On March 1, Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall will be on hand to present the Irish American Business Chamber & Network‘s 2019 Ambassador’s Awards.
Recently, we interviewed him about the awards, the Business Chamber and the broader significance to Irish-American commerce. We also chatted about a wider range of issues—from the involvement of Irish-Americans in Irish government interests, such as United States immigration policies, to Brexit and the Northern Irish peace process.
Here’s what he had to say.
Irish Philly: What does it mean to you to be part of a business chamber award ceremony?
Ambassador Mulhall: A big part of my job here in the United States is to reach out to Irish and Irish American organizations to advance Ireland’s interest in this country. Therefore, the chamber is a very good example of an organization that is very positive for Ireland in that it raises the profile of economic links between Ireland and the United States in the Philadelphia area. We recognize Philadelphia as an important center of economic activity in the United States, and it’s a center of activity that we have strong traditional links with and we like to augment those links with as many contemporary connections as we can possibly develop. I’m all in favor of supporting, and I’m fully supportive of the work of organizations like the Chamber, and that’s why I’m planning to attend their annual awards ceremony this time around.
Irish Philly: What are your thoughts about the importance of this relationship? You just now talked about that a little bit. Especially in regard to Philadelphia.
Ambassador Mulhall: Well, of course, we know from recent evidence that was produced about the Irish-ness of various cities in the United States that Philadelphia is the second most important Irish American city after Boston. And of course, for me to see, there are traditional links which are the links that were created by generations of immigrants who came in from Ireland into the United States, and many of whom settled in Philadelphia, which is why Philadelphia has such a large percentage of people who are of Irish American, of Irish heritage.
And I see the challenge for the 21st century being to respect and cultivate those links, those traditional links between the people-to-people links that are there, but to add to them an important economic dimension. That’s why I would like to see more Philadelphia companies taking advantage of Ireland as a location for their activities within the European Union, and I’d like to see Irish companies choosing Philadelphia as a place for their investments. The advantage of it, of course, is that there are direct flights from Philadelphia to Dublin, there is a strong connection historically between Philadelphia and Ireland, and Philadelphia’s obviously a good place in which to operate because I would see the cost factors are not as daunting in Philadelphia as they might be in other parts of the United States.
Irish Philly: So, is it fair to assume that having this strong relationship with Irish Americans in the United States could lead to support and understanding for Irish interests in the United States—and I’m thinking in particular of immigration and outreach.
Ambassador Mulhall: Well, I’ve been around now … I’m four decades involved in the diplomatic service. I’ve been posted in many countries, and there’s no country in the world where the Irish presence here is so widely and universally welcomed. We have a unique standing in the United States, in my experience—because of the role of Irish immigrants and their descendants over the generations in making America what it is today.
Therefore, I think that the remarkable thing about America is that the affinity for an affiliation with Ireland on the part of Irish Americans seems to be passed down the generations in that I meet people regularly who are three, four, five generations removed from Ireland, and yet have a sense of an Irish heritage which is quite important to them. It’s part of their identity. A complex identity though it might be. I do think that we have a remarkable resource here in Irish America which can and has been vital to us over the years. I’m particularly thinking about the Northern Ireland peace process which got huge support from Irish America, and I think it was crucial in the end in bringing peace that there was this push from the United States which came about largely at the behest of Irish Americans.
Therefore, I think that the remarkable thing about America is that the affinity for an affiliation with Ireland on the part of Irish Americans seems to be passed down the generations in that I meet people regularly who are three, four, five generations removed from Ireland, and yet have a sense of an Irish heritage which is quite important to them.
Irish Philly: Is it really important at this point to the government of Ireland to reach out more to those people who identify only as Irish once a year?
Ambassador Mulhall: Sure. Well, I know what you mean. Clearly there are 35 million or so people who recognize themselves as having an Irish heritage. Now, clearly within that group of people, they’re not homogenous. First of all, they live in different parts of the country. In some places, there are strong Irish societies and organizations which enable people to identify with Ireland in a practical way by joining organizations that connect them with Ireland and that display and allow them to celebrate their Irish identity.
Also, inevitably, for some people it’s just something that’s there and it’s something that they are happy to celebrate. In fact, in America of course, people celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with no connection with Ireland. Simply because it’s become an American phenomenon Saint Patrick’s Day, and every year people with an Irish background, and no Irish background, come together to celebrate. But my point would be that while not everyone in Irish America is equally devoted or equally connected with their Irish heritage, a remarkable number are and that’s the thing that really gives me an uplift whenever I come across people who are genuinely committed to their Irish heritage, even though it might be a number of generations removed from Ireland. I don’t worry about the one-day phenomenon. That’s part of the overall picture, but the picture is much bigger than that. There are a lot of people who identify strongly with Ireland on an ongoing basis even though they might be generations removed from Ireland.
Irish Philly: Does reaching out to those people, though, have potential impact on issues like immigration?
Ambassador Mulhall: Yes.
Irish Philly: Certainly the Irish position on immigration in the United States.
Ambassador Mulhall: Yes. Yes, yes. Certainly, we have benefited over the years from supporting Congress for Irish issues. Just last December, a bill was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives which would have included Ireland in this E3 Visa category which is currently only available to Australia.
