As Georgians enjoy a holiday that puts Ireland on their minds, a government minister provided another reason to celebrate when she said in Atlanta that Ireland would establish a new consulate general here.
Mary Hanafin, the country’s minister of social and family affairs, made the announcement March 17 at the Ireland Chamber of Commerce USA Atlanta’s annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.
Ms. Hanafin did not say when the consulate would open, where it would be, or who would run it, but a typical consulate is managed by two diplomats, she said.
She also said that staking a diplomatic presence in the South was a “priority” even in the current economic climate, and that as the region’s commercial center, Atlanta was the logical choice for the location.
The Atlanta consulate is part of a larger strategic review of U.S.-Ireland relations launched by Ireland’s taoiseach, or head of government. The review is the first of its kind since 1930s, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said in New York.
Mr. Cowen is meeting with President Obama at the White House today. He spent the last few days with 100 Irish exporters on a trade mission in New York, where he announced deals worth $150 million, Dublin, Ireland-based RTÉ News reported on March 16.
As part of its review, Ireland will later establish a consulate general in Houston and expand its honorary consulates throughout the nation.
“We are undertaking a large number of new initiatives across the full breadth of our relationship. This will re-energize and ultimately transform how Ireland does her business in America,” Mr. Cowen said in a news release.
Local leaders welcomed the news, saying that the consulate will help solidify a strong cultural and commercial bond between Georgia and Ireland.
"We're ecstatic to have an Irish consulate joining Atlanta's strong consular corps,” said Greg Pridgeon, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin’s chief of staff, who represented her at the breakfast.
Kevin Conboy, the Ireland chamber’s president, said he and the chamber are “very pleased” with the announcement.
The Irish government has long expressed an interest in putting a consulate here and the Irish chamber has hosted many officials who have spoken to that effect.
Mr. Conboy was pleasantly surprised at the exact timing, though.
“I personally might have expected it to come later, when the dust settled from our current recession,” he told GlobalAtlanta.
The government’s decision stems from a gradual recognition that it needed the same strong ties with the Irish citizens and Irish-Americans living in the Southeast that it already has with those living in the Northeast, Mr. Conboy said.
The consulate’s potential economic impact and goals are still unclear.
Mr. Conboy said IDA Ireland, the Irish government agency that seeks to attract inbound investment in the country, already has an office in Atlanta.
Ireland, a country of a little more than 4 million people, ranked fourth in terms of Georgia's imports in 2005. That year, the state imported $2.1 billion in goods from Ireland through the Savannah customs district while exporting only $238 million in goods to the country.
The consulate could focus on boosting Ireland’s exports to the Southeast and promoting tourism links, Mr. Conboy said.
Ms. Hanafin seemed interested in the latter as she plugged the country’s charms as a vacation destination.
She said that there are 192 flights from the U.S. to Ireland every week and that the internationally popular “Lonely Planet” travel guidebooks rated the country the friendliest in the world.
Ms. Hanafin will visit Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue this afternoon. Mr. Perdue hosted Irish president Mary McAleese in Georgia in 2007 and traveled to Ireland on a trade mission later that year.
Ireland currently has consulates general in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington.
With reporting by Wade Caldwell and Phil Bolton.