Sunday 20 January 2019

Irish business heard over Trump chatter

Washington DC trip underlines importance of St Patrick's Day week for Irish business

Irish politicians and business leaders found a new mood on Washington’s Capitol Hill and in the business community following Donald Trump’s election
Irish politicians and business leaders found a new mood on Washington’s Capitol Hill and in the business community following Donald Trump’s election

Siobhan Masterson

Monday - Touching down in Donald Trump's America on St Patrick's Day (SPD) Week, the difference in mood is palpable among the business community.

March 2018 is all about the business agenda and Trump, with tax, tariffs and trade, is dominating every discussion. SPD week is a springboard for Ireland and, in the context of US foreign relations, Ireland has no peers.


I'm excited about participating on a panel at Pfizer today with Ibec President Edel Creely for an event with the dynamic GlobalWin on US Irish transatlantic relations. We meet a fantastic group of female leaders from across US business and politics. After a discussion on Ireland's globalised and open business model, we quickly get onto labour market issues - in particular Stem initiatives and how to bring women back into the workforce.

Then it's off to the ITI, the tech industry representative body for a round table with the major tech brands, all of which have significant operations in Ireland. Digital tax is, unsurprisingly, the hot topic. We emphasise the importance of global companies to coalesce around the OECD on this agenda. We are also fortunate to have Dalkey native Gail Slater, now White House adviser on cybersecurity and digital, join us at a post-event reception.


My morning begins with coffee at the US Chamber. Under a portrait of Daniel Webster, hero of JFK, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar does a Q&A with a small group of key of business leaders. The Taoiseach is in listening mode and seeks advice from host Tom Donohoe on how to handle his one-to-one with Trump the next morning. Be authentic is the reply.

While I was attending the Global Irish lunch at the Institute of Peace, colleagues were briefing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Secretary Ross's concern that the EU is targeting US companies with threats of digital taxation is one shared by Irish business. We again encourage our US peers to seek resolution through the OECD.

Ibec also presents at the Heritage Council. Then it's a quick visit to Congress on Capitol Hill to brief Congressman Erik Paulsen, chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Affairs, on the mutuality of interests for both the US and Ireland.


The National Manufacturers Association is one of the US's oldest business representative organisations. Their members' confidence levels are at all-time highs, even surpassing the Regan optimism, in the belief that through tax reform Trump is delivering the conditions to tackle future waves of industrialisation from robotics, artificial intelligence and highly skilled workforces.

The pervading mood about EU economic governance is less sanguine, specifically in relation to Brexit diminishing business supportive policies on this side of the Atlantic. Recurring in every meeting, given the week's political events, is a concern about the rise in influence of Chinese investment in Western companies and alleged unfair trade. Commerce department officials remain very positive about Ireland as a beachhead between the EU and US, particularly with Brexit.

America is dealing with an opiate crisis that is causing significant labour market difficulties, as the economy is at near full employment. Drug-testing in the workplace is commonplace and failure rates high: a societal issue fast becoming a business issue.

On to the Irish embassy bash at the Willard Hotel. Trump dominates every conversation. The business viewpoint appears to be the only positive perspective on the first-year assessment. Like him or loathe him, he is decisive - something that DC has long not been. What a difference a year makes.


We leave today, but alas no down-time. Some of the team left for NYC on a red-eye train as our CEO will deliver the keynote at the Irish US Council St Patrick's Day lunch at the Metropolitan Club.

Then I head down Massachusetts Ave to the think tank Brookings Institution for a policy exchange with a number of their senior fellows.

The conversation focuses on the future of Europe and that the substance in both the US and Irish business models was something to find common purpose on. Then, to the Winder Building for a timely meeting with the Dan Mullaney at the US Trade Representative. Our message is that trade sanctions is a 'beggar thy neighbour' policy.

So as I leave for home, I get the sense that Trump will continue to dominate the business and that now, more than ever, there is a critical role for the voice of Irish business to be heard in Washington DC.

Siobhan Masterson is head of corporate affairs at Ibec

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