A recent high-level conference in Washington agreed that Ireland, with the support of the Irish American diaspora, will play an increasingly important role in strengthening the essential, but often stressed partnership between the United States and the European Union. 

The “Bridging the Atlantic” conference, convened in Washington on December 5, 2019, discussed new global trends and threats in transatlantic relations, including Brexit’s impact on the Good Friday Agreement, the emergence of unprecedented digital battlefields, trade tensions, terrorism, migration, the rising power of China and the potentially reduced role of the United States in the world.

The conference, held at Riggs Library in Georgetown University, was sponsored by Professor Liam Kennedy of University College Dublin’s Clinton Institute, Professor Katrin Sieg, Georgetown University’s BMW Centre for German and European Studies, Professor Coilin Parsons, Georgetown University’s Global Irish Studies Initiative and by the Embassy of Ireland.  

In her first major visit to Washington, the conference keynote address was delivered by Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs, Helen McEntee. The Minister noted that from the founding of the Irish state 100 years ago, “our state has been global in outlook, conscious that – culturally and politically, as much as geographically – we lie at the point where east and west converge. At the center of transatlantic relations, part of Europe, but inextricably bound to America.”

Read more: Senator asks Irish government to start preparations for United Ireland, after British elections

Kicking off our event "Bridging the Atlantic: Ireland's Role in EU-US Relations After Brexit" with keynote speaker, Helen McEntee, Minister of State for European Affairs 🇮🇪🇺🇸@Clinton_InstUCD @IrelandEmbUSA @GUGlobalIrish pic.twitter.com/LvoITMb1I1

— BMW Center for German and European Studies (CGES) (@EuropaSaxa) December 5, 2019

McEntee observed that the United States had always been a source of strength to Ireland, “from Tip O’Neill to Richie Neal, Ted Kennedy to Pete King, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to David Patrick Joyce, the Caucus’s members, Democrat and Republican, helped lay the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement. A compromise which, of course, was brokered by a Senator from New England and which was guaranteed by international law, laid at the United Nations in New York."

The Irish Minister said the priority now was “first to safeguard, and then to strengthen, the essential partnership between the European Union, in which Ireland has built her home, and the United States, our most important ally and dearest friend across the Atlantic.”

The speakers who followed expressed a warm welcome for the December 3 US House of Representatives vote which declared unanimously that the House would reject any US-Europe trade agreement that threatened the Good Friday Agreement.

Rep Brendan Boyle (Pa), the chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland and a sponsor of the resolution, told the conference that the US Congress was totally committed to peace in Ireland.

Former Member of Congress Bruce Morrison noted that “It’s a gift that important members of Congress care about the people of Northern Ireland. Ireland is the number one issue for Congress when it’s a number one issue, like when peace is threatened by a resumption of a hard border.”

The Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall stressed that Irish America remains a vital force in US-Ireland relations and that contrary to some assertions, it is not a wasting asset.

“Irish Americans around the country have displayed an immense interest in preventing Brexit from destroying peace in Ireland,” he noted.

In addition to relations based on kith and kin, the contemporary relationship with Irish Americans is underpinned by a two-way US-Ireland trade in goods and services, and by the visit of two million Americans to Ireland every year, including 12,000 American students. Along with Israel, the Ambassador added, Ireland has the most devoted diaspora in the US. 

Twenty experts spoke on three consecutive panels: 

  • America’s Renewed Role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process;
  • Digital Island, Transatlantic Trade & Investment; and
  • Beyond Brexit: The Future of Transatlantic Relations. 

Opening this afternoon’s conference - Bridging the Atlantic, in Healy Hall @Georgetown @georgetownsfs “The EU & US are strongest when working together providing leadership. Ireland can play a key role as the gateway to the Atlantic in a post Brexit landscape” #personalhilight pic.twitter.com/rbAvd8nfCu

— Helen McEntee TD (@HMcEntee) December 5, 2019

Amongst the panelists were Dr. Katy Hayward, an authority on Brexit from Queen’s University Belfast; Dr. Kevin Hassett, and Gail Slater, former officials in the Trump White House; Brett Bruen a former Obama White House official; Dr. Orlaigh Quinn, Secretary-General of Ireland’s Department of Business; Dr. Tom Wright of Brooking; Andrew Elliot, Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in DC; and Dr. Karen Donfried, President of the German Marshall Fund.

