Ireland has committed itself to global outreach with a newfound zeal now that the country is on the cusp of finding itself the last remaining native-English-speaking country in Europe.
With Brexit on the horizon, Ireland is doubling down on the pluralistic values and multilateralism that it has championed as a member of the European Union, said Shane Stephens, the country’s consul general in Atlanta.
While regrettable from an Irish perspective, the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the EU is something Dublin has nonetheless been staring down for more than two years now.
And the Irish capital is starting to benefit. Financial services firms now seek new EU bases amid uncertainty around the deal (or lack thereof) that will emerge in the contentious back-and-forth between London and Brussels. Ireland has particular strengths in reinsurance, aircraft leasing, fund management and many other areas. According to accounting firm EY, Dublin has seen more relocation decisions (27) by London firms than rival European hubs like Luxembourg, Frankfurt or Paris.
But Ireland is not sitting back and waiting for the deals to roll in. The country’s Global Ireland strategy will result in the doubling of its diplomatic “footprint” around the world by 2025, Mr. Stephens said during a Dec. 5 Consular Conversation at the law firm of Miller & Martin PLLC.
Ireland will also strengthen startup agency Enterprise Ireland and investment recruitment arm IDA Ireland, while seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2021-22, increasing its investment in international development, upscaling its engagement with its 70 million-strong diaspora and promoting Irish arts and culture more heavily.
Already in the Southeast U.S., that’s starting to play out. The Irish consulate got its second diplomat, vice consul Eilis O’Keeffe, late last year, and early this year has started recruiting a temporary staffer to carry out ambitious first-quarter plans in the lead-up to the all-important St. Patrick’s Day holiday.
“Watch this space, as Team Ireland has big things planned for the St Patrick’s Day period in Georgia,” Mr. Stephens said.
The Atlanta consulate, launched in 2012, and the subsequent one opened in Austin were once new kids on the block — a statement that Ireland was prioritizing its ties with the U.S.
Now that sentiment is being extended the world over. The Global Ireland program will see Ireland open 26 new embassies or consulates by 2025. Already new Irish embassies have started up in Chile, Colombia, New Zealand and Jordan, along with new consulates in Vancouver and Mumbai. An “Ireland House” will be set up at the Los Angeles consulate to promote Irish business, diplomacy and culture.
Mr. Stephens, who is now on the back end of his term here as consul general, sees only forward momentum in Irish ties with the seven-state Southern region he covers.
Atlanta in particular has been a magnet for tech companies from the country.
“There are now four Irish fintech companies in Atlanta,” he explained, while also pointing to more traditional players like the largest Irish employer operating in the United States: CRH Americas (formerly OldCastle Inc.), which is now underwriting the creation of an Irish sports facility in the metro area.
Mr. Stephens wasn’t concerned about the recent tax reform reducing the corporate tax rates in the U.S.
“Ireland’s 12.5 percent rate, its place at the heart of the EU and its exceptionally youthful, international and talented workforce helps it stay a preferred beachhead for ambitious American firms that want to expand into Europe and beyond,” he said.
But equally important for the Global Ireland strategy is more aggressive cultural and diaspora outreach. The Irish consulate in Atlanta now finds itself reaching out to new constituencies, from gay Irish people to Irish Travelers, an often marginalized and misunderstood group with a long history in Ireland and the South.
Promoting an inclusive understanding of “Irishness” has been a key priority of the consulate. But it also works to profile Ireland’s historic connections with African American and Jewish communities.
A highlight of Mr. Stephens’ tenure, he said, was helping put on a celebration at Emory University for what would have been the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass. The abolitionist orator apparently found in Ireland broader understanding of human rights when he traveled there to flee his captors and publish his autobiography.
The consul general was also delighted to speak about how his Consulate and Georgia Southern University partnered on an exhibition and lecture series on Jewish-Irish connections hosted by the histrionic Mickve Israel Synagogue in Savannah in the run up to St Patrick’s Day in 2018.
Backing the Backstop
Wrangling over the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. while located on the island, and the Ireland, an EU member, has featured prominently in the debate over the terms of the U.K.’s exit from the bloc.
In November 2018 Ms. May, the British prime minister, and the European Union signed off on a Withdrawal Agreement that includes a “backstop” that would guarantee no imposition of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after U.K. leaves the EU.
Speaking more than a week before the planned Dec. 11 vote in the British parliament on the agreement (which ended up being delayed until this week), Mr. Stephens said he was not sure how things would pan out. But he reiterated his government’s position in support of the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop, which some Brexiteers argue would put Northern Ireland under de facto EU regulation without any representation.
As of this week, however, the future of the backstop is seriously in question as the British parliament yesterday roundly rejected the agreement Ms. May’s government spent nearly two years negotiating with the EU. The Brexit bill was defeated in the House of Commons 432-202, one of the harshest margins in recent history. Ms. May now faces a no-confidence vote, and even if she survives, the path forward remains unclear.
Mr. Stephens said any step backward on the backstop would be an affront to the hard-won peace of the Good Friday agreement signed 20 years ago with an eye toward ending “The Troubles” – a conflict peppered with bombings, assassinations and other spasms of violence that killed more 1,500 over three decades.
Just a few months before, Mr. Stephens and British Consul General Andrew Staunton jointly hosted a delegation of Northern Ireland members of parliament to talk about the history of the pact, which was aimed at ending violence in Northern Ireland between those loyal to the United Kingdom (mainly protestants) and Irish nationalists (mainly catholics) who sought unification with Ireland.