Celtic comeback: How Enda Kenny is selling Ireland
The Taoiseach has been painting a positive picture of Ireland’s recovery on his trade mission to the US this week, but is it true?
The ties that bind: Barack Obama, John Boehner and Enda Kenny on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Marty Katz
Americans love nothing better than a good comeback story. There’s something about the narrative of success, failure and redemption that chimes with a society that admires self-reliance and resilience.
And this week, as part of a whirlwind trade mission across the US, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been giving it gusto. Whether in the Oval Office, in corporate boardrooms in Silicon Valley or at Hollywood studios, Kenny has been delivering a breathless and often dramatic sales pitch for the Celtic comeback.
The single transferable speech goes like this: his Government inherited a mess and an enormous debt burden. Then the fightback began. Ireland has turned the corner. The economy has been growing for three consecutive years. Wages are up. The cost of living is down. We have the best demographics in Europe. There has never been a better time to invest in Ireland.
“We’re making this the best small country in the world to do business in, to raise a family in and to grow old with dignity in,” he repeatedly reminds audiences across the country.
Try telling that to people at home. The message is so buoyant, it would most likely fall flat in Ireland. There is no mention, of course, of the alarming numbers of people missing mortgage repayments. Or of the tens of thousands of young people who are voting with their feet, and emigrating. Or that Ireland has taken over from Japan as the most indebted developed country in the world.
But then the message isn’t aimed at the audience at home. The message is targeted squarely at investors and essentially boils down to one word: confidence.
By projecting a rock-solid certainty that things are improving, the hope is that financiers and entrepreneurs will place their bets on Ireland rather than on any other country.
For all the talk of American decline and the balance of power shifting towards China and India, the US remains the world’s biggest economy. And the Irish economy has an umbilical attachment to it.
About 100,000 jobs in Ireland are linked to American multinationals. In fact, there is more US foreign direct investment in Ireland than in China, Brazil and India combined. Irish officials believe there is still huge potential for even closer trade links.
So, this week, St Patrick’s Day provided the perfect opportunity for Kenny, who was accompanied by Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore for several days, to sell Ireland to the Americans.
White House access
Ireland enjoys a level of access to the White House and Capitol Hill that is far disproportionate to its size.
First, most observers agree, there’s no such thing as an Irish-American vote any more; they are now as likely to vote Republican as Democrat. Ireland is globally insignificant and represents a fraction of US trade. And, to top it off, we aren’t even a military ally of the US.
Yet canny lobbying and relationship-building by Irish diplomats have helped maintain and expand the shamrock ceremony. It’s much more than just a soft photo opportunity. It’s a bilateral meeting with President Obama in the White House, followed by lunch with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and rounded off with a lavish evening reception.