Ireland‘s decision to open an Atlanta consulate general while cutting spending at home shows the importance of its bond with the U.S., Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said in Atlanta Wednesday.
Mr. Cowen spoke at the Ritz-Carlton hotel downtown to reiterate the friendship between the countries and to introduce Paul Gleeson, a career diplomat who will head up the country’s first new consulate in the U.S. since the 1930s.
The office will open this fall, nearly a year behind schedule. First announced last March, it had been slated to open by the end of 2009 but was delayed while Ireland dealt with a severe recession from which it hasn’t fully recovered.
“The establishment of this office is not just a political statement,” Mr. Cowen told attendees at a luncheon hosted by the Ireland Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. “It is a strong commitment we make in difficult budgetary times as a strategic, long-term decision that we’ve made, which we will hope to replicate in times to come.”
The consulate will provide services for Irish citizens in seven Southeastern states. It ushers in the next phase in “a long and impressive history” of cultural and commercial ties between Ireland and the region, especially in Georgia, Mr. Cowen said.
The prime minister praised the various Irish societies that have sprung up in the state. He also cited the Irish studies program at Emory University, the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades in Atlanta and Savannah and the “expanding relationship we are developing with Georgia Tech,” which has a research institute in Athlone, Ireland.
Such bonds are creating trans-Atlantic business networks that will allow both countries to accelerate their recoveries, he said. The Irish government is reaching out in new ways to its diaspora communities in the U.S. and around the world, said Mr. Cowen, who met separately with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed during his visit.
The consulate is the culmination of years of dogged efforts by some local members of the diaspora, but it’s also a new step that promises to intensify interaction, said Kevin Conboy, president of the Ireland chamber’s Atlanta chapter.
“We’re now on the map, an important point of contact for our friends in Ireland,” Mr. Conboy said. “We need to move to the next level of recognition so that when the Irish think of the United States, they think of New York, Boston, Philly, Chicago and Atlanta.”
Though IDA Ireland, a government investment promotion agency, already has a presence in Atlanta, the consulate will have a broader economic mission.
“The economic initiatives will be about networking and making sure that people are aware of what the opportunities are, particularly enhancing tourism prospects,” Mr. Cowen told GlobalAtlanta. “Atlanta’s a tremendous hub here in the aviation industry, so this is a huge opportunity to tap into all of that resource, and we are waiting for many people of Irish heritage that are perhaps interested in coming to visit Ireland.”
Mr. Gleeson, the new consul general, told GlobalAtlanta that all Irish consulates strongly emphasize business.
“It’s key now for all the Irish missions abroad to look, to see where we can get people to consider Ireland more for trade, for investment, to consider Ireland as a place of business and to consider Ireland as a place to get a world-class university education as well,” Mr. Gleeson told GlobalAtlanta.
Ireland’s economy grew 2.7 percent in the first quarter of 2010 from the fourth quarter of last year, the strongest growth rate in the euro zone during that period, Mr. Cowen said.
But Ireland is by no means out of the woods. Unemployment still stands above 13 percent, and the government has enacted austerity measures aimed at cutting budget deficits. This week the International Monetary Fund said the country would likely need stricter cuts in order to meet its debt-reduction targets by 2014.
Mr. Cowen said there are signs that things are turning around.
“In Ireland we have taken the difficult decisions, but they were decisions that needed to be made and are right,” Mr. Cowen said. “I believe there are grounds for cautious optimism and that recovery when it takes hold will be of a more viable and sustainable nature than we’ve witnessed in recent years.”
The consulate has not chosen an office location in Atlanta, Mr. Gleeson said. He will return in a few weeks to finalize plans for a space, possibly in Midtown or Buckhead. He said he is “excited” about moving to Atlanta in mid-August.
“The welcome I’ve got already has been incredible, so I have no doubt I’m going to have a really special time here,” Mr. Gleeson told GlobalAtlanta.