Saturday 29 April 2017

US companies bring out the cringe factor

US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley
US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It's not often you cringe into your seat at a business lunch. But that's what happened at last week's US Chamber Of Commerce Thanksgiving lunch in the Burlington Hotel.

We hailed our familial suzeraines from across the ocean in colonial style. And we gave a 'medal' to Kevin O'Malley, US ambassador to Ireland, adjudged to be best person of the last year.

O'Malley is, by all accounts, a hard working, popular ambassador. Ahead of the inevitable telegram from president-elect Trump, we gave him a forelock-tugging, Bird Flanagan routine he'll never forget.

No trope was left unplumbed; JFK, George Bernard Shaw, the west of Ireland. Former Eurovision winner Eimear Quinn came out to serenade O'Malley with a mystical celtified version of a Missouri tune. (O'Malley is from St Louis.)

It was all punctuated by videos and speeches reminding the assembled 870 people (the highest ever attendance) of how lucky Ireland is to be under the benevolent gaze of US industrialists.

US Chamber chief executive, Mark Redmond, reminded everyone that companies from the homeland have invested €343bn in Ireland over the years, "more than the combined sum invested in France and Germany".

Each figure elicited a round of applause from garrison dignitaries, among whom sat the Taoiseach, leader of the opposition, Papal Nuncio and government ministers.

Enda Kenny got up to do his usual (admittedly funny) standup routine, with a handful of other multinational leads in Ireland chipping in with noble sentiments about supplicant relationships.

Conversations were two-toned. Among ourselves, the Irish attendees spoke normally. But whenever an American was in earshot, the laughs became more musical.

"Ah here, have a Guinness. You will, now."

The bulk of the room was made up of companies trying to win or keep accounts with US multinational firms in Ireland. In other words, a huge chunk of the economy. Some 140,000 people are directly employed here by US firms. A great many thriving indigenous startups I know take much of their training from these US multinationals.

Having no significant industrial sector of our own, we borrow a hell of a lot from US companies' processes and disciplines. We even directly poach skilled staff from them for our own firms.

"People don't realise how fortunate we are to have Facebook training salespeople to a world class standard here," Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave told me a few weeks back.

"That's one of the things about multinationals in Ireland. You're starting to see people move out of them into startups. We've had a lot of success hiring sales people out of Google, Linkedin and Facebook in Dublin."

So there isn't much point in being cynical about US companies' activities here. They're not only necessary to keep our living standards above water, they're arguably still the best hope to teach us what we need to build our own industrial future.

And yet there is something mortifying about attending a celebratory mass on the subject.

At the US Chamber dinner, it was an ecumenical service that skirted Father Ted territory. The mass's celebrant, US Chamber chief executive Mark Redmond, led the ceremony with a multitude of Eucharists. And we all responded as parishioners.

When on stage for the actual medal presentation to Ambassador O'Malley, attendees adopted that peculiar deferential stance, the one where you hold your hands in front of your middle area.

Maybe this is the way to show respect to more successful cousins at a family get together. Maybe the Danish-American Chamber of Commerce or the Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce adopt the same starry-eyed tone at their swanky bashes.

And maybe being the one who reddens at such a submissive display speaks more to a latent cynicism or begrudgery, which is undoubtedly endemic in our Irish character.

But I'm actually an American, born in the US with many of my family still living there. I like to think I appreciate the stereotypically (and possibly naive) 'can-do' mentality that Americans benefit from (even as others spend their time sneering).

And I'm not especially torn on Ireland's open-arms approach to multinational companies, either. We have every right to regard them as a strategic national asset. The UK does whatever it can to protect banks.

Germany does whatever it can to protect its car manufacturers. Ireland, still short of any large-scale indigenous industrial sector itself, is perfectly entitled to defend the interests of multinationals here when those companies significantly help the country stay afloat.

That said, I'm also Irish, having been raised here by my Irish mother.

And it burns. The sycophancy, the ditties, the never-ending Kennedy references. The robotic "happy Thanksgiving!" greetings, even among Irish colleagues.

Surely we can appreciate and respect our US corporate relationships without auditioning for the Irish version of Mr Collins from Pride And Prejudice.

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