Articles - December 2017


A conversation with Ireland's Ambassador Daniel Mulhall
By Roland Flamini

When the United Kingdom joined the European Union in the 1970s the Republic of Ireland joined as well because the close economic and social relationship between the two countries made it virtually inevitable. But Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall told Diplomatic Connections in an interview that his country has no intention of following the U.K. out of the union once Brexit takes effect in 2019. Membership has been the main factor in Ireland's transformation from being "an outlier in economic terms to being one of the most prosperous countries in the European Union," Mulhall said. Still, for the Irish, Brexit raises issues of close proximity, and the future of Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. It's as if a next door neighbor who shares a common wall decides to demolish his home: how much collateral damage will result? In Washington, Ambassador Mulhall's role extends to keeping in touch with the enormous Irish-American community. In the 1950s Irish-American ties with the home country were romantically portrayed in the John Wayne movie The Quiet Man. But if that may have been a true picture at the time, today, Irish-U.S. relations are reflected in burgeoning bi-lateral trade which totals $100 billion a year. Mulhall's message to Americans is "We are no longer a poor country. We're a fully developed country and an attractive market." This he tweets in daily facts about the Irish economy, but also in verses of Irish poetry. Mulhall combines diplomacy with an interest in writing and lecturing about Ireland's rich literary heritage.

Diplomatic Connections: What are the Irish expectations from an eventual Brexit deal?

Ambassador Mulhall: There's an absolute determination in Ireland on two points. The first is that we will remain a fully subscribed member of the European Union, and we have committed ourselves to the future of Ireland being a part of the European Union. That enjoys, by the way, a very, very high level of public support. The last poll showed 88 percent of the Irish electorate being in favor of the European Union, despite the fact that Britain in the coming years will be leaving the EU. Second point is, we're absolutely determined to avoid any hardening of the open border [between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland] which is a great dividend of the peace process, and an important part of the framework to maintain peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and we will not allow any change on that border which would be very disruptive economically and politically. The third point is we want to minimize the impact on Ireland of Britain leaving the European Union, on British-Irish relations, and on the European Union because obviously this is a big moment for the EU: losing a big member state is not a happy situation.

Diplomatic Connections: In other words, no customs –

Ambassador Mulhall: No customs between Ireland north and south. Now, we don't yet know what the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be, because they're only starting now. And we don't know what the final decision of the British government will be. At the moment, the British government say they want to leave the market and the customs union, whether that will be their position in one or two years from now is another matter. I still hope that the British might decide in the end that membership of the customs union makes more sense, and that there might be a re-visiting of that issue, because clearly a lot of people in Britain are now having some misgivings about the disruption that will be caused by the kind of customs arrangement that will be necessary between Britain and the continent of Europe.

Diplomatic Connections: Do the British even know what they want?

Ambassador Mulhall: At the moment their position seems to be to leave the customs union, but I would hope that the complexity of challenges involved in leaving the customs union will start to weigh on people, and will start to create second thoughts about that issue.

Diplomatic Connections: What about the movement of Irish citizens in Britain and vice-versa, once Britain leaves the European Union?

Ambassador Mulhall: That's never been an issue. The British have always said they will continue to operate a common travel area between Britain and Ireland, which effectively allows British and Irish people to move back and forth between the two countries. They have rights which are almost equivalent of being citizens of the other country: to live and work there, to vote in elections. The border, obviously, was an issue in the past few months. But the status of Irish people in Britain and British people in Ireland has never been in question.

Diplomatic Connections: As part of a State Department inclination to cut back on the number of special envoys, the Trump administration seems to be considering not continuing to appoint an American envoy to Northern Ireland, as there has been in the past. What's the Irish position on that?

Ambassador Mulhall: We'd like to see an envoy appointed. The United States has played a very constructive role in the Irish peace process over the last 30 years. I was actually in Belfast myself for the final stages of the negotiations and I can vividly remember, late at night, a call from the White House, which had a significant effect because clearly for politicians from Northern Ireland to receive a phone call from the White House, the most important political figure in the world…

Diplomatic Connections: Was that President Clinton or President Bush?

Ambassador Mulhall: It was Clinton at the time, but it happened with other presidents as well. And that is part of a long and honorable American involvement in supporting the cause of peace and reconciliation in Ireland. That role, and that influence is still relevant in the view of my government. We would like to see [the administration] appoint an envoy because it would be a symbolic expression of the continued interest of the United States administration and the Congress in what's happening in Northern Ireland.

Diplomatic Connections: What would be a U.S. envoy's role in the present situation?

Ambassador Mulhall: What it would involve is someone going there who would symbolize the continuing commitment of the U.S. administration, and the United States generally, to peace in Ireland, and someone who could perhaps play some sort of mediating role. We're not suggesting that (a former U.S. Senator and envoy to Northern Ireland) George Mitchell is relevant any more because we're not at that stage. The gap between the parties now is relatively limited.

