Irish still give Obama a green light

DUBLIN, Ireland ― One year after President Barack Obama took office, the “special relationship” between the United States and Ireland is as strong as ever.

The term was once used exclusively to denote the close Washington-London alliance but it was hijacked by Ireland after relations with Dublin blossomed during the Clinton administration.
President Clinton made Ireland the only country with guaranteed top-level access to the White House on one day every year — St Patrick’s Day.

President George W. Bush continued this practice and so too has Obama, somewhat to the relief of the Irish government, which feared he might have other priorities.

But, then, Barack Obama is from Chicago which, as everyone in Ireland knows, is an outpost of the Emerald Isle. And so far, the Irish have been pleased with what they see:

  • On March 17, 2009, the president welcomed the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, for the ritual gift of shamrock and substantive discussions on Northern Ireland and trade and investment.
  • His appointment of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a long-standing supporter of Ireland, as U.S. ambassador to Dublin was very well received in Ireland.
  • So, too, was the visit in October of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been to Dublin and Belfast so many times as first lady and senator she knows everyone by their first names.
  • The U.S.-Ireland relationship was further strengthened by Clinton's appointment of New York-based Irish businessman Declan Kelly as U.S. economic envoy to Northern Ireland.
  • Clinton’s visit was marked by an announcement that the New York Stock Exchange would open a branch in Belfast creating 400 jobs, and of continuing U.S. commitment to the Northern Ireland peace process.

All this showed that “the fear that this administration would in some way sideline Northern Ireland has proven to be unfounded,” said Kingsley Aikins, president and CEO of the Worldwide Ireland Funds, a global philanthropic network supporting projects on both sides of the Irish border.

Aikins believes that “despite the tougher ride critics in the U.S. are currently giving President Obama, one year on Irish people still hold him in high regard and less to blame for current woes.”

(Read about Ireland's enthusiasm for O'Bama at the time of his inauguration.)

This view is widely shared in Dublin, partly for historical reasons, and partly because his predecessor was so unloved, and Irish people really want the new president to succeed.

“I think people in Ireland are very positive towards Obama as they are traditionally inclined to support the Democratic Party, and George W. Bush was very unpopular because of his international policies, particularly in Iraq,” said public relations executive Michael Keane of Insight Consultants in Dublin.

There has been some dismay at Obama becoming, as the Irish Times Washington Correspondent Lara Marlowe put it, “an apologist for war” in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, there is more sympathy than criticism for the dilemmas Obama inherited in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Ireland has supported Obama’s move to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and has accepted two detainees for resettlement.

Professor Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin, remarked that while “Obama’s election promise to ‘re-enchant’ an idea of America that had been tarnished — and that has had especial potency for generations of Irish people — more tangible concerns have barely registered.”

Kennedy identified a deeper concern in Ireland: “that the U.S. provides a global leadership that may help us recover from our economic miseries.”

Obama’s handling of the U.S. economy has some Irish critics, most notably Michael Casey, former chief economist at the Irish Central Bank and board member of the International Monetary Fund. U.S. interest rate reductions failed to prevent house prices from falling, and large injections of liquidity did not work because they did not reduce borrowing costs, he wrote in an article savaging the Obama administration’s policies in the Irish Times.

There was considerable relief here that Obama did not include Ireland among the tax havens for American companies he said he would target during his campaign.

In May the president proposed changes to tax rules for the 620 U.S. subsidiaries operating here. They will no longer be able to claim tax deductions in America for expenses related to their Irish operations. However, they will still be able to defer paying U.S. tax on profits earned in Ireland.

It could have been much worse. Feargal O’Rourke, an international tax partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dublin, said at the time: “There is no abolition of deferral. That’s the really good news.”

At stake were the jobs of 100,000 Irish people directly employed by American companies in Ireland, where the stock of U.S. foreign direct investment stands at a staggering $875 billion, more than the combined American total in China, India, Russia and Brazil, according to the U.S. State Department.

Ireland for its part, and despite its economic woes, is the 10th-largest source of foreign direct investment in the U.S.

That alone constitutes a continuing special relationship in anyone’s book.

(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)