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The Ireland-U.S. Council 2020 President's Report

Tom Higgins - Ireland US Council President
Tom Higgins
The Ireland-U.S. Council
& Executive Vice-President, Fiserv Inc.

During this extraordinary year of 2020 we have witnessed distressing events that have upended the lives of countless millions of people not just in America and in Ireland, but the world over.

Since the last Annual Report of our Ireland-U.S. Council in 2019, we have staged only three events. Because of the public health emergency caused by Covid-19 pandemic, all events after our 2020 Winter Meeting in Florida on our 2020 Calendar were canceled. For the first time in our history, our oldest and cherished events – the Annual Meeting of Members and our 58th Annual Dinner, always held on the same date, fell victim to this extraordinary and dangerous virus.

We were forced to cancel the following events:

  • Our March 2020 St. Patrick’s Lunch at The Metropolitan Club in New York City;
  • The 2020 Spring Corporate Lunch scheduled for April 24 in Dublin;
  • The 2020 Student Scholarships Award Lunch slated for June 11 New York and with it the entire Student Work Experience Scholarships program planned for this year;
  • The 2020 MidSummer Gala Dinner in Dublin Castle on June 24;
  • The Monday July 27 Golf Day at Rye Golf Club in Rye, New York;
  • The Friday, September 11, 2020 Golf Day in Ireland at Dún Laoghaire Golf Club in Enniskerry, County Wicklow;
  • Our 58th Annual Dinner at The Metropolitan Club in New York slated for Thursday, November 12, 2020;
  • Our December Member-Guest Reception in Dublin, Ireland that was to have happened on Thursday, December 17, 2020.

As the days had morphed into weeks and months, the outline became gradually clearer of the severity of the impact that this virus emergency was going to have and will continue to have into the near future on our Ireland-U.S. Council operations and revenues in the United States and in Ireland.

In the past few months, we have been working on a strategy to replace our in-person event hosting with a program of video messages and online communications sponsorships to maintain connectivity on our platform. This series of video messaging was launched in late-May and has featured

  • A video message introducing the program by Council Executive Director David O’Sullivan;
  • A video update on Council programming by Sophie Colgan, Program Director of the Council in New York;
  • A status update video recording by Annalise Stack on our Ireland-U.S. Council 2020 Student Work Experience Program;
  • A video message from Elizabeth Crabill, Chief Executive of CIE Tours International – the largest tour operator from the U.S. into Ireland - and a long-time Board Member and sponsor of the Ireland-U.S. Council.

These video messages were distributed to all members via email and posted on our website and distributed via our Ireland-U.S. Council YouTube Channel and across our social media platforms.

Other video messages being edited or planned at this time, among others, include:

  • A video report on our Ireland-U.S. Council 2020 Award for Outstanding Portraiture which we conduct in conjunction with the Irish Arts Review;
  • A video message from Tourism Ireland’s Alison Metcalfe, discussing the latest developments on Ireland’s travel and tourism industry, especially viewed from the U.S. perspective;
  • Video supporting Council-member company Dublin Airport Authority in its revised planning application to improve Dublin Airport’s operations and the addition of a new runway at its main hub facility in Dublin;

Of course, the Ireland-U.S. Council was not alone in having our regular schedule of activities disrupted. As we all know, millions of businesses were forced to shutter, putting livelihoods at risk and interrupting vital family incomes causing great hardship. At this writing, very positive vaccine news portends an end to the misery - if not very soon, then at least in a foreseeable future, which we all eagerly anticipate.

The Pandemic’s Economic Impact

The economic impact of the virus has been enormous and epic. Economic output measured in terms of GDP crashed at rates never witnessed before.

The human scale of the disaster can be seen clearly, for example, in the sharp upward spike in unemployment numbers in the United States and in Ireland for this year of 2020.

The Political Climate

Greek philosophy summed it up neatly: “Time is the element of change”. On both sides of the Atlantic, change has been the order of the day. A General Election in Ireland took place in February 2020 and resulted in Government changes involving an unprecedented centrist coalition.

The election was a three-way race, with the three largest parties each winning a share of the vote between 20% and 25%. Fianna Fáil finished with 38 seats. Sinn Féin made significant gains; it received the most first-preference votes, and won 37 seats, the party’s best result since it took its current form in 1970. Fine Gael, the governing party led by Varadkar, came third both in seats (35) and in first-preference votes. The result is a historic break from the two-party system, as it was the first time in almost a century that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael won the most votes. Furthermore, the combined vote share of the two traditional main parties fell to a historic low. The outgoing Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar formally resigned as Prime Minister.

