Tuesday 23 January 2018

Ireland and the US: a shared history created lasting bonds

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan spells out the nature of the relationship between Ireland and the USA

ENTWINED: John Trumbull’s painting, ‘The Declaration of Independence’, omits the three Irishmen who signed on July 4, 1776 © Bettmann/CORBIS
ENTWINED: John Trumbull’s painting, ‘The Declaration of Independence’, omits the three Irishmen who signed on July 4, 1776 © Bettmann/CORBIS

Charlie Flanagan

There has been a renewed focus on the relationship between the US and Ireland since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States two weeks ago. It's important to acknowledge that the history between our countries is rich and enduring.

It is first and foremost a people-to-people relationship but it is complemented by deep political relationships that extend from local politics all the way up to the office of the US president and transcend party affiliation. The strength of the relationship between our countries was underlined by the fact that An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was among the first global leaders to have a discussion with President-elect Trump, shortly after his election. On my last visit to Washington DC, I had a lengthy meeting with the Irish-American Speaker of the House, Congressman Paul Ryan, whose roots are in Kilkenny and who is the most influential Republican on Capitol Hill.

The foundation of Ireland's relationship with the US is the many millions of Irish people who have found a home in the US over more than two centuries. More than 10pc (33 million people) of the total US population identify themselves as being of Irish descent.

These Irish-Americans are dispersed throughout the United States, and our Embassy and Consulates in the US seek to maintain the links between these American citizens and their Irish ancestry. At Government level, ministerial visits augment this connection - and our Diaspora Minister in particular plays an active role.

While in the past those who emigrated from Ireland almost never returned, today thousands of people travel between our two countries every single day, whether on business, for leisure, education or to visit friends and family. More than 1.3 million people from the US visited Ireland in 2015 alone.

Our political connections go back all the way to the Declaration of Independence - three of its signatories were born in Ireland.

Since then, Ireland and the US have interacted politically for many generations. This year, I launched the 1916 Centenary Diaspora programme in New York City in recognition of the city's important place in the story of the Rising. Many of the leaders had lived in New York and travelled extensively in the US, including Connolly and Clarke.

The United States is the only foreign country referred to in the 1916 Proclamation. The sovereignty of the people, along with equality for all, respect for the rule of law and human rights, are at the core of our constitutional systems and represent the best of who and what we are. These close relationships and shared values have endured - despite changes in our societies and evolving political contexts.

Closer to home, the United States has played a leading role in promoting peace and reconciliation on this island over many decades and, along with the EU, has supported peace and reconciliation programmes both North and South.

The political commitment of successive US administrations over the past 30 years - both Republican and Democrat - to the peace process has been unwavering. The current Secretary of State's Special Envoy is Senator Gary Hart, while his predecessors have been appointed by both Democratic and Republican administrations. I have no doubt that the commitment by the United States to our peace process will continue.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am particularly conscious of the needs of some of our more vulnerable citizens in the US, in particular the undocumented.

The Irish Government has two main objectives in the area of immigration reform: relief for undocumented Irish citizens in the US and greater opportunities for migration of Irish citizens to the US. This year the Government is providing €1m in support to Irish immigration centres in the US which provide important and valuable services to Irish emigrants.

As Minister, I have raised the issue of immigration reform with contacts within the US administration at every opportunity including with Speaker Ryan and, most recently, with Secretary of State John Kerry, when he visited Tipperary on October 30 last.

While the current context for immigration reform might not appear encouraging, I and my colleagues in Government will continue to work with our US partners - both Republican and Democrat - in advocating immigration reform and avail of every opportunity with the incoming administration and congress to press for positive change. I still believe it is possible to make progress on this important issue.

Economically, the close people-to-people exchanges between Ireland and the US - established over many generations - have greatly assisted the development of the dynamic economic ties between our two countries.

US companies employ some 140,000 people in Ireland; have invested more than $277bn in Ireland since 1990; and their collective annual output now exceeds $80bn. These companies contribute €3bn to the Irish Exchequer in taxes and an additional €13bn to the Irish economy in terms of payrolls, goods and services employed in their operations.

This is a two-way relationship, with huge benefits for both countries. Irish companies directly employ an estimated 120,000 people within 227 companies in all 50 states across the USA. These firms provide a range of opportunities for Irish-based staff to work and learn in the US, bringing valuable skills and experiences back to Ireland.

In education, the US is the largest single country of origin for international students studying in Irish higher education institutions - comprising 19pc of full time international students in Ireland. Indeed, Ireland is the seventh most popular destination globally for US students who study abroad. This is testament to the strength of our relationship and to the attraction of Ireland for so many younger US citizens.

Again, this is a two-way relationship, which benefits and enriches both countries. Some 150,000 Irish students and young professionals have undertaken summer work and travel programmes, or year-long work abroad programmes, since these J1 visa programmes were established.

Since 1957, the Fulbright Commission - which is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - has assisted some 2,000 postgrad students, scholars, professionals and teachers to participate in study programmes between the US and Ireland.

While political contexts on both sides of the Atlantic will continue to change and evolve, the long-term relationship between Ireland and the US is remarkable for its durability, its constancy, its resilience and its importance to our national well-being.

I welcome the invitation by President-elect Trump to the Taoiseach to visit the White House for St Patrick's Day in 2017. This continues a long tradition, which affords the Government an opportunity to raise, at the highest level, the issues which matter most to Ireland in its relationship with the US.

It is a celebration of a vital relationship which we have shared for decades - and I hope that successive presidents and taoisigh will continue to do so for years to come.

Charlie Flanagan TD is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

Sunday Independent

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