Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall (left) and Council President Terry McCarthy
Ireland has transformed itself in the past 20 years, both economically and socially, from one of the more socially conservative countries in Europe to one of the most prosperous and open-minded states, according to Dan Mulhall, the new Irish Ambassador in Washington. Speaking to a LAWAC roundtable lunch of Board and International Circle members, Mulhall said that Ireland has even managed “a remarkable recovery” from the crash of 2007-08 that forced the government to accept a bail-out from the IMF: Ireland has now paid off all its debt to the IMF, and this year the economy is expected to grow by 5%, the highest rate in Europe.
Much of Ireland’s transformation has come from the benefits of globalization - its membership in the EU, its openness to foreign investment, particularly from the US, and its well-educated English-speaking workforce. As an island off the west coast of Europe, Ireland might not have been suited for heavy manufacturing, but it has found its mark with high-tech industries - many developed in the US - that began to flourish in the 1990’s. 800 US companies employ 50,000 people in Ireland - and they account for 60% of Irish exports. From a country whose per capita GDP was about 2/3 of the European average when it joined the EU (then the EEC), Ireland’s per capita GDP today exceeds that of Germany, France or the UK.
However Ireland faces challenges, the largest being the “disastrous situation” of Brexit in the UK, which Mulhall said “is tearing Britain apart.” The vote to leave the EU last summer has become all-consuming in Britain. “It is essentially a negative project, trying to undo 44 years of integration with the other European countries.” While the British struggle to manage their exit from the EU, Mulhall said that Ireland needs to seek to minimize the downsides, particularly damage to Irish trade with Britain, while attempting to maximize the upside - which might include winning US investment that might otherwise have gone to the UK.
“The biggest problem is the border [between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland] which in the past 25 years has become invisible.” All border checkpoints were dismantled in the course of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland - but since Northern Ireland is part of the UK, an exit from the EU would seem to require the border between the two parts of Ireland being put back in place - something nobody wants. “Everybody is agreed - in Ireland, in the UK and in Brussels - they don’t want the border back.” Mulhall says that some special deal for Northern Ireland will probably have to be negotiated - but so far the British have made no concrete proposals. He also said it was “disappointing” that 20 years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed, a “center ground” has not developed in Northern Ireland’s politics. In fact the more moderate parties on the nationalist/Catholic side as well as on the unionist/Protestant side have been sidelined by the more extreme parties, which has led to political deadlock in Northern Ireland.
On top of Ireland’s economic advances, the country has also seen an enormous social transformation, from a Catholic-dominated country where condoms were illegal and the education system was run by priests and nuns to a country that is progressive and open-minded even by European standards. Much has been made internationally of the fact that Ireland’s new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar is half-Indian and openly gay - and yet domestically “this is something that people don’t pay much attention to.” Mulhall says that what is relevant is the fact that Varadkar, at 38, is 30 years younger than his immediate predecessor. His Finance Minister is also 30 years younger than his predecessor. “These people have a different mindset - they grew up in a country that was prosperous and outward-looking,” and not in the old, conservative Ireland that was struggling economically to survive.
Asked about Ireland’s response to the immigration crisis that has beset the EU as a whole, Mulhall said that “in the 1990’s just 2% of Ireland’s population was born outside the state - today it is 17%.” And yet Ireland has no political party, or even any individual politicians, who are campaigning to restrict immigration - almost uniquely within the EU, where nationalist, anti-immigration parties are on the rise everywhere else. Not only does Ireland gain from the influx of foreign labor as its economy continues to expand, but also it has learnt from its own history. “Ireland realizes we are a nation of emigrants - and our people have been treated badly in other countries around the world - we don’t want to repeat that ourselves, by blaming our problems on foreigners.” A lesson to bear in mind as populism and nationalism are on the rise around the world.