Negotiations to form a new government were slow, continuing through to June. Finally, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party voted to enter government on an agreed platform generally considered to be moderate in nature. Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin was appointed as Taoiseach and formed a new government. The parties agreed that in December 2022, Varadkar would resume his service as Taoiseach.

So far, this novel governing arrangement seems to be working out well. A key issue from the viewpoint of business and economic growth, had been to exclude the hard-left policies of Sinn Féin from influencing Ireland’s economic management strategy, especially in the nation’s super-important corporation tax policy. Most important from the perspective of business relations is the political stability and continuity of economic policy that accompanies any change in Government in Ireland following an election, such as the 2020 General Election. Governments in Dublin might change but the broad sweep of economic policy remains. There is no change in the pro-private enterprise bias in policy formulation or likely legislation.

All Governments in Ireland throughout many decades have remained steadfast in a fundamental commitment to economic growth through private sector investment, productivity and output. Government spending is always a component of strategy. However, the cornerstone is always characterized by that underlying belief that Government does not drive wealth creation. This sounds like a simple formula and it is. Nonetheless, look around the world and be amazed at the number of countries where leadership seems unwilling or incapable to grasp that simple tenet.

Brexit is Happening

Brexit increasingly seems to look like a wound that will not heal. This contentious issue portends the biggest problem for the island of Ireland. If Britain crashes out of the European Union, there is a real fear that any reimposition of physical border controls in Ireland would spark a resumption of the political violence that the Good Friday Agreement so artfully defused.

It now looks almost certain that we will have a Brexit happening without a comprehensive trade deal worked out in advance. This will have many economic consequences – none of them good in our view. Ireland’s companies selling into Britain will face tariff, quota or red-tape complications that will increase the prices for their goods.

Of course, the price effects are worsened by the falling exchange rate for British sterling. Since the referendum vote in June, 2016, when the British people voted to leave the EU ending Britain’s 43-year membership, the value of the pound sterling has fallen by 35% against the euro.

It now looks almost certain that we will have a Brexit happening without a comprehensive trade deal worked out in advance. This will have many economic consequences – none of them good in our view. Ireland’s companies selling into Britain will face tariff, quota or red-tape complications that will increase the prices for their goods.

Of course, the price effects are worsened by the falling exchange rate for British sterling. Since the referendum vote in June, 2016, when the British people voted to leave the EU ending Britain’s 43-year membership, the value of the pound sterling has fallen by 35% against the euro.

The physical land border issue is the thorny nub of the problem. The London Government will have some serious thinking to do to keep the Ulster Unionists on-side as they ponder their Brexit options that affect Ireland. Complicating their available choices, both the European Union and the United States have made it clear that fresh trade agreements with the United Kingdom post-Brexit will be impossible if physical border controls are re-imposed on the island of Ireland, imperiling the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course, the politics in Northern Ireland have always been problematic. A best-of-both-worlds solution has been dismissed by the Unionist party – a deal where Northern Ireland on trade issues is treated as part of the European Union while maintaining its constitutional link and rule from London. Most business and trade union groups in Northern Ireland support this neat and favorable solution.

The U.S. Election Result

The November 2020 U.S. Election confirmed that America continues to be a divided nation when it comes to support for political parties. The durable and resilient two-party system has displayed this duality since the foundation of the American republic 244 years ago. The first contested General Election in America in 1796 was a bitter affair resulting in John Adams being elected over Thomas Jefferson by a narrow margin.

And, so it was with the most recent election – President-elect Biden edging a nose in front of incumbent President Trump by a tiny percentage in a handful of battleground states out of a total of some 156 million citizens casting their votes.

The incoming Biden Administration is likely to augur good news for Ireland-U.S. economic and business relations for several reasons. Joe Biden is proud of his Irish heritage and is not shy about proclaiming it publicly. Among the first half-dozen telephone calls to world leaders was a cordial chat with Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin. As Brexit looms, President-elect Biden has let it be known that no fresh trade deal with the United Kingdom can be successfully concluded if cross-border trade or travel in Ireland is in any way compromised as part of the Brexit process by the re-introduction of physical border controls or checkpoints on the island of Ireland.

In addition, any change in American corporation tax law by the new Biden Administration is likely to benefit Ireland. Federal tax burdens on companies will probably increase, not decrease. This will sharply highlight the continuing attractiveness of the Emerald Isle’s decades-long commitment to a low-tax strategy for business that benefits American corporations.