Diplomatic Connections: There is, however, a deadlock in the political situation in Ulster.

Ambassador Mulhall: Definitely. What's happened now is that relations between the parties have been affected over the last year or so by various things, and they haven't been able to agree to the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive (the Ulster government). But the concern that's up front is the issue of the status of the Irish language, which has become a stumbling bloc, but we're not talking about the need for a talks process of the kind that George Mitchell was involved in. He had to construct a framework for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Diplomatic Connections: Is this an attempt to establish bi-linguality?

Ambassador Mulhall: Northern Irish nationalists see the Irish language as a central part of their identity, and they want a separate Irish Language Act to provide status for the Irish language in Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party sees this as somehow a threat to their image of what Northern Ireland should be, the British-ness of Northern Ireland. It's a question of giving the Irish language a status, defined in an act of parliament. It didn't prove possible in the last round of talks to resolve this issue. It's assumed that another effort will be made in the new year, and in that regard, obviously the influence of the United States would continue to be helpful.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there an envoy at the moment?

Ambassador Mulhall: There isn't an envoy, no. But at the moment there's no U.S. ambassador in Ireland, and probably the priority would be to have an ambassador, and then perhaps the envoy would come later. I daresay an ambassador in Ireland would probably discover that the Irish government is quite keen to have an envoy.

Diplomatic Connections: Other than this pending issue of the envoy, how do you find bi-lateral relations?

Ambassador Mulhall: Bi-lateral relations here are extremely good. Uniquely in my experience, we have a community of people in this country who identify with Ireland in different ways and in different intensities, who are descended from Irish immigrants who came here, but who have retained some sense of Irish-ness which you don't find, for example, in Britain and in many other places where the Irish have settled, and that's a very positive and powerful asset for Ireland. The economic relationship between our two countries has blossomed in the last 50 years. We now have 700 American companies who have invested in Ireland employing about 150,000 people amongst them. The trade between our two countries is now up to $100 billion a year. Moreover, that trade is quite balanced. We have a surplus in manufacturing goods, and the U.S. has a surplus in services. And then in recent years we've seen this increasingly strong trend of Irish companies investing in the United States, and we now have 400 Irish companies who have investments in the United States, employing 100,000 people. That trend is growing: most of those companies have come here in the last four or five years.

Diplomatic Connections: Would Brexit affect this in some way?

Ambassador Mulhall: Brexit will mean two things. For American companies looking at a base in Europe, Ireland will be the ideal place because Britain no longer has quite the same attraction from that point of view. And then for Irish companies who might have been considering, in the past, investing in Britain, they might see Britain as a little bit more questionable – it's moving in a certain direction, it's leaving the European Union. It's no longer what it once was, and I think a lot more companies will start looking at America as a place for their investment opportunities. The economic relationship is a two-way relationship. It benefits both countries, in terms of trade back and forth across the Atlantic, and in terms of investment back and forth across the Atlantic. We're no longer a poor country; we're now a fully developed country and an attractive market.

Diplomatic Connections: But your number one trading partner is still the European Union collectively, is it not?

Ambassador Mulhall: Roughly, it's forty, twenty, twenty, twenty. Forty percent EU, twenty percent UK, twenty percent U.S., twenty percent the rest of the world. So yes, the eurozone is by far our biggest trading partner, and that's why for Irish people it makes huge sense for Ireland to continue to be a member of the European Union, and that's why we think that Britain has made a serious mistake in deciding to leave the EU – but that's their business. We can comment on it, but it's their decision.

Diplomatic Connections: Does the administration's tougher approach to immigration affect the Irish community in the U.S. in any way?

Ambassador Mulhall: There are some Irish people whose status is not as regularized. They are in the tens of thousands, and there's a lot of interest in Ireland in trying to regularize the status of those people, and also in getting a pathway for Irish people to come to the U.S. with a visa program. It would be great if our community here could be refreshed by new people coming in. A few thousand a year would probably be interested in coming.

Diplomatic Connections: But isn't there now a greater interest in staying in Ireland?

Ambassador Mulhall: Yes, because the economy is booming. But you'd probably still find that if there was a visa program, four or five thousand would want to come each year.

Diplomatic Connections: Eastern European immigrants in Ireland (Polish is now the second language in Ireland) have not aroused the same resentment as they did in the U.K. Why?

Ambassador Mulhall: There's a higher percentage in Ireland of people born outside the state than there is in Britain. Seventeen percent of our population was born outside the Irish state, and it's about 15 percent in Britain. We actually have a slightly bigger percentage of immigrants in Ireland than they have in Britain, but there hasn't been any public expression of resentment against this development. Twenty years ago, the figure was about two percent, so we've gone from being a country which is essentially, exclusively Irish born people to now being a country which is quite diverse, and people seem to view this as positive. I can only attribute this to the Irish always having been a country of immigrants, and we all know the stories about how the Irish were badly received in many places where they settled, including in the United States. This has taught people a lesson that the foreigners are not always to blame, and it's made us a more tolerant nation.

