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Ireland, Europe and the United States in a changing world

Address by Ambassador Dan Mulhall


One of my early impressions of the USA concerns the personality and quality of its cities. I now realise that it is wrong to think of the USA's diversity purely in terms of differences between urban and rural America, between North and South, or East and West. Each city I have visited has its own proud history and its own economic and political ecosystem. I recognise Cleveland as a city that has risen to prominence, suffered economic decline and then emerged strongly again as a 'Comeback City’. It is also a city that has long played host to a significant community of Irish immigrants and people of Irish descent, many of whom hailed from Mayo and the beautiful island of Achill on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

I want to thank Global Cleveland, the Irish Club of Cleveland and the City Club for working together to host this event. The quality of the debates that take place at this venue testifies to the fact that capital cities have no monopoly on wisdom and knowledge with regard to global affairs. These are too important to leave in the hands of a few countries and those who live in their capital cities. As the representative of a small but ambitious and globally-connected country, I relish the opportunity to connect with this Cleveland audience.

Ireland has, I think, a unique relationship with the United States. This is based on historical links that go back to the 18th century but were greatly intensified in the 19th century with the influx of vast numbers of Irish immigrants fleeing famine and deprivation in Ireland. In the teeth of adversity, they helped to change the face of the United States, contributing to making it the country it is today.

Those immigrants came with a sense of grievance that helped sustain their Irish identity, one that was passed down through the generations. New arrivals from Ireland continually refreshed the Irish community and renewed its commitment to, and connections with, Ireland.

Thanks to scholarly work done in connection with the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, we now recognise the important role played by Irish America in the opening decades of the 20th century in helping to bring about Irish independence.

Remarkably, pride in their Irish heritage continues to connect Irish Americans with their ancestral homeland. This is not an inevitable outcome and the fact is that other immigrant nationalities do not maintain quite the same affinity with their ethnic roots that Irish Americans have with Ireland.

Ireland's traditional links with the United States have been augmented this past 50 years by a major economic connection.

This began in the 1960s when the Irish Government resolved to open up our economy to foreign investment. At that time, our economy was relatively weak, inward-looking and heavily dependent on agriculture, and on the British market. Emigration continued to ravage Ireland in the early decades of our independence and in 1960 our state's population reached a low-point of under 3 million (today it is 4.8 million, but the population of our island is still less than it was during the 1840s).

US involvement in the Irish economy has increased and intensified over the decades and today some 700 US companies employ about 150,000 people in Ireland.

US companies come to Ireland for a range of reasons - our access to the European single market, our young and highly-educated population, the quality and transparency of our legal system, a business-friendly country where so many American multinationals have operated successfully, and our stable and competitive system of corporate taxation. Our 12.5% corporate tax rate has been in place for decades and there is a firm commitment to its retention.

The flow of US FDI into Ireland has had a number of consequences. It has helped transform the Irish economy. When we joined the EU in 1973, our economy was by far the least developed of the then 9 member States with a wealth level just two-thirds of the European average. Today, we have caught up with our EU partners and our per capita GDP is well above the EU average.

US investment in Ireland has produced an extraordinarily strong trading relationship between our two countries, amounting to $100 billion in two-way trade each year. Many of today's successful Irish-owned companies were founded by people who acquired experience working with US companies in Ireland and then set out on their own, often acting as part of the supply chain for US multinationals.

This powerful flow of trade and investment benefits both our economies hugely, sustaining jobs and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic. Ireland provides US companies with an indispensable location for their operations in Europe.

A less well-known feature of the Ireland-US relationship is the fact that Irish companies have invested strongly in the US. Currently, there are some 100,000 Americans employed by Irish companies. This is a product of the growth of the Irish economy and the need for our companies to internationalise their operations in order to ensure their continued success. We can expect this trend to continue and indeed to intensify in the years ahead.

Among European Union countries, Ireland has a particular profile. We are committed members of the European Union, but we have since World War 2 maintained a traditional policy of military neutrality.

As a country that struggled for centuries to assert its separate political and cultural identity, we have a special affinity with those countries that broke free from Europe's Empires during the 20th century.