Despite the economic challenges presented by the pandemic, American inward investment flows into Ireland continued to be strong. Interestingly also, investment by Irish companies in America also remained buoyant.

Today in Ireland, 750 American companies have invested $450 billion in operations in Ireland. These companies employ 7% of Ireland’s total workforce. They play a significant and substantial role in the economy in Ireland – in terms of output, overseas sales and employment.

Despite the ravages occasioned by the Covid pandemic the economic relationship between America and Ireland, north and south, which has been developing for over 75 years, is erected on a very durable and rock-steady foundation. Ireland has maintained its attractions for American companies as a base from which to serve the largest consumer market on earth – the European Union.

Unlike, some popular fashions sweeping other nations, there is still a very positive attitude toward business in Ireland from all sectors of society; U.S. companies admire Ireland’s low corporate tax environment; tariff-free access to Europe’s markets continues to be crucial; and Ireland’s educated workforce ensures that the added value crated by these businesses is substantial.

Of course, it is a relationship that is a two-way street. Ireland’s continuing investment in America – is still a highlight of this strong bilateral connection. Over 100,000 Americans are employed in the U.S. by Irish companies operating across all 50 states at almost 1,000 locations. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers show that Ireland is now the ninth-largest source of foreign direct investment into the United States at $146.2 billion.

57th Annual Dinner of the Council in 2019

Ireland continues to be a fertile environment for encouraging enterprise. In a manner, this proud record was the subtext of the proceedings at the Ireland- U.S. Council’s 57th Annual Dinner when the Council’s Award for Outstanding Achievement was presented for 2019 to Denis O’Brien, Chairman of Digicel. The event was held at the usual venue of the Metropolitan Club in New York City on Wednesday, November 13, 2019.

The Award also marked his distinguished and successful business career and underlined his notable and important achievements in building bonds between America and Ireland. At the same time, the Award also celebrated his significant and generous philanthropy over many years to causes aimed at improving the lives of poor people and those less-fortunate.

The members and directors of the Council were delighted on this special occasion to honor such an outstanding and worthy recipient with an award that is so richly-deserved. The Council was pleased, in the words of the announcement by the Council earlier in the year, “to mark the unique and positive contributions which Denis O’Brien has made to improving the historic and deep relationships between Ireland and the United States.

Throughout his successful career, he has displayed an unmatched commitment to excellence in his business dealings.” Denis O’Brien is a self-made billionaire who is Ireland’s wealthiest native-born citizen. Born in Cork, he was raised in Dublin and learned business from his father who was engaged in veterinary pharmaceutical sales. He is a 1977 graduate of University College Dublin and earned an MBA degree from Boston College in 1982.

He worked in banking and aircraft leasing in his early career and struck out on his own - first in radio broadcasting and then in mobile cellular telecommunications. He was awarded Ireland’s second national cellphone license in open competition and made a huge success of the business - eventually selling the Esat Telecom enterprise, which he built from scratch, to British Telecom.

Subsequently, he built a second cellphone business –Digicel, of which he is the majority owner. This company has operations in 32 markets in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific Islands with a combined 12.8 million subscribers and 5,500 staff. He is also the founder of Communicorp Group, which has 42 radio stations in nine countries. His business empire also includes healthcare, energy, real estate, professional sports, aircraft leasing and other enterprises. His net worth has been estimated by Forbes Magazine at over $4 billion.

Council President-Emeritus, Dennis Swanson, in remarks at the 57th Annual Dinner making the presentation, said “Denis O’Brien exemplifies in many ways the enormous progress that has been made in business in Ireland in the past half- century and the deep, durable and strong entrepreneurial instincts that thrive to this day in the Emerald Isle.”

Mr. Swanson continued “The mission of the Ireland-U.S. Council mission is to promote closer commercial connections and deeper business links between Ireland and the United States. Our 2019 Recipient of the Council’s Award for Outstanding Achievement has made such a huge contribution in this area. It is a pleasure for us to acknowledge and celebrate Denis O’Brien’s achievements.”

2019 Member-Guest Reception in Dublin

The Ireland-U.S. Council’s popular Annual December Member-Guest Reception was held in Dublin on Thursday, December 12, 2019 with a focus on Ireland’s economic success story and future potential. The well-attended event was sponsored by Aer Lingus, PwC and Eaton Electrical Systems.

