Former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that “A week is a long time in politics”, a sentiment that certainly seems to chime with the ever-changing, unpredictable politics of today. In the US and Britain, establishment politics have been swiftly thrown out the window, with the Trump and Brexit votes held by some as vital victories against an all-powerful, globalist elite. What then does all this mean for Ireland, and its future in national and international politics? The University Times spoke to two prominent figures in Irish politics, Lord Mayor Brendan Carr, the incumbent Lord Mayor of Dublin, and Ambassador Anne Anderson, Ireland’s 17th Ambassador to the USA, to shed some light on the far-reaching effects of this political shake-up, and to present the various similarities and contrasts between domestic and international politics.
Lord Mayor Brendan Carr sees his role in terms of two main goals. On the one hand, he is responsible for ensuring the city thrives as a rapidly growing international centre, while on the other, he seeks to attract commerce and prosperity to the capital. As we sit in the impressive grandeur of Mansion House, Carr explains how the position has become largely focused on promoting Dublin to the global stage: “We have to ensure the city is portrayed in a positive light, whilst addressing any of the domestic concerns that the citizens of Dublin may have. It can range from anything from traffic, to housing, infrastructure, the environment. We also meet various dignitaries, different ambassadors and different people that come in from around the world.”
He mentions the importance of attracting investment also: “Our twin is San Jose for instance. It’s been very successful in getting investments from Silicon Valley into Dublin.” Carr emphasises the far-reaching nature of his work. “Tomorrow for instance, I’ve been invited to Nice – to present a book of condolences the people of Dublin have done for the terror attack last year.” From the diaspora Kennedys that hailed from Wexford, to Henry “the Eighth” Healy, Obama’s eighth cousin, US connections to Ireland have been ever present in the media and popular culture. But the link between both countries is far, far more than distant familial relations. Today, over 34 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, while nine signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were Irish. From an economic perspective, US companies are continuing to invest heavily in Ireland, providing skilled labour and fostering innovation and growth. Writing for the American Chamber of Commerce, Kevin F O’Malley, the US Ambassador to Ireland stated that “a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of the US/Ireland relationship. It is the lifeblood that runs through the veins of that relationship, and sustains the deep and abiding friendship our countries share. I understood that on an intellectual level before I arrived as Ambassador in 2014, but I understand it on a much deeper level now.” To put this in context, US direct investment stock in Ireland totalled $310 billion in 2014, while US investment flows to Ireland hit a record $58.1 billion in 2014.
Today, over 34 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, while nine signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were Irish. From an economic perspective, US companies are continuing to invest heavily in Ireland
Deepening already rich cultural ties, as well as financial ones, are central to both positions. With the election of the ever-divisive Trump, politicians and diplomats must find ways to overcome the fractures and wounds created by a ferocious, lengthy election cycle. Taoiseach Enda Kenny attracted criticism from some quarters for vowing to continue the diplomatic “shamrock tradition”. It has been followed by all Taoiseachs since 1952, when Irish Ambassador to the US John Hearne sent a gift of shamrocks to then-president, Harry Truman. Sixty four years on, a bowl is presented to all elected US Presidents. But Kenny was far from alone in offering his congratulations and exhibiting diplomatic expediency. Theresa May stated that she was “looking forward to working with president-elect Donald Trump, building on these ties”, while Vladimir Putin and also Viktor Orban of Hungary struck perhaps more positive notes, the latter announcing on Twitter: “What great news. Democracy is still alive!” Angela Merkel, on the other hand, made a more measured, conditional response, offering support and cooperation on the basis of Germany’s shared values with the US, values of democracy, individual liberty, law and order, and freedom from oppression or prejudice. But Francois Hollande, President of France, addressed Trump’s rhetoric directly, and critically: “Certain positions taken by Donald Trump during the American campaign must be confronted with the values and interests we share with the United States.”
From the very beginning of his one-year term, the Lord Mayor has been openly critical of the new administration, describing the environment created by the president-elect as xenophobic and intolerant, and seeing his early actions as at least part of a “concerning trajectory”. All debates aside, it is difficult to imagine a political figure so divisive, so outspoken and so partisan as Trump. Commenting on the new administration, Anderson in contrast was understandably reserved, but emphasised the need for an approach that first and foremost preserves the existing strong ties. “It was a very hard-fought election campaign and the polls largely got the outcome wrong. There is still a lot of healing to be done. Given the closeness and depth of the ties between our two countries, and the range of shared interests, Ireland will of course want to ensure a forthcoming and fruitful relationship with the new Administration. The Taoiseach has had early contact with the president-elect and vice president-elect, and we are looking forward to in-depth engagement around St Patrick’s Day.”
