Thank you, Ireland, for a wonderful stay. Keep doing what you are doing


Tomorrow, as Barack Obama takes the oath of office, the US ambassador Thomas Foley will take his leave of Ireland. These are his parting thoughts.

MOST THINGS about my two years and three months in Ireland have been fabulous, but I do have a complaint which I have been hesitant to discuss until now. I will get to it in a moment. Before arriving in Ireland, I set a goal for my stay here. I set it low so I would have a good chance of succeeding. The goal was under no circumstances to allow war to break out between Ireland and the United States on my watch. With only one day to go, it looks as if I will succeed, surprising most of my best friends at home.

Being United States ambassador here has been a great privilege and a wonderful, fulfilling personal experience. The job comes with a magnificent house, superb staff and all you can eat.

People return your phone calls quickly, you never have to worry about parking, and restaurants will find a table for you even when they tell others they are full.

But these conveniences – although they are nice and will be missed – are not what made it for me here. What has made it for me has been the opportunity to represent my country, of which I am immensely proud, and to experience my ancestral culture and live among my ancestral people, of which I am equally proud.

I have learned a lot here. I have learned how much of a contribution Irish immigrants made to the culture, traditions, temperament and values of the US.

I have also learned that our countries are very different. The US is big and anonymous. Its development was a frontier experience resulting in different attitudes and values as well as different social and institutional structures and norms.

Having witnessed these differences, I have some observations.

Ireland has a very big, expressive heart. Foreigners who come here are amazed at how engaging, approachable and warm Ireland is (its people, not its weather). The openness of conversation, enthusiastic storytelling, non-stop wit, informality and impulsive caring are special, unique characteristics of Irish culture and people.

Taciturn, laconic and stiff are adjectives with no objects here. Can Ireland’s unique characteristics be bottled and shipped? They are badly needed elsewhere.

Irish history and attitudes are tightly interwoven, as they are everywhere. But Ireland’s history over the last hundred years has been a fast-moving train, both institutionally and economically. Some current attitudes have been hard for an outsider to understand and it occurs to me that they may be legacies of an earlier history that no longer applies. Several examples will help explain what I mean.

I notice a much higher level of cynicism here toward your most important institutions and leaders than I am used to in the US. Gratuitous criticism is accepted as good sport in Ireland. The media are some of the most enthusiastic participants.

A little scepticism is undoubtedly a good thing, but institutions and leaders perform better and can deliver more when they are believed in and held in high esteem. In the past, when Ireland and its institutions were not run by the Irish, an elevated cynicism might have been understandable. It is more difficult to understand today.

Ireland’s neutrality seems out of sync with Ireland’s culture and temperament. For reasons that made sense at the time, Ireland didn’t choose to enter into an alliance with Britain during the second World War. There was no historical or cultural precedent for Ireland’s neutrality – it was merely circumstantial.

Circumstances having changed, and yet, acceptance of neutrality as a long-term policy persists. Some here interpret neutrality as pacifism, which shares even less with Irish history. Does this make sense? Small countries benefit most from alliances.

Ireland has many assets including its diaspora, strong moral authority, a sympathetic historical experience, and now its considerable public and private economic capacity which give it the ability to engage influentially in geopolitics. This ability is limited, however, by a policy of neutrality and eliminated entirely if the policy is pacifism.

Many in Ireland seem impulsively to side with underdogs, presumably a product of a strong sympathetic response and Ireland’s historical experience. But underdogs aren’t always right and have no inherent claim to high moral ground.

I am very happy and fortunate to have been here during the recent US elections. I got a very good taste of the talent and enthusiasm Ireland has for politics and for what is going on in the US.

It occurred to me that Ireland’s participation in the process and, I sense, clear preference for President-elect Obama, will have benefits for the US because Ireland’s participation should result in a sense of ownership in president Obama’s success. If so, that may make for a more sympathetic and tolerant response to his administration and its policies, which may be needed if he occasionally adopts policies or makes decisions that are not popular here.

Now, about that complaint.

It is about the pepper here. The pepper in Ireland doesn’t smell right and someone really should do something about it. I suggest you pick a Tuesday later this year and have everyone switch from whatever you are using in your pepper mills to regular black pepper corns. It may help with tourism.

Thank you, Ireland, for a wonderful two-plus years here. Keep doing what you are doing. I will be back often to visit.