The first panel noted that Northern Ireland, at the center of dramatic Brexit events, is in “a state of time-between-times,” a point at which one paradigm is collapsing and a new one has yet to emerge.

The recent General Election results confirm this change where for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland unionist MPs are in a minority. More voters also voted for the center ground and stressed they want a return to local government at Stormont. 

It was suggested by one panelist that the United States could help Northern Ireland in three ways:

1. Provide stability to maintain the Good Friday Agreement. The US shares ownership of the Northern Ireland peace process, regarding it as one of its signature successful peace processes in the past 50 years.

2. Help build confidence in both communities and minimize uncertainty. There is a need for more investment in education, innovation, agri-food, high tech, and 21st-century skills. 

3. Strengthen the middle ground in Northern Ireland and avoid polarizing initiatives. For example, talk of a border poll needs to be treated with care. Another speaker emphasized the need for balance; if there is something in it for nationalists, there must be something in it for unionists. Once things go wrong for one side, they go wrong for the other side.

The second panel discussed Transatlantic Trade and Investment and Ireland’s important role in US-EU relations post-Brexit. One speaker noted that transatlantic trade is now 40% of global GDP and that 700 Irish companies invest in the US employing 100,000 people. Ireland is the ninth-largest foreign investor into the USA.

Another panelist maintained that American government allegations that the EU enjoyed an unfair trade advantage over the US were inaccurate and damaging to US-Europe solidarity. It was noted that 48 out of 50 US states export most of their goods to the EU. 

Amb @DanMulhall reinforcing both the continuing strength of Irish-America and the growing strength of the two-way Ireland-US trade relationship. pic.twitter.com/FmWCoECPuo

— Embassy of Ireland USA (@IrelandEmbUSA) December 5, 2019

In terms of digital trade, one American business representative said Ireland is at the center of connectivity between the US and EU, holding one-third of EU data, with nine out of ten top digital companies maintaining European headquarters in Ireland.

In effect, Ireland is now the API (Application Program Interface) between competing digital systems in the world, raising questions of data privacy and protection.

Ireland has come from 45th in the global ranking for scientific innovation in 2000 to 12th today. It was noted that one of Ireland’s strengths is its capacity for collaboration, innovating in partnership with government, business, and academia. 

There is an important role for Ireland to play in ensuring security and surveillance safeguards around the deployment of globally competing 5G networks.

The third panel focused on the Future of Transatlantic Relations post-Brexit.

Panelists agreed that while the EU is one of the greatest peace processes in the world (a point made by John Hume in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize 21 years ago), Brexit presents one of the most significant challenges to Europe and the US since the end of the Cold War.

'Beyond Brexit: The Future of Transatlantic Relations'. Tom Wright, Heather Conley, Katen Donfrued and Joseph Dunne @GUGlobalIrish pic.twitter.com/QoyWW1Q8Qh

— Clinton InstituteUCD (@Clinton_InstUCD) December 5, 2019

While NATO was founded post World War II to counter the security threat from the Soviet Union, NATO must now, with the EU (22 countries are members of both NATO and the EU), counter threats from China, cyber warfare, terrorism, and migration.

Regardless of who is in the White House, it was stressed that good US-EU relations are essential. One speaker noted that China is seeking domination through its Belt and Road Initiative and in buying roads, land, and ports

Some speakers felt that US Europe relations must be fundamentally reconstructed, educating the public on both sides of the Atlantic regarding common values and why our mutual interest in democratic government must be protected from hostile dictatorships.

In view of the success and relevance of the conference, the organizers are considering the feasibility of organizing a similar conference annually. 

Ted Smyth is Chair of the Advisory Board of University College Dublin’s Clinton Institute and President of the Advisory Board of Glucksman Ireland House at NYU.