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The State of the Global Irish: Remarks at the Opening of the Irish Network USA Annual Conference

The State of the Global Irish: Remarks at the Opening of the Irish Network USA Annual Conference in New Orleans, 19 October 2018

Introduction: When I embarked on my first diplomatic posting in India in 1980, the Ireland I left as a 24 year old was very different from the country I am proud to represent today in the United States. 

At that time, we had been members of the European Union for just 7 years. 

Economically, we were trailing well behind our fellow members of the European Community. 

Diplomatically, we had a very thin representation outside of Europe and North America. 

In the Asia-Pacific, our only diplomatic missions were in New Delhi, Tokyo, Canberra and a then very recently established Embassy in Beijing. Since then, missions in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Shanghai have been added to our network, with Bombay and The Philippines soon to follow. In North America, the past 10 years have seen new missions in Atlanta, Austin and Vancouver, with Los Angeles to be added to the list in 2019.

Back in 1980, the term 'global Irish' was not part of our lexicon although the presence of four Consulates in the US means that we were certainly conscious of the value of having an extensive community of Irish descent in this country. 

We were also rightly proud of our standing in the developed world in light of the inspiration many emerging countries had taken from Ireland's struggle for Independence. That dimension to our international profile was very evident to me during the three years I spent in India between 1980 and 1983. 

And from the 1950s onwards, we were deeply devoted to the United Nations and in particular its peacekeeping operations. 

Today’s Ireland: Fast forward four decades and our circumstances today have changed radically.

Our European Union membership has deepened with the Union's development. At every stage on our EU journey, we have chosen to move forward in step with our European partners. Today, public support for EU membership in Ireland hovers around 90%.

I see today's Ireland as a country that has helped build and shape the EU and that has benefited greatly from EU membership. We are comfortable as Europeans. We tend to see EU membership as an enhancement of our sovereignty rather than as a threat to our identity. 

We are now one of the most economically successful countries in the EU, having had the fastest growth rate in the Euro Zone for the past four years. 

And we have become a thoroughly globalised country, in which the value of our exports is greater than the size of our GDP. 

We now have a sizeable network of diplomatic missions to which must be added the many overseas offices of Irish State Agencies. 

We also have a significant and highly-regarded development aid programme whose efforts are centred in sub-Saharan Africa. 

And we continue to be very active at the UN and other multilateral fora. Ireland now has 60 years of unbroken service to UN peacekeeping missions. 

Our country has also undergone great demographic change with a youthful, rising population. Today, 17% of those who live in Ireland were born outside our State. Irish people seem comfortable with these fairly dramatic changes, perhaps because of our history of the Irish being immigrants in other lands. 

All of this spotlights Ireland as a conspicuous international success story. 

Challenges ahead: There are of course no grounds for complacency. 

The ravages of the Great Recession have left their mark on Ireland, where Debt/GNI levels remain high. 

Moreover, the UK's departure from the EU will pose new challenges for Ireland and potential changes in the global trading environment could also be problematic for us. Brexit is a misfortunate development and it is hard to see any good coming from it – for anyone. The departure from the EU of our nearest neighbour will, I think, cause Ireland to double down on our EU membership and to invest more effort in deepening our wider international networks including with the global Irish.

Connecting with the global Irish: And what of the global Irish? I think it's fair to say that we are now far better equipped than before to connect with our global Irish community. We now have a proper diaspora policy. There is a dedicated unit in our Foreign Ministry for dealing with the Irish Abroad with a budget for supporting Irish organisations around the world. Irish Network USA and some of its affiliates have rightly received assistance from the Government's Emigrant Support Programme.

The Government's Global Ireland 2025 policy has some ambitious targets for the future. It aims to double Ireland's international footprint in the coming 7 years. Among other things, this will entail opening 26 new diplomatic missions, including a Consulate General in Los Angeles. We also intend to increase the number of Honorary Consulates we have across the USA so that we can take advantage of the opportunities that exist in regional centres where we do not have full-time representation. 

The Government aims to achieve the UN target of allocating 0.7% of GNI to development aid by 2030. This will mean a rise in our ODA from €700 million today to some €2.5 billion in 12 years from now. 

What all of this implies is that we are taking seriously what we see as our responsibilities as a fully developed country to make a greater mark in the world. We owe it to ourselves to do so. We are a country that has benefited hugely from globalisation and we have a stake in a future in which our Global Ireland can continue to flourish. 

And we have a responsibility to do what we can to make our world fairer, more secure and sustainable. 

The future of the global Irish: And what of the global Irish? The challenge we face is to retain and refresh the privileged connection we have with the Irish around world in a changing environment. 

