Kenny’s seven hours of face time with Obama invaluable

St Patrick’s Day could offer a chance to listen to Irish communities abroad and learn from them

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with US president Barack Obama on St Patrick’s Day 2012.  The annual chorus of outrage about the St Patrick’s Day ministerial exodus has been more muted than usual this year but that hasn’t stopped the Government adopting its traditional, defensive posture. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with US president Barack Obama on St Patrick’s Day 2012. The annual chorus of outrage about the St Patrick’s Day ministerial exodus has been more muted than usual this year but that hasn’t stopped the Government adopting its traditional, defensive posture. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sun, Mar 9, 2014, 00:01

If precedent is anything to go by, next Friday’s St Patrick’s Day Speaker’s lunch on Capitol Hill should be a convivial affair, as the Taoiseach chews the fat – or the corned beef and cabbage – with congressional leaders from both parties. The revelation in this newspaper yesterday that Apple’s Irish subsidiary paid just $36 million in tax on $7.1 billion profits between 2004 and 2008 should ensure they have enough to talk about.

Indeed, Ireland’s generous tax regime for the multinational digital behemoths could be a conversational ice-breaker for many of our Ministers abroad next week, from Eamon Gilmore in France to Simon Coveney in Australia, where the latest information on Apple’s tax stratagems emerged.

Chorus of outrage
The annual chorus of outrage about the St Patrick’s Day ministerial exodus has been more muted than usual this year but that hasn’t stopped the Government adopting its traditional, defensive posture.

“Now that we have exited the EU-IMF bailout and made a successful return to the bond markets, it is more important than ever that we leverage the opportunity presented by the St Patrick’s Day period to further boost trade, tourism and inward-investment with a view to creating more jobs at home,” Gilmore said as he named the destinations for 28 Ministers last month.

The Tánaiste’s justification is valid, as far as it goes, and there is no doubt, for example, turning landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids of Giza green for the day is a boost for Ireland’s visibility. But the real benefit of the Ministers’ presence at St Patrick’s Day events lies in their usefulness in cultivating long-term relationships with Irish communities and political leaders around the world.

The value of these enduring political relationships is most obvious in Washington, where Ireland’s access to powerful figures in the administration and in Congress has helped to engage the United States in Northern Ireland and to secure immigration rights for some Irish citizens over the years.

More recently, as tax competition has climbed the agenda, Ireland’s friends on Capitol Hill have helped to ensure that this country stays off the lists of tax havens that surface every few years.

Personal relationships
Such indulgence is not automatic and it may not be available in the future, as the digital element of the economy takes a greater share of the whole. But strong personal relationships with legislators, assiduously cultivated over years by Irish diplomats and their allies in the US capital, will ensure at least that Ireland’s arguments are heard.

President Barack Obama will be at his charming best on Friday for the shamrock ceremony and reception at the White House and the Irish will be made to feel welcome on our special day. But the president is unlikely to name a new ambassador to Ireland, although it is already 15 months since Dan Rooney returned to the US.

The delay is viewed on the wilder fringes of Irish America as a calculated snub – or at least an ostentatious expression of indifference towards Ireland.

The truth is more prosaic: a long queue of the president’s nominees for various posts, mostly domestic, is making its way slowly through a hostile, obstructive Congress and the appointment of an ambassador to Ireland is not a priority.

The embassy in Dublin is functioning perfectly well under its charge d’affaires and there are no serious bilateral difficulties.

The fact is although Ireland is held in high regard and some affection in Washington, it is not among the top 10 or even 20 countries in the world in terms of economic or political importance.

In view of the asymmetry of the relationship, the level of access afforded on St Patrick’s Day – six or seven hours of face time between the Taoiseach and the president – is invaluable.

Obama will undoubtedly be happy to see the Taoiseach again but the greatest pleasure our Ministers will bring on their travels next week is to Irish communities in far-flung places.

It may seem implausible to a society as unsympathetic to politicians as ours but a minister’s presence gives a serious lift to a St Patrick’s Day event overseas.

It represents an affirmation that the efforts of countless communities in nurturing their Irish identity and maintaining social and cultural networks is valued back in Ireland. The ministerial presence implies that official declarations of solidarity with the diaspora are more than lip service and that the Irish abroad can remain part of our society.

Cultural projects
Some Government-funded programmes do indeed support Irish citizens abroad who have fallen on hard times, notably in Britain, and the State offers modest funding for a number of cultural projects elsewhere.

But for the most part, official rhetoric on the diaspora has focused on how they can benefit us, with much attention and flattery lavished on the rich and powerful.

Despite the fact that the Irish abroad and the broader diaspora tend to be a great deal better informed about us than we are about them, almost all our efforts are devoted to bombarding them with even more information about us – along with opportunities to help us, of course.

St Patrick’s Day could offer an opportunity – if only once a year – to reverse that process and to spend a little time listening to Irish communities abroad and learning more about them.

In the US, this could involve trying to understand Irish America as a culture that is distinct from our own, even if they are related, instead of viewing Irish Americans as a collection of eccentric, out of touch, elderly relatives who need to be indulged in the hope of being remembered in their wills.

It might also involve a recognition that, if wealthy investors are worth celebrating, so too are those of modest means who cultivate their Irish connections in GAA clubs, cultural centres, churches and clubs across the world.

Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor of The Irish Times

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