The Irish–U.S. business relationship faces no shortage of headwinds. The Brexit vote has touched off a period of uncertainty in Ireland’s neighbor and top trading partner, the United Kingdom, and reforms to the business environment in the United States could affect Ireland’s inbound investment calculus.
For instance, a lower corporate tax rate at home could keep some American firms from fleeing across the pond. And measures designed to encourage U.S. firms to repatriate their cash back home could mean fewer are interested in Irish operations that enable them to park and use profits earned globally.
But if recent history is any guide, the “reciprocal relationship” between the European island nation of 5 million people and its top trans-Atlantic trade and investment partner should stay strong, Shane Stephens, Ireland’s consul general to the Southeast, said at the March 10 St. Patrick’s Day breakfast of the Irish Chamber of Atlanta.
The investment is still flowing toward Ireland, with Atlanta firms like First Data Corp. and Equifax Inc. setting up new operations in Ireland, said Micheal Smith, head of IDA Ireland’s Atlanta office.
The U.K.’s impending exit from the EU was not something Ireland wanted, but it has started to become a draw for a country that still sees itself firmly at the heart of the European Union, with its huge single market and free movement of people.
Companies are starting to come to long-term decisions about their European headquarters, and many are looking at moving to Ireland from the United Kingdom.
“There’s coming a time when they are going to have to make it clear to their shareholders and their clients what they’re going to do,” Mr. Smith said.
In this “time of shocks” for Europe and the global economy, ties with the U.S. have taken on an even greater sense of urgency, Mr. Stephens said at the annual event at the Capital City Club that two years ago hosted Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
“More and more Irish companies are diversifying their relationships and their exports, to rely more on relationships in North America, Asia, the Middle East and across the world,” Mr. Stephens said.
The U.S. is at the core of that international outreach. More than 700 Irish companies export here, and over the past five years Enterprise Ireland, the government’s export and outbound business promotion arm, has seen 180 clients set up shop in the United States to be closer to customers.
The newest coup for metro Atlanta is Sysnet Global Solutions, a call center company which helps customers like financial institutions reduce fraud and improve cybersecurity defenses. The company March 9 opened a 30-person headquarters operation in Brookhaven, situated near a MARTA station. The firm is set to employ 500 people within three years.
Patrick Condren, chief information officer, said the decision to come to the U.S. made sense on multiple levels. For one, the company already had a presence in 57 countries and needed a stronger foothold in what’s still the world’s largest economy.
But why Atlanta? Many of its major clients — WorldPay, First Data Corp. and other fintech giants — are located in the city, the “epicenter” of financial technology, as he put it. And the frequently referenced Southern hospitality, he said, “actually turns out to be true,” he told Global Atlanta.
Fundamentally, in the customer service business, “empathy” is important — especially in a world where the global distribution of support centers means you could be talking to someone completely outside your hemisphere, time zone and cultural context.
“It’s nice to be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone who understands what you’re going through,” Dr. Condren said.
Even more, for many Sysnet executives, being in the U.S. was like coming home. Chief Executive Gabriel Moynagh was born in New York, and Dr. Condren had worked at a variety of major corporations in multiple cities here over more than a decade.
“For many of us, the U.S. is essentially a second home,” he said, later adding, “We are a shared people almost.”
Dr. Condren’s sentiments about the concept of home set the table well for the winner of the St. Patrick’s Day Essay Contest, which annually asks high schoolers from Atlanta to look at the theme, “What St. Patrick’s Day Means to Me.”
The winner came from Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, which serves only low-income students and funds their studies through a unique work-study program that puts them within local companies for five days a month.
Dariana was identified by only her first name because family members are undocumented.
Her parents, she said, left Mexico as teenagers to find opportunity in the United States for themselves and to send money back to their large families. They were the same age as many Irish immigrants driven from their homes by the great famine in the mid-19th century. When those early travelers arrived, legally but without social acceptance, they performed hard labor without receiving any recognition and in many cases, even facing discrimination, Dariana argued.
“Today’s immigrants do many of the same jobs, but the law is much less open,” she said, getting at the heart of her essay’s title, “The Letter and the Spirit”.
Without getting explicitly political, she pointed out the rising uncertainty that immigrants face in their daily lives.
“My friends, family and neighbors are so worried about the possibility of being deported and detained, they no longer drive to work or the grocery store. Instead, they walk long distances just to minimize the odds of finding themselves picked up by immigration and customs enforcement agents,” she said.
St. Patrick, who was enslaved by raiders for years in Ireland, might empathize, she added.
“For years he was kept in a country that was not his home. After escaping slavery he returned to Ireland and defied the law to bring Christianity to the Irish people. St. Patrick would understand the experience of my parents and Irish immigrants as they came to America, far from home in a place where they were not wanted.”
A standing ovation greeted her call for the audience to act against injustice.