Sunday 18 August 2019

Dearbhail McDonald: First Lady of diplomacy fires warning shot on US

American Chamber of Commerce Ireland president James O’Connor presents the Lifetime Achievement award to Anne Anderson at the chamber’s annual Thanksgiving lunch. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography Ltd
American Chamber of Commerce Ireland president James O’Connor presents the Lifetime Achievement award to Anne Anderson at the chamber’s annual Thanksgiving lunch. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography Ltd
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

If Anne Anderson, Ireland's recently retired Irish Ambassador to the US, takes an aim at Phoenix Park and runs for the Presidency, I'd be tempted to quit the day job and offer my services as her campaign manager. Man, I'd probably even settle for the tea caddie such is my admiration for this trailblazer for Irish feminism.

The first married woman (post marriage ban) to be posted abroad for the department of foreign affairs, Anderson was the first female Irish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Ireland's first female ambassador to France and the first female ambassador to the European Union - itself historic as she was the first woman from any EU country to serve as permanent representative to Brussels. As the Financial Times noted in 2004 when Anderson chaired Ireland's presidency of the EU, she made history by simply "sitting down" among hordes of her fellow male ambassadors.

Anderson's diplomatic career ended on another spectacular high when the now 65-year-old became Ireland's first female Ambassador to the US, the Irish foreign service's most coveted post in Washington DC now occupied by Dan Mulhall.

And although this formidable First Lady of Irish diplomacy was dutifully reticent, as ambassador, about the potential impact on Irish-US relations by the election of US President Donald Trump, the woman singled out for high praise by his predecessor Barack Obama offered a much more sobering and realistic view of that very special relationship last Thursday.

That was when Anderson was honoured by the American Chamber of Commerce with a Lifetime Achievement Award (the first woman to be so recognised) at the chamber's annual Thanksgiving lunch. Noting Ireland's "defining" and "dual-facing" relationship with both Europe and the US, Anderson observed that of all European countries, Ireland has perhaps the deepest stake in the relationship between Europe and the US.

"We thrive when that partnership thrives and no one has more grounds for concern when tension or brittleness or misunderstanding or neglect enter that relationship," Anderson told an 850-strong audience that included Taoiseach (for now) Leo Varadkar, acting US Ambassador Reece Smyth, outgoing Chamber President James O'Connor, MD of Microsoft's International Operations, and the predominantly (but not exclusively) male captains of US industry in Ireland.

"And, yes, I do believe there are some grounds for concern today," warned Anderson, tactfully if forcefully.

"All relationships, of course, have their daily share of irritants. But of deeper significance, we see the isolationist trends taking hold in America and hear the drumbeat of sovereignty that is becoming more insistent.

"Europe, like the rest of the world, is reading these signals and beginning to plan accordingly," said Anderson, who earlier told the gathering that Europe is more than ever Ireland's home, adding a "widening Atlantic" is not something to which we should resign ourselves.

What was refreshing about Anderson's address was her willingness to cut through the saccharine, paddy-whackery that often accompanies conversations around the Irish-US relationship and her firing of a warning shot, of sorts, on how we navigate that friendship in the future.

And it is a special relationship.

Leaving aside the strong personal and cultural ties over centuries, the modern commercial relationship between the two countries has transformed in recent decades from the begging bowl (Ireland), to a benevolent benefactor (the US), to one of tangible reciprocity.

US investment, at almost €300bn, is currently at record levels. More than 700 US firms have a presence here, employing some 10pc of our workforce - and that's before the critical multiplier effect.

Irish companies, including behemoths such as CRH, Glanbia, Kerry and a host of tech wunderkinds, have also invested some $85bn in America, employing more than 80,000 across 50 US states.

And yet for all of the glowing rhetoric and metrics - Ireland was again named the best country in the world for attracting high-value FDI by IBM's recent Global Locations Trends Report - what Anderson describes as Ireland's "dual-facing" perspective is placing certain strains on the special relationship.

Having firmly nailed its colours to the European mast, Ireland now finds itself in the crosshairs of a series of controversial pan-European rows over the tax treatment of US multinationals.

The Apple tax ruling against Ireland was the biggest bite yet inflicted by European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager - the woman who will decide whether Ireland can access special treatment under state aid rules to shore up Irish companies most at risk of collapse after Brexit.

By defending its tax treatment of Apple and providing sophisticated tax offerings to a range of foreign investors, Ireland is perceived in many quarters - rightly or wrongly - as a proxy for Uncle Sam, or its multinational arm at least.

Not that that perception has stopped Ireland falling out of Twitter favour with President Trump. Speaking at the American Chamber lunch, Varadkar said that the overall trade flows between Ireland and the US are "remarkably balanced".

This assertion is at odds with data from the United States Census Bureau last April which showed that Ireland - which had a trade surplus with the US of $36bn last year - was responsible for over a fifth of the EU's trade surplus with the US.

That data, along with other countries who enjoy a trade surplus with the US, prompted a "country by country, product by product" study of trade deficits by the US administration. It also prompted a not entirely unpredictable war of words from President Trump's Twitter account.

The ante was upped last October when Trump told reporters in the White House: "I hear that Ireland is going to be reducing their corporate rates down to 8pc from 12pc." That prompted a testy rebuke from Varadkar who told the Dail: "I can confirm that President Trump's claim that we are proposing to reduce our corporation profit tax to 8pc is indeed fake news" - a retort ostensibly not too well received in Washington DC.

So, what next for the US-Ireland relationship when the latter is convulsed with Brexit and when Europe is battling to shape its own future?

A confident and robust transatlantic partnership remains as vital in this century as the last and Ireland is best equipped to interpret Europe to America and vice versa, according to Anderson.

A unique relationship? Certainly. Unconditional? Less so. One thing's for sure in this post-Brexit, Trump unreality: we can't take any of our relationships for granted. And like all candid friendships, we may have to have some very difficult conversations.

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