Tom Kelly met corporate Irish America up close and personal last week, and found that many of them, passionate as they may be about Ireland, are also Bush supporting Republicans. He wonders whether Northern Ireland’s political class can live up to the challenge of making the tough decisions necessary to make Northern Ireland the same attractive target for American capital as the Republic now is.By Tom Kelly
Last week I was in New York for the US-Ireland Council for Industry and Commerce dinner, when the guest speaker was Mary Harney. Speaking without a note she gave an engaging and entertaining speech. The evening was held in the prestigious Metropolitan Club of New York.
Given most of the audience were Irish American of either Irish or of Scots-Irish descent, the nearest most of their forefathers (or mothers) would have got to the place was as serving staff, porters and cleaners. But last Thursday without any sense of irony, the Paddies were wined, dined and served by a new wave of mi-grant workers from Eastern Europe.
As Mary Harney pointed out, Ireland, like the audience present, had been transformed. No longer at the back of the bus in economic terms, Ireland was now one of the richest economies in the developed world and is the EU success template for regeneration.
Of course, the tanaiste, like all good politicians, claimed the success was in part due to the involvement of the Progressive Democrats in government. Given the relative stability of the government given to Ireland through the Fianna Fail/PD alliance there is some truth to her claim. The seeds of economic success were most definitely sown by the transformation within Fianna Fail which started with Sean Lemass in the 1960s and carried through various administrations.
A quick glance through the magazine Irish America and it is not hard to see a direct correlation between the rise of the Irish in corporate America and the incredibly high levels of US overseas investment in Ireland. Irish America is not as politically inclined towards the north as one might imagine. Many of the great and the good of corporate Irish America are Republicans. To watch many leading members of Sinn Fein swanking it up and sipping Bollinger with some of the Irish corporate elite in members clubs is quite remarkable. It is very unlikely if Sinn Fein talks up their taxation policies, lest they cause their hosts indigestion post the lobster luncheon.
If the talks in the north bear fruit, it would be interesting to see a Sinn Fein economy minister. While interesting as an experiment, it may not be successful or sensible.
However in fairness, Pat Doherty as chairman of the economic committee proved a good tag team member with Sir Reg Empey when on overseas visits or if hosting inward investment prospects. If and when a local administration gets up and running, hopefully parties will find themselves questioned more on the conflicts between their manifestoes and their actions as ministers.
It is quite trying to be clubbed to death by constitutional politics while our economy stagnates and we are strangled by our over dependence on a massive public sector we cannot afford to keep.
But have our politicians the will to break that dependence? Or will they bottle it in favour of the status quo? As we go forward with or without local politicians driving the economy, what issues are likely to side track us? Well it is likely there will be less talk about job creation and more about the Creation as we are not immune from issues emerging in the Western world.
In the US we saw that ‘moral values’ was the defining issue in the election, more than the moral issues such as the justification of going to war or the immorality of President Bush having presided over more job losses than president Hoover during the Depression. As we go forward one hopes we can avoid the divisiveness of such issues taking centre stage. Somehow I doubt it. The uneasy coalition between fundamental Protestantism and reactionary Catholi-cism could make the entire north a Bible belt which would make one time segrationalist Mississippi seem tolerant.
The with or without God bit in the EU constitution will also prove divisive as referenda take place in Britain and Ireland.
Hopefully those who aspire to hold office in any administration in the north will fire their mettle in defending the human rights of believer and non believer alike. If the recent public response to attacks on migrant workers in our Health Service is anything to go by, I would not hold my breath.
The north cannot continue as an economic backwater. For nearly 60 years successive British governments were happy with the ‘seen not heard’ existence of the Northern Ireland statelet.
The blatant discriminatory tactic of unionists followed by the murderous activities of paramilitaries of every hue meant that existence could not continue. Now British administrations can hear us but wish they did not have too.
Selling the north is not easy and those tasked with the job deserve to get credit. Their efforts are undermined more by inertia than intransigence. How much more difficult would Northern Ireland be to market if migrant workers continue to be attacked? How much harder would it be to sell the north as an inward investment location if we regressed into a theocratic state?
After 30 years of violence, 60 years of discrimination and hundreds of years of hatred, can’t we take a leaf from our American cousins in economic terms and learn to move on?
As Albert Reynolds once asked: “Who is afraid of peace?”
From the early omens many are afraid of peace, but they seem equally afraid of success. It would be a pity to make the opportunity offered by peace no better than the oppression offered by partisan politics.
First published in the Irish News.