Ireland's unique ties with our diaspora were forged in the adversities of our 19th century history. Irish immigrants came to the US with a sense of political grievance which they passed on down the generations. This, and their need to combine in the face of the hostility they initially encountered, helped give Irish Americans a cohesive identity which has had a long shelf life. I am impressed by the extent to which this affection for, and affinity with, Ireland still flourishes among Irish Americans.

Ireland is of course no longer the country that so many Irish Americans remember hearing about from their grandparents. 

And Irish Americans are no longer battling for their place in the American tapestry as they were in the decades after the Great Famine of the 1840s. Irish Americans are to be found in leadership roles in every walk of life. They are a gifted and influential community. At a recent reception in Washington, I hosted 100 Irish American lawyers, paying tribute to the substantial Irish role in America's legal system. 

Is there a mismatch between modern Ireland and our American Diaspora?  I sometimes see commentaries in the Irish media critical of Irish America's conservatism compared with Ireland's contemporary progressivism.  I see such complaints as somewhat wide of the mark. 

Irish Americans are American first and foremost. But their self-image contains a significant strand of Irish identity. I respect the right of Irish Americans to interpret their Irishness in keeping with their own experience. We have no monopoly on defining how to be Irish. It is a shared identity.

A question arises, will a sense of Irish identity continue to be passed down from generation to generation as it has been for the past century and more? The transmission system may not be as smooth as heretofore. There will in future inevitably be fewer grannies willing and able to transmit images of Ireland to a younger generation. 

On the other hand, knowledge and information about Ireland has never been easier to obtain. More Irish Americans travel to Ireland than ever before. And they go at an earlier age and return more often. Last year, 1.8 million Americans visited Ireland which represented 10% of all American visitors to the whole of Europe. While there may be those who cling to outdated images of Ireland, many more Americans than in the past have seen the country itself and formed an impression of Ireland's contemporary character. The Irish Americans I meet tend to be curious about modern Ireland and interested in knowing more about the changes that have come about there. People involved in Irish studies in America tell me that there is a growing interest among students in knowing more about contemporary Ireland. 

I hope that our country can continue to develop its potential so that more Irish people can make their lives and livelihoods at home. Emigration should in the future be a choice freely made rather than the unavoidable recourse it was for too many in the past. And I hope that many who left during our economic travails a decade ago will decide to return to Ireland. 

A globally engaged people: But the health of our economy and society will depend on our ability to continue to be a globally engaged people. Our companies need to internationalise if they are to fulfil their true potential. We need to continue attracting cutting edge companies to Ireland that can enable us to keep pace with shifting international economic currents. 

It is good to see a growing number of Irish companies with investments here in the US. There are currently 500 such firms who have a presence in America and that figure continues to grow. 59 new Irish firms set up here last year alone. The pipeline of US investors in Ireland remains impressive and Brexit may encourage even more US firms to choose Ireland as their European base. 

We also need our people to be internationally connected. That's why I hope that Irish people will continue to come to the US and why networks like INUSA are so important. It would be most welcome if immigration reform here were to provide openings for a number of our people to come here and spend at least some time in this country. This would help to renew and refresh Irish America and Ireland’s links with the United States. 

Global Ireland 2025:  As a country, I hope that we will always be open to the world. Global Ireland 2025 is an exciting venture designed to enable us to play a role in the world in keeping with our history, our values and our interests.

That is why we are currently campaigning for a seat on the Security Council for 2021/22, which would be a fitting way to mark 100 years of Irish independence.

The communications revolution has given Ireland and Irish people new possibilities for connecting with each other and with the world around us. There is, I think, an opportunity to develop a new global sense of Irishness, founded on a justifiable pride in our country's advancement and in the achievements of Irish people and their descendants across the globe.  This can be rooted in a shared appreciation of Irish culture and a shared regard for our history and heritage. 

Since coming to the United States, I have come to value the rich educational links that exist between our two countries. Americans are the largest group of foreign students at Irish universities. Their numbers are growing year by year.  Many American universities have study programmes in Ireland and some have established satellite campuses there. All of our universities have important partnerships with American counterparts. There is also a rich vein of research cooperation that is fostered by Science Foundation Ireland. 

Conclusion: It is interesting to look back at the history of Ireland's links with America. The Irish-US connection began with a one-way flow of people across the Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then from the late 19th century onwards, America started to influence Ireland as Irish American support helped fuel our struggle for independence. In the past 50 years, US investment and political support for the Northern Ireland peace process have helped transform Ireland. My hope for the future is that we will see a continued two-way flow of people, products, investment and ideas to the betterment of both our societies. 

My job as Ambassador is to tell the story of modern Ireland, to listen to America's stories, including that of Irish America, and to join the two.  Organisations like Irish Network USA are an important asset as we seek to join the dots between modern Ireland and modern America.


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States.

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