Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s trade-focused charm offensive on the US continued last week, as he attended a series of events over three days in both Boston and New York aimed at “reasserting Ireland’s place in the world,” as he put it when he visited the JFK School of Government at Harvard University on Thursday evening.
The latest trip came hot on the heels of his visit to New York just the week before, where he addressed a major investment conference hosted by former president Bill Clinton. This time around he returned to New York before traveling to Boston for his first visit to the city as Taoiseach.
Arriving in Manhattan Wednesday Mr. Kenny spoke to press at New York City Hall and held briefings with Bank Mellon representatives and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The visit also included a trip to New Jersey’s Merck Sharp and Dohme pharmaceutical plant, and the launch of Tourism Ireland’s “Jump into Ireland” campaign at the New York Athletic Club.
His mile-a-minute Boston schedule took in the launch of Irish security company Netwatch’s US division; the aforementioned keynote speech at Harvard on the theme of the Irish economy; an Irish Network Boston reception; a dinner with key American Ireland Fund supporters at the Four Seasons Hotel; a business breakfast Friday hosted by the Irish American Partnership; a lunch at the JFK Presidential Library hosted by Enterprise Ireland; and a meeting with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick at the State House.
Speaking at Harvard, Mr. Kenny dipped liberally into the history books to emphasize what he feels is Ireland’s rightful place at the heart of a strong Europe, asking the audience to remember “the sixth-century Irish monks who brought a semi-Barbarian Europe out of the Dark Ages,” during a time when “Ireland colonized the souls of Europe.”
In Ireland, bitter debate over a proposed new European fiscal treaty continues, with the Government agreeing on a proposed text some weeks back, but the opposition saying the treaty should be put before the people.
The Irish Attorney General is set to decide shortly whether the treaty should go to a vote, but Mr. Kenny derided opposition efforts to turn the debate in “a referendum on austerity,” which he said it was not, but rather a plan to implement greater “safeguards” and “firewalls” within the European financial system.
“You don’t say willy-nilly that ‘we’re going to have a referendum on this, a referendum on that’,” he said in response to a question from the audience on the matter.
He said his Government was determined to “restore Ireland’s place as a respected member of the international community” after what he called “a bleak midwinter for our country and our pride.”
The trip saw the Taoiseach play strongly on the Irish economy’s strong recent export statistics, saying that as a small open economy, this is what will fuel any Irish recovery. He called 2011 “a stand-out year for Foreign Direct Investment” in Ireland, saying the IDA had achieved a record 148 international projects for Ireland, leading to 13,000 new jobs, a 20% increase on the previous year.
The trip also saw him expand on the Government’s newly-announced Action Plan for Jobs, which has set itself the extremely ambitious goal of adding 200,000 new jobs to the Irish market by 2020.
Sitting down with The Irish Emigrant on Friday morning, Mr. Kenny said the aim was to rebuild Ireland’s reputation after its economic implosion, using a plan centered on the three “Ts”: Technology, Talent and Track record.
“We inherited an unprecedented situation,” he said. “The bailout from the Troika [the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund] meant that we had to face down an enormous challenge economically, rebuild the reputation of the country and set out a level of trust with people.
“What we want to do is get back to where we were in the late 1990s, when Ireland was cost-competitive, had a very strong export manufacturing output, and was still attracting a lot of internal investment from abroad. We [still] have all of those characteristics, just to tie them together."
“The fundamental challenge we have is our public finances – we’re spending 18 billion euro more than we’re taking in. That means you have to downsize the cost of running the government, downsize the public sector, and provide your services more efficiently with less people.
“Our technology, our talent and our track record are quite unique in the sense that we can offer this to any potential investor,” Mr. Kenny added, before throwing in the other big “T”, which has in the past attracted so many corporations to Ireland.
“We’re not moving off our 12.5% corporation tax rate,” he said, not for the first time on the trip.
“The numbers of tech companies, of banking companies, of top companies off the internet. They’re all in Ireland because they recognize the creativity and the imagination of our young people. American business now knows that we’re not messing around in Ireland. There’s clarity, there’s decisiveness, there’s definition, there’s a horizon.”
Focusing on Ireland’s commitments to the Troika which have caused so much resentment among Irish taxpayers forced to pay for the woeful decision-making of politicians and bankers, he said the payments and the pain they involve for the average person would continue.
“We’re going to pay our debts,” he said. “But we want a facility to have a lower interest rate over a longer period. We’ll pay it in full, and keep our reputation and our status and our credibility in tact.”
Asked by The Irish Emigrant how he felt the E-3 visa issue was progressing and what his response would be to the undocumented Irish who feel aggrieved at being removed from the process, he said he was enthusiastic on the former and sympathized on the latter.
“I spoke to Senator Mitch McConnell yesterday and he is very supportive of the efforts that Senator Brown is making here,” he said of the Massachusetts senator’s introduction of legislation which would see 10,500 Irish entitled to work legally in the US each year on rolling work permits. Adding that he had met and spoken with Senator Brown at the previous night’s Irish Network event, he said he could encourage, but not dictate.
“It’s not for Ireland to interfere in the American legislative process, it’s not our place. But we’ve had discussions with all of the parties. We’re encouraging them to continue [their work]. We would like to see it brought to a successful conclusion.
“We understand the politics of how this operates…and obviously in an election year there are some considerations in there. In its current form it would be of great benefit to Ireland.
“We’ll back Senator Brown, Senator McConnell and Senator [Charles] Schumer in their joint efforts to bring this to a conclusion. If we can be of any assistance in that regard, as an Irish Government, we’re very supportive of having it finalized.
“Insofar as the undocumented feeling aggrieved at being left behind, it’s always a difficulty. They’re in this country, they’re working. In lots of cases they’re paying Social Security, they’re running businesses. It’s a question of how you legitimize people who are undocumented. That’s not confined to the Irish alone.
“[They] have been in limbo for well over a decade and are still in limbo, because immigration policy in the US is so sensitive and so complex…you cover so many nationalities.
“When we had the Kennedy-McCain bill before, that [failed] because of a lack of Republican support in the South. [It] can be very sensitive because you’re dealing with huge numbers.”
Meanwhile late last week it emerged that Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) have indicated they will support the Irish E-3 bill. Their addition to the list of supporters would see some 58 senators currently in favor, just two votes shy of the filibuster-proof majority. The bill however remains at the mercy of the underlying bill HR3012, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, currently stalled by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).