he did fit in all of his major engagements. On March 12th, the Taoiseach met with President Trump, Vice-President Pence and Speaker Pelosi, the three most senior figures in the US political hierarchy. Early that morning, in an address to the nation from the steps of Blair House, the US Government Guest House, the Taoiseach announced the closure of our schools. The Taoiseach and his delegation departed Washington late that evening to deal with the deepening crisis caused by the spread of the coronavirus.  Observing Ireland from across the Atlantic, I have been deeply impressed with our public’s compliance with public health advice and with the manner in which our people have dealt with the challenges posed by the Covid virus.  
I called an emergency staff meeting on March 13th when we decided on the measures we needed to take to deal with the threat posed by the virus. We resolved that, for the safety of our staff and visitors to the Embassy, our team would shift to remote working, coming to the Embassy only when necessary. Our Consulates across the USA all followed suit, working remotely for the most part and adhering to local stay-at-home regulations in the States where they are based. 
Like most of the rest of the world, I have had to become accustomed to working from home, taking part in frequent webinars and keeping in touch with colleagues in Dublin and with our teams at our seven US Consulates.   
Our first priority in the opening weeks of this crisis was to encourage Irish people who were in the USA on a short-term basis to return to Ireland. Our missions fielded numerous calls from Irish people when we explained the rationale behind our advice that Irish visitors to America should return home. Our view was that in a pandemic, you are better off being where you normally live rather than as a visitor in a foreign country.  Most people have, I believe, taken our advice and the number of Irish citizens who remain in the USA is way down on what it would be in normal times.  Our team was especially active in helping Irish passengers and crew members on board cruise vessels to return to Ireland. 
Our second task was to tend to the welfare needs of vulnerable members of our community. Particularly badly hit were those who worked in the hospitality sector, many of whom lost their jobs and found themselves facing serious financial problems. In coping with this situation, we were fortunate to have the support of Irish immigration centers in the major US cities. Those centers recognized the welfare needs that had arisen and quickly focused their attentions on responding to those needs. In New York, five Irish organisations came together to pool their efforts as Sláinte 2020. They engaged in a fundraising drive and we were able to support them with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. Slainte 2020 and other Irish welfare bodies helped tide many vulnerable Irish people through this crisis.
This past few months, our focus has shifted to doing our everyday work but without the face-to-face contact that is usually at the heart of diplomacy.   This has meant remaining in touch with contacts within the Administration, Congress and in the business community by phone and email rather than in person. My Embassy colleagues and I have taken part in numerous webinars, events which in normal times we would have attended in person. A particular focus of mine has been to keep in touch with our Irish community and those of Irish descent around the United States who are of immense value to Ireland in our relations with the USA. I have done this through Zoom calls organized by our Consulates and attended by representatives of Irish organisations around the country. One advantage of Zoom is that those with an interest in Ireland can take part from a number of different US States. A recent Southeastern Townhall organised by our Consulate General in Atlanta was attended by people from Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. That would not be possible in a live face-to-face event.  
An important focus for our Embassy has always been on promoting Ireland through our culture and we have sought to do this ‘virtually’ in recent months. Some highlights have been a celebration of the life of the great Irish poet, Eavan Boland and a Virtual Bloomsday/Yeatsday commemorating James Joyce’s Ulysses and the anniversary of the birth of W.B. Yeats. The latter event was organised in collaboration with the Yeats Society, Sligo and the James Joyce Centre in Dublin and attracted a considerable attendance, far larger than we could have accommodated at a live event. We have also organised a series of events with Washington’s Politics and Prose Bookshop featuring Irish writers, Colum McCann, Sinéad Gleeson, Roddy Doyle and Emma Dabiri. 
One of my priorities has been to connect with the US Administration and business organisations in order to make the point that Ireland is a thoroughly-reliable part of the US supply chain for pharmaceuticals, medical devices and other products of strategic economic significance. With a debate developing about the reshoring of production, it is vital for us to establish Ireland in the minds of US policymakers as a trusted economic partner of the United States. The opportunity for US companies to invest in Ireland and to service markets in the European Union and beyond is an advantage for those companies and ultimately a benefit to the US economy. 
Like everyone else, I yearn for the day when we can return to normal life. I want to get back to meeting people in person, to engaging directly with Irish communities around the US, to supporting  Irish companies and our State Agencies by attending their promotional events and to hosting visitors at our Embassy so as to encourage productive connections with Ireland. I can only do those things, of course, when they can be done safely for our staff and our guests. 
I expect the coming years to be dominated by efforts at national recovery from the adverse effects of the pandemic. As Ireland plots its economic renewal, our connections with the United States will be of vital importance. The United States is our number 1 trading partner. 750 American companies have investments in Ireland while more than 500 Irish firms employ more than 100,000 Americans.  There are also very significant levels of cooperation in science and education. There are also huge people-to-people links. More than 2 million Americans visited Ireland in 2019. We would like to welcome them all back again in 2021. 
Our ties with the United States are, and will always be, of fundamental importance to Ireland. The task of our team of diplomats across the USA is to keep those ties fresh through active virtual diplomacy so that we can pick them up again in person once this terrible pandemic has waned. 
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States     

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