Now, it didn’t get through the Senate, but given the amount of support that exists with this bill, we’re hopeful that it will pass the Congress sometime in the current session. But that’s a matter that we have to work on and we have to try and bring that about. But certainly, yes. There is a special interest in Ireland on the part of people in the system here both within the administration and within Congress who recognize that Ireland, the Irish were one of the fundamental builders of modern America. That is what gives Irish-ness and the Irish community and Ireland a profile here in the United States that it wouldn’t have in other parts of the world where we don’t have the same ancestral connection.
Irish Philly: So, as you speak with the business people at the ceremony, what are some of the key points that you’re hoping to drive home?
Ambassador Mulhall: I have a number of key messages. The first is just how important the Irish American business relationship is. If you look at the trading relationship to a trade in goods and services, we’re talking about something around a billion dollars a year—which is a pretty substantial trading relationship for a country of the size of Ireland with less than five million people. If you add to that the investment relationship, which is one that has flourished in the last number of decades. In particular, you have 750 American companies with investments in Ireland, and a pipeline which is quite strong that companies keep moving to Ireland, keep developing a presence in Ireland from the United States. Those companies between them employ 150,000 people.
Then, if you look at the other side of the equation, Ireland is in the top 10 investors in the United States despite having only a population less than five million. We estimate 500 Irish companies currently with investments in the United States. Between them, they employ about 100,000 people. Just recently, for example, one of our food companies, Glanbia—which is a company based in the southeast of Ireland where I come from—they acquired a food ingredients business in Connecticut for $90 million. Another one of our companies, Roadstone Holdings, last year acquired a cement business in Kansas for $3 billion. Irish investment here is flourishing. If you put all that together, the relationship between the two countries, between Ireland and the United States, is really very strong, and it’s not just concentrated in New York or Boston, it’s also around the country—including, obviously, in Philadelphia. And that’s why the Chamber is such an important asset for us and for building that relationship with Philadelphia in particular.
The other point I will make is that for Philadelphia companies with an interest in investing in Ireland, investing in Europe, and establishing a base in Europe. It’s a growing company, so the international base and one in the European Union are by far the best locations. There’s a direct flight Philadelphia-Dublin. We have an open and transparent coverage in taxes with a flat rate of probably a half percent. We have a highly educated workforce. About 50 percent of all Irish workers now, people between 25 and 45, have third-level qualifications. The rest are equivalent degrees. We also have full access of the European Markets of 500 million people. And when Britain leaves the European Union, we’ll be the only English speaking country in the EU. Those’ll be my key messages for my audience in Philadelphia.
The relationship between the two countries, between Ireland and the United States, is really very strong, and it’s not just concentrated in New York or Boston, it’s also around the country—including, obviously, in Philadelphia.
Irish Philly: You mentioned Brexit. Do you think Americans have a good understanding what’s involved in terms of Ireland and the border, and even the implications for peace?
Ambassador Mulhall: I think they have. I was ambassador to London before coming to the United States, so when I left London, I sort of thought I’d be leaving the Brexit issue behind me, but in fact the interest in it here is very high indeed. Especially with Irish Americans who are genuinely concerned about threats to peace. I think there’s a strong interest here. Nobody can possibly expect it to get their heads around the complexities of the Brexit issue. It changes every day and so on. You need to be full time.
I, of course, follow it carefully because of my role as ambassador to the United States, but you can’t expect Americans generally to have that kind of interest to follow the sort of twists and turns of the Brexit process. But suffice to say that I think there is genuinely an understanding that the border issue is an important issue. I think there’s a lot of sympathy for the Irish position in that area. I think Americans would probably want to remain closely connected with the UK post-Brexit, and so they should they want to have a close relationship with the European Union. So they should. But I think there’s also a strong view that Americans made a big investment in the Northern Ireland peace process, and that it’s a process that America is keen to protect and to prevent any undermining of.
I’m pleasantly encouraged by the level of interest and understanding of at least the broad outlines of the Brexit process, and the implications for Ireland. In particular, the border. Many Americans have been to Ireland. Many of them will have crossed that border and will have seen that the border today and the last 20 years basically doesn’t exist. I think all of them probably want to ensure that that situation continues into the future.
Irish Philly: Well, certainly the Hibernians have been strongly involved.
Ambassador Mulhall: Nobody wants to see a border at the end of Ireland. Nobody at all. The British government doesn’t want it. The Irish government doesn’t want it. The EU doesn’t want it, and none of the parties of Northern Ireland want it. But the problem is how to achieve that, and that’s what we’re currently working on.
Irish Philly: Well, you’re right that it’s a complicated issue. It’s difficult to follow from one day to the next.
Ambassador Mulhall: It is. It is. It is. And the ground keeps shifting, of course, and that will happen I think for the next few weeks because we’re now reaching the moment, the critical moment for the Brexit process.
Irish Philly: March 29th. It’s just around the corner.
Ambassador Mulhall: Yes.
Irish Philly: It’s hard to believe they’ve gotten to this point.
Ambassador Mulhall: It is. It is. It’s a sad day for all concerned.