For the past week or so, this blog has been coming to you from the United States of America. For many years now, I have been a regular traveller to the States, both on business and vacation. During that time, some subtle changes have been taking place in the relations between both countries. Of course, a very substantial proportion of the American people have, or believe they have, an Irish heritage, and one of the consequences has been a strong engagement by them in Irish issues. This was at its most active during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s. It would be fair to say that US interest and support helped secure the peace in Ulster.
Ironically, the end of the Troubles moved Ireland off the radar a little for many Americans. In addition, the prosperity which followed the Celtic Tiger also meant that Ireland was a much less obvious recipient for US generosity and financial support. And on top of that again, the same prosperity has resulted in what is more or less the end of mass emigration from Ireland, so that a new generation of Irish Americans with direct experience of the home country is not being formed in the same way as before. This has led some to conclude that the strong ties between both countries will inevitably be loosened over the years ahead.
Maybe they will. But it has to be aid that US interest in Ireland has been a very important part of Ireland’s success, and it will continue to be needed if that success is to be sustainable. The Celtic Tiger was nurtured through American investment in Irish industry, and while we must accept that some of that investment will move elsewhere in the global economy, we must try to ensure that the conditions are right for attracting new interest. It is in this context that the higher education sector in Ireland is so important a point made also by the then US Ambassador to Ireland in 2005 in an interview.
In the future, it will be much harder for us to persuade American investors that Ireland can provide the optimal environment for manufacturing plants and call centres – we are not as low cost a location as we used to be. However, as some recent investment decisions have shown, we can still persuade our US friends and partners that we have some critical mass in knowledge intensive areas, with a strong research performance that will provide a perfect home for R&D, and highly skilled people trained to PhD level in sufficient numbers. For Ireland to avoid the risk of recession, investment in universities is a critical condition; any ambivalence could have hugely detrimental consequences.
For the Irish universities, it is also important that we continue to develop direct links with US businesses and universities, so that a knowledge partnership between both countries is seen to be growing. My university actively pursues such links constantly, and we have joint research teams with both industry and higher education partners in the States.
In the overall matter of Irish-American relations, I am an optimist. I believe that Irish-American links will continue to grow. But we need to work at it. And I am sure we will.