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OPINION: Ireland’s place in the world

Sunday, 17th March, 2019 5:00pm
OPINION: Ireland’s place in the world

THIS time of year, as we celebrate St Patrick’s Day, Ireland hogs the limelight on the international stage in a manner that no other country seems to be able to do on their national days. It is a very useful way of promoting the country by highlighting its contribution to the world over many centuries by the widely-scattered Irish diaspora.

It also demonstrates how – in boxing parlance – we are punching well above our weight and, for the most part, getting away with it, in spite of our serious health and housing crises at home. The proverbial luck of the Irish seems to be with us in this regard, even if we have to lower ourselves to a bit of stage Irishness at times; cue Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar in recent years.

This week, government ministers – senior and junior – are in many countries across the globe, mainly using the opportunity to promote further trade, which was never more badly needed now with the likelihood of our nearest neighbour and biggest trading partner, Britain, leaving the European Union within a matter of weeks. A government minister will visit every EU capital as a matter of courtesy and just to make sure they’re not waning on the backstop element of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Macroom’s Michael Creed, as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is travelling to Spain and Portugal. The former will be in election mode, but our links with its northern seaboard in particular – for better or worse – through the fishing industry are important and Ireland also imports a lot of vegetables from Spain.

Cork South West’s Jim Daly, the Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, is in India seeking to maintain historic links and develop new ones with this vast nation, which has been growing in prosperity despite its huge underlying poverty and social problems. The new Consulate General of Ireland will open this year in Mumbai, which up to now has been served by an honorary consul.

Undoubtedly, the most important of these annual visits is to the White House. The Taoiseach will visit Washington DC again this year for St Patrick’s Day and will present the usual symbolic bowl of shamrock to the President of the United States and be all nice to him in the hope that he will be to us and not do anything to scare off all the US multi-nationals who invest so much money in Ireland, provide tens of thousands of jobs here and are contributing to our growing corporation tax receipts.

Last year, Leo Varadkar – as a rookie Taoiseach on his debut at the White House – seemed overawed by his host and looked decidedly uncomfortable in the presence of the mercurial President Donald J Trump. It was as if he was trying to curry favour with the US leader when he told guests at Speaker Paul Ryan’s annual lunch at Capitol Hill in Washington about how he made representations when he was Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport on behalf of Donald Trump – who had not yet entered politics – concerning a planning application for a wind farm that the American businessman did not want to see built within sight of his exclusive golf resort at Doonbeg in West Clare, intimating that perhaps ‘The Donald’ owed him one for this.

This tale of ingratiation may have amused – even impressed – many of the guests at the function, but it somewhat lowered the tone of the office of Taoiseach and led to a bit of an outcry back home among his political opponents, resulting in Mr Varadkar having to backtrack on his claim that he had contacted Clare County Council – who had no record of it – about the planning application. He later clarified that all he had done was to contact Fáilte Ireland to check that they were aware of the application.

We thought we had left all this telling of tall tales behind us when Enda Kenny stepped down as Taoiseach. The current incumbent has enough ‘spin doctors’ on his staff who should be capable of stopping him losing the run of himself and embarrassing the country like this.

On a serious note, more progress needs to be made on resolving the dilemma of the thousands of undocumented Irish in the United States, even though this is difficult with President Trump’s attitude to immigrants in general and his pre-occupation with trying to keep Mexicans and other South Americans out by declaring a national emergency in his bid to get a 2,000-mile-long wall built along the southern border of the US. The threat of deportation has never been greater than it is now under the Trump administration and is a real worry for Irish people who have put down roots in the US and it is nigh impossible to make the case that they should get preferential treatment over immigrants from other countries – well and all as the Irish diaspora is regarded there.

Ministers will visit other US cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Austin, Atlanta and Seattle to assist with the IDA’s ongoing efforts to keep the flow of foreign direct investment coming into Ireland. Some people may dismiss all these trips abroad by minsters and ministers of state as junkets, but nearly all of them are targeted trade missions, the importance of which should not be under-estimated.

There is, of course, a further ulterior motive in this year’s visits as there will also be trips made to the Middle East, the Americas, and the Asia Pacific region over the St Patrick's Day period, as the government pushes its claims for a seat on the UN Security Council from 2021.

St Patrick’s Day marks the start of the new tourist season here and, as well as supporting festivals in Ireland’s main cities to attract visitors and locals alike, Tourism Ireland’s ‘greening’ of iconic landmarks throughout the world celebrates its 10th year in 2019. This floodlighting of places – almost 400 in all – from Sydney Opera House through Canada’s Niagra Falls to Rome’s Colosseum was estimated to have been worth at least €10m in publicity alone last year.

The ‘greening’ will extend to Ethiopia this year and other initiatives, like dyeing the river green in Chicago, may seem gimmicky, but they do create an awareness of Ireland as a tourist destination and help influence many people abroad to include it in their holiday plans at some point in the future. However, when people come here they need to feel that they are getting value for money, otherwise Ireland will lose out on the all-important word-of-mouth recommendations to their extended families and friends.

Hotels in our bigger cities pushing up accommodation prices and people being charged €7 or €8 for a pint in the Temple Bar area are only serving to restore the unwanted ‘Rip-Off Republic’ tag that Ireland was given during the Celtic Tiger boom era, which put off both overseas visitors and domestic holidaymakers from spending their vacation time in Ireland. The government has already bailed out the tourism industry once and that should be enough.

 

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