Equally the UK’s exit from the EU presents its own set of diplomatic and strategic challenges to Ireland and its politicians, be they domestic or international. Again, preserving existing strong ties is of paramount importance. At the forefront of Ireland’s outlook in terms of a post-Brexit future is the debate surrounding a hard border between the North and the South, and the potential problems that could arise from that border being closed in terms of the peace process. A further key priority is to preserve the historically vital trading relationship with our closest neighbour. The Lord Mayor is adamant about this: “Personally I don’t suspect there will be a hard Brexit, but we’re still going to have to have a strong relationship with the UK – they’ve been our strongest trading partner for hundreds of years, they’ve been there before the EU, they’re going to be there after the EU. There’s no doubt about that.” A look at the statistics demonstrates this with clarity: over one billion pounds of goods and services are traded between the nations every week, while the UK exports more to Ireland than it does to China, India and Brazil combined. In terms of food and drink, almost half of all Irish produce is sold to the UK. For the Ambassador, it is important that we ensure a positive outcome for all concerned: “The ‘leave’ decision was clearly not the result we wanted, or that the Irish government campaigned for. But it is the outcome we all have to deal with. Our goal now is to help strengthen the European Union while ensuring as close a relationship as possible between the UK and EU. The Government will be prioritising the protection of Ireland’s interests, economic and political.”
We have never found out why the system is broken. We have never looked at the root issues, because then we would have to ask the hard questions
While any number of interviews could be held on the topic of tumultuous global politics, it’s logical that a discussion with Dublin’s first citizen would focus particularly on the issues facing his Dublin constituency, specifically those of homelessness, drug abuse and gentrification. Carr views most of the underlying problems facing Dublin as interconnected. He presents a refreshingly rational and holistic view of the issues, consistently avoiding the simplistic and one-size-fits-all solutions so often touted in today’s political climate. But what becomes clear in the course of our discussion is a particular devotion to finding solutions to homelessness in the capital. In our discussion, he is on the whole critical of the Home Sweet Home campaign and the Apollo House occupation. “I didn’t condone it, or see any need for it. There were 54 free hostel beds in the system at the time of the occupation.” He points out the asymmetries and contradictions within the much-publicised protest, claiming that the public has been to some extent deceived. “It was a substantial amount of money raised, which will now go into the Home Sweet Home political campaign. I’ve called on Home Sweet Home to give the money back to charities, but they have refused. I don’t believe people donated for the purpose of a campaign, they donated to help the homeless.”
One of his main criticisms of the campaign is that the solutions sought after on a local and national level are too one-dimensional. The current system simply gives those seeking help “a key to social housing and walks away”. Carr realises that solving such social issues is far more complex than that – social ills such as homelessness and drug abuse are rarely formed in a vacuum. Instead they are the result of the socio-economic foundations, or lack thereof, that define them. Carr promotes a more comprehensive approach to solving such problems: “We have never found out why the system is broken. We have never looked at the root issues, because then we would have to ask the hard questions.” He views the system currently as not fit for use: “If you have a situation where you don’t have a decent home and don’t have a decent job, people just fall into this trap. Which is why we have to get into the core roots, we have to question why people are in a society where they never want to work.” Citing methods used in Atlanta, Carr thinks that the government should provide more help in supporting those struggling to turn their lives around. He advocates an approach which offers training, skills and advice to families in need. Revealing a prevailing humanist aspect to his political vision, Carr feels that homelessness is an issue that is every citizen’s responsibility to address, and it is hard to disagree with this.
Carr was equally focused on addressing the issue of drug use around the city. He is fully behind the recently legislated injection centres due to open shortly around Dublin City. Carr is optimistic about the possible effects of such controversial measures: “If we can get people off the streets and into a safe environment and a healthy environment, we are far more likely to be able to communicate with them, to get them off the drugs.” Carr, however, is aware of the criticisms that have been levelled towards the plans. Recent media reports have highlighted the problems associated with such a scheme. The possibility of increased crime and intensified local drug dealing originating around the centres have been central to the political discourse on the issue. Carr discards the complaints, with a view that the centres will serve a great purpose, and ultimately be beneficial to society as a whole. Similar to his views on homelessness, Carr feels that the system is failing those affected by the scourge of drugs: “We’re putting people into prisons where they come back out, they can never get a job and they go straight back into crime.” To his credit, Carr has backed his rhetoric with support for training programs aimed at ex-convicts, crucially aware of the importance of employment prospects to reduce the risk of future infringements. With the dual problems of homelessness and drug use causing such consternation in the city currently, it will be interesting to see if the progressive policies championed by the mayor have any positive impact over the next few years.
An underlying theme to the Lord Mayor’s thoughts was the aim of making Dublin a liveable city for its average citizen. Dublin has experienced soaring living costs in recent times, with prices reaching near their lofty Celtic Tiger heights. Several times throughout the interview, Carr mentions that one of his main initiatives would be to introduce a living wage in the city: “The one issue we said we would conquer and we haven’t conquered yet, is the living wage.” A fascinating idea, it is one that is modelled on a similar scheme brought into the UK last year. The idea would be to pay workers in Dublin a wage that reflects actual living costs, which tend to be significantly higher than the national average. Carr has high hopes for the plan, seeing it as a necessity for the continued growth of the city: “If you have a job and you’re working in the city, there are certain things you should be able to afford and housing is one of them. It would solve a lot of the problems in this city, housing, poverty, crime, a lot of them.”