Diplomatic Connections: The 2008 financial meltdown hit Ireland badly.

Ambassador Mulhall: Yes, because we're an open economy. Open economies do very well when the global economy is doing well. When the global economy contracts, they are vulnerable in the extreme. Look at the facts: In 1973 when we joined the European Union our per capita GDP was about 60-65 percent of the European average. Today, it's somewhere between 110-120 percent. We have gone from being an outlier in European economic terms to being one of the most prosperous countries in the European Union. People therefore know that European membership overall has been a great boost for us. We are comfortable with globalization, we have a strong, enduring sense of our own identity which is not threatened by people coming in from outside. The best example of this is sport. We have our own native sports culture: In most countries of the world, the big game is soccer. In Ireland, the big game is Gaelic football and hurling, massively popular, and they help to define people's sense of identity.

Diplomatic Connections: To what extent is Gaelic football and hurling popular among Irish-Americans?

Ambassador Mulhall: A little bit. It didn't transfer with the Irish who came in the 19th century because at that time the games themselves were still developing, emerging from the mists of time. They've always been here: there's a Gaelic Park in New York, one in Chicago, and one in Boston, and there are clubs all over the country, but I don't think that Gaelic games are a defining element of the Irish abroad, although for younger people they tend to be.

Diplomatic Connections: Can one still call the Irish American community a diaspora, or are the Irish so widespread and so deeply integrated into the fabric of American society that they are beyond that characterization?

Ambassador Mulhall: I have been impressed in the last three months by the commitment of Irish Americans to their Irish heritage. I don't see it as an inevitable consequence of having an Irish background that you should connect with Ireland, or identify with Ireland in the way that people here do. Before I came I had the impression that Irish America was withering a bit. Actually my experience of it has had the effect of boosting my sense of what Irish America really is, and there's a genuine affection and concern for Ireland in the hearts of many people who are removed from Ireland for three, four, five generations. We're one of the few countries in Europe that has that sense of community. Think of other European countries and ask yourself do any of them have the kind of sense of their country's identity in America that exists with the Irish? I don't know for sure because I haven't investigated this, but I doubt that. The Irish are one of the founding people of modern America. We're one of the populations that molded America, most other populations came here in smaller numbers.

Diplomatic Connections: But do you find that the Irish American perception of Ireland is behind the times?

Ambassador Mulhall: A little, but I understand that. I always say to people, whatever image of Ireland you cherish, that's valid. The landscape of The Quiet Man [John Wayne 1952 movie] is still there, but it's no longer relevant. I try to tell the story of modern Ireland as I see it: that's my job. But I'm not going to tell somebody who has a different view of Ireland, maybe more Quiet Manish, that their view is invalid. But these days 10 percent of all Americans who go to Europe go to Ireland, so many more Americans are exposed to Ireland. And also, of course, people can actually access knowledge of Ireland through the internet. A lot of universities in America have specializations in Irish studies because there's a native interest here.

Diplomatic Connections: What do you see as your role in Washington?

Ambassador Mulhall: My role is to inform people about Ireland, connect with the Irish community in the United States, and basically tell our story, and I do that through twitter and through my blog. I'm going to do a series of blogs about Irish-American history. I tweet every day. I like to be open, I don't subscribe to the idea of diplomacy as kind of a secret craft that's conducted behind closed doors and in narrow corridors. I believe diplomacy is in part at least, a public discipline. I tweet lines of poetry every day.

Diplomatic Connections: So what were today's?

Ambassador Mulhall: Today I tweeted some lines from William Butler Yates, which finished with the line "Caught in the cold snows of a dream." I also tweeted a link to a blog that I posted yesterday about William Howard Russell [1820-1907, Irish-born foreign correspondent of the London Times] and the American Civil War. He was at the Battle of Bull Run, and I happened to be there recently and I read his diaries. He reported on all the major conflicts of the 19th century. I will also probably tweet some stuff about the Irish economy.

Diplomatic Connections: Who is your favorite Irish writer?

Ambassador Mulhall: W.B. Yeats is the one I've written about, and talked about. James Joyce, I'm very keen on his work. Of the contemporary writers, Colin Toibin I know quite well, Colum McCann – I'm reading his Transatlantic [explores Ireland and U.S.] and then there are some very good young writers as well, Donal Ryan, obviously Sebastian Barry, Kevin Barry. We're good story tellers. In the 20th century there were four Irish Nobel Prize winners for literature: Will we get four in the 21st century? Who knows.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you for your time, Ambassador Mulhall; I've very much enjoyed speaking with you.

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