Dear Ambassador O’Malley,
Congratulations on your swearing-in by Vice President Biden and welcome to Ireland – at long last. It took almost two years to get you appointed, an extraordinarily long time to leave such a vacancy unfilled. But, hey, at least you are finally here.The post is what you make of it.
Your predecessors include illustrious names like Jean Kennedy Smith and the author William V Shannon. But it also includes low-profile time-servers who were barely visible. It was often a retirement ‘honor run’ for those who had been good to the Democrats or Republicans (or just the US itself), but it also has great potential and prestige. And you get a residence in the Phoenix Park, second only to that of the Irish President.
You come to Ireland at a good time. After cutbacks and austerity the country is finally recovering economically from the crash of five years ago.
While you are here, Ambassador, you will find many paradoxes. You will find a country that is not in NATO and which values its long standing military neutrality, but which is nevertheless highly supportive and affectionate towards the US and which allows the US military to use Shannon Airport as a major transit point. So that’s a conundrum to be thankful for.
Ireland had a day of mourning for the 9/11 attacks and it showed a huge outpouring of sympathy. But it also had huge marches against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. So tread carefully when talking about your War on Terror. The Irish generally support the US efforts, especially against the ISIS barbarians currently holding sway in Syria and Iraq, but we are extremely wary of getting caught up in any geo-political struggles or foreign wars.
We’ve had enough war in our own history. And this is what makes us so affectionate towards America as a country. It was a refuge and land of opportunity for millions of Irish fleeing hunger, conflict and colonial domination by Britain. We remember all that, and if we don’t, the old timers and the Irish Americans will remind us.
Even today, the US offers a promising escape from recession and crisis at home. But you know all this, Ambassador: it is top of your background brief. This is the easy bit – the historic and ethnic links, the cultural and societal ties. And the pride that we helped to build America and that Irish Americans are at the top of American society and politics.
It’s a two way street. Ireland has put a lot of store on foreign direct investment and the US is top of the list and always was, employing over 100,000 people. It is an investment still growing, with investors snapping up property and other assets sold off as result of the crash.
US investors also come here because of our famously low corporate tax rate (12.5%), and this may be the tricky part of your job. A lot of US politicians, and Europeans, want Ireland to abandon this low tax rate, but a lot of US companies want it to stay. Either way, Ireland will to have to address the matter soon, as it will the more notorious issue of being a base for tax avoidance, and for ‘inversion’ by US companies. However, our low corporate tax has become a sacrosanct principle of our economic success, so there will be a real battle on this.
However, as Ambassador, you cannot directly influence these major issues, but you can convey, represent and communicate. There are some things that are under your control.
How about making an application for a US visa a more pleasant experience? Since 9/11, American has, in the opinion of many of us, suffered a paranoid attitude to its own security and well-being.
Unfortunately, this sometimes means a brusque and even aggressive attitude by US customs, visa and immigration services, with seemingly inexplicable reasons for visa delays or refusals. Improvements in these things go a long way.
After all, ‘America is only the next parish’ they used to say looking out to sea, on the Irish west coast, when the emigrants left their thatched cottages and went off to find fortune in Boston and New York. It was right across the Atlantic but it didn’t even seem like a foreign country – it seemed like a hinterland. Last week, the Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, visited Galway and the birthplace of his parents. And you don’t even have to have Irish blood to come here – just ask Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. They came here for their honeymoon.
So Ambassador, it’s a nice gig and really you are pushing an open and welcome door. But it is very much what you make it. For example, one of the things that Irish are most grateful for is the direct US involvement in getting peace in Northern Ireland, an involvement that still continues with the recent efforts of Gary Hart and Richard Haass. And it was a successful process that all began, back in the 1900s, with Bill Clinton in the White House, listening to Senator Ted Kennedy and with the latter’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, acting as a valuable presence on the ground as US Ambassador in Dublin. So just remember that, as you look out the windows of your wonderful residence in the Phoenix Park. The gig is what you make it.
So welcome to Ireland, Mr O’Malley, and Cead Mile Failte.
* Eamon Delaney is a former Irish diplomat and author.