The President of the Council’s Ireland Chapter, Dr. Michael Somers, welcomed members and guests for the occasion. Keynote remarks were delivered by Danny McCoy, Chief Executive of IBEC, the largest representative body for business in Ireland. His interesting remarks dealt with Ireland’s economic track record and peered into the future discussing potential bottlenecks and logjams to future expansion that may lie ahead. As always, Danny McCoy was wholly-engaging in his speech which was interspersed with compelling analysis and opinions.

He was named Director General of IBEC in July 2009. Prior to his appointment he was Director of Policy for the organization. An economist by training, he had also served as Senior Research Officer at the Economic and Social Research Institute and as an economist in the Central Bank of Ireland.

IBEC is the largest and most consequential business representation organization in Ireland with membership by 7,500 companies, institutions and organizations, of all sizes and from all sectors throughout Ireland.

2020 Winter Meeting: Florida

This year’s Council’s annual Winter Meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, sponsored by Aer Lingus and CIE Tours International, saw great weather, strong participation by members and excellent speakers in various events - all held in great venues.

The Winter Meeting kicked off in great style with an opening-night dinner party on the rooftop of the beautiful oceanfront building - 400 South Ocean Blvd - on Wednesday, February 12. Held on a warm, pictureperfect evening, this event was generously hosted by Council President-Emeritus Michael J. Gibbons and his wife Cynthia.

Acting as Chairman of the 2020 Winter Meeting, he welcomed participants and noted that this was the 29 th successive year for the Council to host a Winter Meeting in Palm Beach for Council members from around the United States and from Ireland.

On the third day of the 2020 Winter Meeting - Valentine’s Day Friday, February 14 th - the Council hosted a luncheon meeting at The Sailfish Club at which several speakers addressed the gathering.

As it happened, with recent General Elections in Ireland and in the United Kingdom, our gathering provided a timely opportunity for updates for Council members and guests on developments on this front. Indeed, the U.K. election results seem to have provided the strong impetus needed for the return to work of the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland, overcoming the obstacles to their resuming office and again taking the reins of Government in the Province.

The details on this bit of good news were sketched in by Andrew Elliott, who is Northern Ireland’s top diplomat in Washington DC. These were his first set of remarks to this annual luncheon meeting as he had just arrived in America to take up his position in Washington DC during 2019 taking the place of Norman Houston who had just retired from the position.

Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall had a slightly more-difficult task as Ireland’s General Election results, still fresh from becoming clear, had resulted in a true stalemate on who might form the next Government in Dublin. The principal partner in the outgoing Minority Coalition Government, the Fine Gael party, had already indicated it would be going into Opposition in the Dáil, Ireland’s Parliament. The Ambassador was extremely clear in explaining a political situation that, on the date of lunch event, was a very fluid and quite-unclear scenario.

Ambassador Mulhall has served as Ireland’s envoy to the United States since presenting his credentials in the Oval Office to President Trump on September 8, 2017. Previously, he served as Ireland’s Ambassador in London, where he had been for four years.

The 2020 Winter Meeting also featured Council support of the Ireland Funds’ Dinner in Palm Beach, held at The Breakers Hotel on Thursday, February 13, 2020. And, time was found during the three-day event to stage the Council’s golf day, on that same day, at Mayacoo Lakes Country Club which again this year was played under warm and sunny skies.

Council Membership

We always seek and welcome new members in our Ireland-U.S. Council family for our mission and activities on both sides of the Atlantic. As a membership organization, we are eager to meet candidates for membership. We ask our existing members to assist in putting out the good word to potential new members.

Our Thanks

The business conditions in both Ireland’s economy and in the United States and between our two countries have been severely impacted by the COVID pandemic. Despite this, as we look beyond the virus emergency, the outlook for the future must be viewed as very bright and holding much promise. I think I can speak for all of us in saying that the date cannot come soon enough when we can say that the pandemic is in our rear-view mirror.

The mission of the Ireland-U.S. Council is to enhance the business bonds and commercial connections between the United States and Ireland. All our efforts are aimed at ensuring that these connections continue to flourish.

We extend our thanks to all our members, supporters, sponsors and friends in the United States and in Ireland for their participation and support of our programs and activities this past year. As we head into 2021 and beyond, with great hope for better days ahead, we pray that you will sustain your commitment to that tradition of support and loyalty.

Tom Higgins - Council President

Tom Higgins
The Ireland-U.S. Council
& Executive Vice-President, Fiserv Inc.
December 29, 2020
New York City

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