The annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast celebration hosted by the Irish Chamber of Atlanta at the Capital City Club downtown March 16 provided insights into the strengthening relationship between Ireland and Georgia as well as policy differences between the U.S. and Irish governments.
Shane Stephens, Ireland’s consul general based in Atlanta, introduced Michael D’Arcy, minister of financial services and insurance and keynote speaker, as a “Southern gentleman” in deference to the Southeast U.S. but also because Mr. D’Arcy hails from Wexford in Ireland’s southeast.
Mr. D’Arcy reviewed Ireland’s extraordinary rebound from the depths of the global recession to becoming the fastest growing economy in the European Union for four years straight. Several times he said in his talk and later to Global Atlanta that he saw striking similarities between the Irish and the Southeast U.S. economies with both diversifying from primary dependence on agriculture to include a burgeoning high-tech sector, especially in financial high tech.
The theme was underscored at the breakfast by Mr. Stephens as well and by the remarks of Chuck Johnson, the chief marketing officer of the Irish company FINEOS Corp., a provider of software systems for life, accident and health insurance.
Mr. Johnson said that the company had decided to open its North American headquarters in Atlanta as opposed to Boston or other cities because of the growing fintech cluster in the city and the availability of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport. FINEOS joins two other Irish financial technology firms with operations in the city, Sysnet Global Solutions and Waratek Ltd.
Mr. D’Arcy’s upbeat analysis of the Irish economy cited as extraordinary his country’s unemployment figures that cascaded from 15-16 percent in 2010 to near 6 percent last year. He also pointed to the 3.6 percent growth in 2017 of its gross national income, which he said he prefers to gross national product figures because of the importance of services, especially financial services, to Ireland’s economy.
In addition, he praised Ireland’s workforce that endured the country’s economic downturn without engaging in extensive protests and praised the rise in the country’s income tax base collected by the Revenue Commissioners that almost doubled from 2011 to the beginning of this year due to more people working. The rise in the tax take “has allowed the government to safeguard our national finances and help to rebalance our economy,” he added.
An avid follower of Wexford’s Gaelic Athletic Association teams, Mr. D’Arcy gave a shout out to Atlanta’s GAA efforts which are backed by Oldcastle, the Irish company that is North America’s largest manufacturer of building products and materials.
Oldcastle, which maintains its Americas headquarters in Atlanta, has donated 11 acres of land to the city’s GAA teams in an effort to continue the tradition of developing Gaelic sports in the Southeast.
In terms of Ireland’s national policies, Mr. D’Arcy made it clear that Ireland strongly supports free trade. “Nobody wins in a trade war,” he said. “We don’t think (the U.S. administration’s tariff threats) is a good move. It’s neither good for the U.S. or the EU. In addition, he said that during his travels in much of Eastern Europe, he said he became aware of regional concerns about the potential destabilizing effects of Russian activities.
He added, however, that he thought the new U.S. tax policies might result in large U.S. multinationals transferring funds held overseas back home.
And he was adamant about the maintenance of an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a major issue in the current Brexit negations between the United Kingdom and the EU.
He also referred to Ireland’s efforts to attract talented and qualified immigrants with a quick turnaround application process enabling an immigrant from outside of the EU to be granted entry within a matter of a few weeks in contrast to U.S. practices. EU citizens are free to move throughout the union.
Ciara Fleming, a senior at Chamblee High School, then read her award winning essay on the meaning of Saint Patrick’s Day, a moving testament about how Ireland’s primary patron saint turned “adversity into opportunity.” Her essay was chosen from submissions made by 600 schools throughout the state that were encouraged to compete.
After recounting the hardships that Irish immigrants faced when they came to the U.S., she credited Saint Patrick with providing a model for them to endure. In her own case, she spoke of how she overcame a rare form of cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, with which she was diagnosed shortly before her second birthday.
Meanwhile, she with her family have raised more than $1 million on behalf of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which conducts childhood cancer research.
Before the breakfast celebration adjourned, Bill Duffy, president of the Irish Chamber of Atlanta, acknowledged past efforts on behalf of the annual event of Kevin Conboy, the former president of the chamber.
Mr. D’Arcy’s visit to Atlanta coincided with that of Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister (also known as the Taoiseach) to Washington. Instead of staying inside the beltway Mr. D’Arcy decided to explore the Southeast traveling first to Charlotte, N.C., and then Anderson, S.C., on his way to Atlanta where he made an early stop to the Fineos Corp. that has developed software now used by eight of the top 20 U.S. life and health carriers.
While in Atlanta he managed to visit with members of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Before leaving for Savannah, he made a ceremonial visit to City Hall at the invitation of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta where he honored the member of Father Thomas O’Reilly, a Catholic priest who is credited with saving Atlanta’s churches from being burned by Northern troops during the U.S. Civil War.
He then departed to attend Saint Patrick celebrations in Savannah. Given Savannah’s reputation for rowdy Saint Patrick events, Mr D’Arcy commented that he was somewhat apprehensive about joining in the fun. But press reports indicate the trip was worthwhile in rekindling historic ties between his hometown of Wexford from which many of Savannah’s Irish families originated.
The World Trade Center Savannah and the Savannah Development Authority entered into an agreement to partner with Wexford officials to start a pilot business development program, titled TradeBridge, designed to encourage international trade and investment between the Savannah region and Ireland.
Read Ciara Fleming’s full St. Patrick’s Day essay below:Ciara-Fleming-Final-St.-Patricks-Essay (2)