Boris Johnson, who would never be accused of being a friend of a worker, endorsed the living wage in London, cause they need people in London to be able to afford to live in London … It’s a no brainer really
However, there has been a significant backlash against its implementation: “It faces huge opposition from all the hotels, restaurants associations, Ibec, all the service industries.” Carr expresses dismay that such barriers exist to what appears to be a progressive, economically sound plan. As he candidly puts it: “Boris Johnson, who would never be accused of being a friend of a worker, endorsed the living wage in London, cause they need people in London to be able to afford to live in London…It’s a no brainer really.” However, Carr has plans to bypass the legislation that would be necessary to make such a scheme into law. He aims to promote a “living wage plaque”, which businesses that pay a living wage could proudly display, thus passing the ethical choice onto the consumer. Depicting his strongest emotions and animations while describing these plans, it is clear the Labour politician feels that this ambitious endeavour should hopefully materialise as his legacy.
In many ways his work in advocacy for Dublin resembles that of the Ambassador for Ireland, of course on a comparatively smaller, national scale. Previously Ambassador of Ireland to the UN, the EU, France and Monaco, Anderson was born in Clonmel in 1952. She graduated from University College Dublin (UCD) with a Bachelor of Arts in history and politics, and from the King’s Inns, where she obtained a diploma in legal studies. In 1972, she joined the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, and following that she was First Secretary of Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the UN from 1976 to 1983. Over email, she describes her role as extremely varied: “There are economic, political, cultural and community components. Economic relations are definitely a priority, so as to ensure that the investment and trade flows in both directions stay as healthy as they are. Maintaining close connections with the Administration and on Capitol Hill is also key to advancing our policy goals, including on immigration reform and on the Northern Ireland peace process. Community and people-to-people contacts are the lifeblood of the relationship, and very important in deepening the cultural ties.”
Anderson also highlights the paramount importance of preserving the Irish-American relationship for the future: “It is a very vibrant economic relationship – very dynamic and fast evolving. I would see the IT and pharmaceutical industries continuing to play a key role. Other areas which have great potential include the fintech industry and the environmentally aware/green industries, as highlighted by the decision by Tesla to open a store in Ireland next year.” When asked if there are any aspects of the US-Ireland relationship that could be improved, she points out that immigration and higher education are key areas of focus: “In general, I think we are covering the bases pretty well. But I am always conscious of unmet potential and trying to push the boundaries further. Immigration reform remains a big concern – nowadays, there are very limited opportunities for legal immigration from Ireland, and we also have significant numbers of undocumented Irish who would embrace any opportunity to regularise their status. So we will continue to push forward relentlessly on that front.” This point is particularly pertinent considering the severe anxiety reported amongst naturalised but undocumented Irish in the US recently, with the Irish Independent reporting that some were changing phone numbers or even moving to different locations in attempts to avoid potential early morning anti-immigration swoops.
I think there is still further potential to be developed in cooperation between universities – many of the top universities in the world are in the US and we would benefit from closer interaction
“In other areas, I think there is still further potential to be developed in cooperation between universities – many of the top universities in the world are in the US and we would benefit from closer interaction. We are also looking at the whole suite of “Next Generation” initiatives to see if there is scope for more coherence and overall strengthening.” Moreover, Anderson explains that ensuring a holistic approach is central to successful diplomacy, one which covers economic, political, social issues and fosters a sense of community between the two nations: “Maintaining close connections with the Administration and on Capitol Hill is key to advancing our policy goals, including on immigration reform and on the Northern Ireland peace process. Community and people-to-people contacts are the lifeblood of the relationship, and very important in deepening the cultural ties.”
At the end of our discussions, both politicians were keen to offer advice and encouragement to those considering work in the political sphere in any context. Anderson emphasised the fulfilment that she has derived from her career: “I would strongly encourage today’s students to look to diplomacy among your career options. I can think of few careers that are more satisfying, or that offer more outlets for your creativity and pride in Ireland.” Perhaps in contrast to many students expectations, those in the diplomatic service can come from any background. Anderson claims “Our diplomats come from very varied disciplines – the majority from a background in the Arts, Law, History, Business and Languages, but from right across the spectrum”. Carr was also enthusiastic for the youth to engage with politics. He emphatically tells me to “get engaged” and to “join the Labour party”, albeit humorously.
For young people the prospect of working in the political environment of today may seem not only daunting, but altogether unappealing. However, perhaps the problems that threaten international cooperation, strong ties and diplomatic efficiency draw attention to the need for the new generations to bring forward-thinking, pragmatic and innovative approaches to the fore.