Shane Stephens, far right, says football has become a key bridge between Ireland and the U.S. -- especially this year's matchup between Georgia Tech and Boston College in Dublin.

It’s generally accepted that the European Union is facing some of the toughest tests ever to its unity, as an influx of refugees, security concerns and deepening discontent with the political class have led to the rise of nationalist parties and contributed to the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the bloc.

But for Ireland, a membership decision that started out as a “no-brainer” has been reconfirmed time and again as core to the country’s economic competitiveness and its ability to project its values internationally as a small country, said Shane Stephens, Ireland’s consul general in Atlanta covering seven Southern states.

Part of that has come through the education process achieved through multiple referenda that Ireland has had to pass when adopting EU treaties, some of which have struggled to pass. 

“That forces us to be democratic, go to our people and explain — and sometimes it’s difficult — why the EU is a good thing,” Mr. Stephens said. 

In August, Mr. Stephens joined Global Atlanta for the second monthly installment of the Consular Conversations luncheon series, which explores global issues through the lenses of local diplomats representing their countries in the region. 

Europe’s weak points, from the euro’s ongoing crises to the current anxiety about the so-called “Brexit”, are part of the ongoing progress of what he called (with admitted effusiveness) “one of mankind’s greatest achievements” thanks to the peace divided it has endowed a previously war-torn continent. 

“As people in businesses know, you can’t make progress without having small failures. You have to learn from your failures and move forward,” Mr. Stephens said.

He added that more than 80 percent of Irish people surveyed recently said they did not want to follow their largest European trading partner out of the EU — in part because the understanding of its benefits are much deeper than the EU agricultural and structural funds that made it easier to join in the early 1970s. 

“Really it was an obvious thing even from the most simplistic point of view to be a part of the European Union at that stage. Now, when we think about the EU, we think about the benefits of being at the heart of a bloc of 500 million consumers,” Mr. Stephens said. 

Ireland and Brexit

That business argument is in a way made stronger by the decision by the U.K. to leave the bloc. 

“We are the only English-speaking country in the euro zone, and unfortunately we will soon become the only English speaking country in the European Union,” Mr. Stephens said, noting that IDA Ireland is already beginning to field inquiries from financial companies questioning their future in the U.K. 

Ireland campaigned for the U.K. to stay, mainly because it favors integration. Ireland has one of the youngest workforces in the EU, and it has benefited from free movement of people, attracting professionals of many nationalities and languages who fill jobs with big American companies like Apple and Google that have long fueled its status as a European tech hub. The search and technology giant fills 60 percent of its positions from Europe and beyond, Mr. Stephens said. 

At the time of the interview, Britain’s government had not indicated when it would invoke the treaty that gives it two years to negotiate the terms of its exit, a provision known as Article 50. Now, new Prime Minister Theresa May says it will be next March, which would put the timeline for an actual “Brexit” occurring in March 2019. 

Now that the process seems to be moving ahead, Ireland will do its best to foster  “constructive conversations” between Europe and the United Kingdom. 

“We underline the fact that Brexit will impact Ireland probably more than any other country in the European Union, so we do have a special interest in this game,” Mr. Stephens said. 

One key item is the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a British province. Ireland wants the border open as it has been since a 1998 treaty that ended violence between Catholic and Protestant factions Northern Ireland, but some worry that controls could return to the only shared land border between the U.K. and Ireland. Ireland is concerned that the gains of the peace process be preserved, Mr. Stephens said. 

“We also don’t want to see anything happen that could make the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland a hard border,” he said. 

Football and Investment

In part driven by U.S. investment, Ireland’s tech prowess is now spilling back across the pond, benefiting states like Georgia. Irish investment in the U.S. accounts for 80,000 jobs — about half of them from building materials giant OldCastle Inc. and its subsidiaries. 

But the arrival of companies like Voxpro Inc. represent a new opportunity  — former startups that grow on the backs of the large foreign investors and then spread their wings in international markets. 

Born in the city of Cork to provide outsourced technical support to giants there like Google and AirBnB, Voxpro recently invested $4 million to set up a call center in Athens, Ga., that will employ 500 people. The company now has 1,700 workers around the globe. Also recently, Irish firm Actavo purchased Atlantic Engineering Services, which had offices in Atlanta. 

The Irish investment story, Mr. Stephens said, is expanding to complement the long history of American firms investing in Ireland, especially Atlanta mainstays like Coca-Cola Co., United Parcel Service Inc. and Equifax Inc., which just opened an expanded Dublin tech center. 

“We realize there are major opportunities around here, and we’re happy to let Irish companies know about the full picture,” he said, referencing the fact that most Irish companies tend to look at Boston, New York and California without understanding what’s available in the South. 

With help from Mr. Stephens, Atlanta’s leadership tried to remedy that — and to outshine Boston — in early September, when the Georgia Tech football team played Boston College in a Dublin matchup that was projected to bring about 20,000 Americans to the Irish capital, including cheerleaders and marching bands. Six high school football teams from the U.S. (including two from Georgia) went for Friday night matchups. 

Mr. Stephens made no predictions about the game’s outcome, but he did say the Irish consulate in Atlanta was working hard to bring a more competitive delegation to the business events surrounding it than their counterparts in the Northeast. Perhaps his competitive streak rubbed off on the team: Georgia Tech beat Boston College 17-14. 

But the real winner turned out to be Ireland — and its relations with Georgia. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal were among the many leaders who traveled to the country, as was Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Equifax opened its new offices. Coke’s Mukhtar Kent spoke at a Boston College business forum. Locally operated Sweetwater took its brews across the Atlantic. 

Ireland is no stranger to using cultural connections to build business ties, but usually it relies on its own writers, poets and dramatists, Mr. Stephens said. In the last few years, football has emerged as a significant bridge, not surprisingly if you understand the Irish “love affair” with American culture, Mr. Stephens said. 

aerlingus“America’s also quite exotic for us. You’re quite different from how we are, and that difference is really fascinating for us. American football is something exciting and wonderful but we don’t quite understand it,” he said. 

Earlier in the talk, Mr. Stephens recounted Ireland’s use of fiscal discipline to restore its economy in the wake of a property bust and financial crisis in 2009. After some painful belt-tightening helped restore its upward trajectory, the country was among the fastest-growing economies in the world in 2015, posting record investment recruitment figures and jobs backed by inbound capital. 

“The government took strong measures, and families basically accepted that strong measures were needed. We accept that the austerity was something that was required to get ’Team Ireland’ back on track, and it was because of that national unity, that cohesive approach, that we were able to deliver this turnaround which has been really significant,” he said. 

Learn more about the Irish consulate here

Previous interviewees in the Consular Conversations series include Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, consul general of the United Kingdom in Atlanta, in August, and Mexican Consul General Javier Diaz de Leon in September (article coming soon).

The next conversation will be held Oct. 19 with Indian Consul General Nagesh Singh. Sign up here.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...