We maintain an active and high calibre development aid programme, centred mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. We have a deep commitment to the United Nations and have been a perennial contributor to its peacekeeping operations since the early 1960s. We will be seeking a seat on the UN Security Council for 2021/22, which will be a fitting way to mark a century of Irish independence.

We are a close friend of the United States, but one with an independent frame of mind when it comes to international issues.

If you ask me what we would want from the future of Irish-US relations, I would probably answer 'more of the same'. After all, what is there not to like about a friendly relationship based on historical and family ties, mutual economic advantage and shared values and interests?

We have to recognise that the world around us is changing and that the anchors we once relied upon may no longer hold things in place.

There are changes underway in Europe. The EU has been a bulwark of prosperity and stability in Europe and the world for decades, but there are new challenges - economic, political and security ones - facing Europe at present.

Ireland has benefited immensely from EU membership and has, as an EU member, become a bridgehead for US companies into the single market.

The UK's decision to leave the EU, which we hoped would not happen and believe to be a bad idea, will change the EU and Ireland's role within it. We have committed our future to EU membership and this enjoys the support of some 88% of the Irish electorate according to the most recent opinion poll.

The UK's departure creates multiple uncertainties. For Ireland, it raises concerns about our vital trading ties with the UK and about the border in Ireland which is now an invisible one and we are determined to keep it that way.

In December, we received clear assurances from the British Government that whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations they would ensure that there will be no hardening of the border in Ireland, but these must now be turned into legally-binding commitments.

On the other hand, there will be some advantages for Ireland when we become the sole English-speaking country in the EU. We expect this to make us an even more attractive location for US investment than we currently are. It is likely that US companies will value the opportunity to operate in a country with a familiar legal system, a highly-educated, English-speaking workforce and a similar business culture. Our approach to Brexit will be to seek to minimise its inevitable downsides for Ireland and to maximise any upsides.

Furthermore, it seems to me that there is scope for Ireland to play an enhanced trans-Atlantic role. This is because Ireland will after Brexit be the EU country with the closest ties to the United States. I hope that this will lead to an intensified dialogue between Ireland and the US on issues to do with EU-US relations.

Let me make it clear that I am fully aware of the limitations of such a role. Trans-Atlantic relations will need to be conducted between the EU and the US, but in the spirit of pluralism which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, it seems to me that there is scope for ancillary strands of dialogue that complement the main lines that will run from Washington to Brussels.

Ireland has been a major beneficiary of the phase of globalisation that began in the 1990s. As a small, English-speaking country with a highly educated population, we were ideally equipped for the opportunities that arose at that time. We would therefore be disadvantaged by any rolling back of globalisation and a resurgence of economic nationalism.

I am not blind to the challenges that are emerging today, especially from those who feel aggrieved that they have been bypassed by developments in the global economy. It seems clear that reforms will be required in order to secure a more equitable and stable global environment. We will however be a country that continues to believe in the utility of multilateral approaches to global problems and of the freeing up of world trade and investment. The solution to our current predicaments is to refurbish the fabric of the global system and not to withdraw into national silos.

Our Government has recently committed itself to a doubling of Ireland's international footprint by 2020, a move that promises change to our international profile including our engagement with the US and with Irish America.

I believe that Ireland and the US have considerable common ground and a shared stake in a world in which the rule of law continues to prevail and the democratic and tolerant values we share continue to act as an underpinning to our prosperity and security.

I also look to a new era in our engagement with Irish America. We are approaching an important milestone in Irish history for in 2022 we will enter the second century of Irish independence. Our country today is vastly different from the one that began its journey as a sovereign state a 100 years ago. Ours is now a fully developed western economy with a population, 17% of which was born outside of our state. We are a globally-connected country and are exploring new horizons as a knowledge economy. We know that the future of Ireland lies less in making things than in making things up. I hope that the future will see more collaborations between our two countries in education, science and technology and the arts. I expect that our already productive two-way relationship will continue to deepen and develop, conferring benefit on our two countries.

Thank you for your attention.

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