Irish consul arrives amid tough times at home

The economic crisis  enveloping Ireland has special significance for one recent Atlanta transplant.

Paul Gleeson, a career diplomat who in August moved to Atlanta to head the just-opened Irish consulate  general here, is charged with, among other things,  promoting his homeland's business interests across the Southeast. It is Ireland's first consulate ever in the South, and the first new one in the U.S. since the 1930s.

Ireland accepted an international financial bailout to help save its banking industry, which was teetering in the wake of bad loans. The debacle is forcing the nation to boost revenue and cut costs, and concerns were raised that its notably business-friendly environment could be hurt.

But Gleeson said American companies with a sizable presence in Ireland, such as Atlanta giants Coca-Cola and UPS, need not worry that some of the factors of greatest importance to business will change.

They include: A  low 12.5 percent corporate tax rate; a skilled labor force; a strong reputation for investing in research and  infrastructure; and, for American companies, a shared language.

"Ireland's always been appealing as an entry point (to Europe) for American companies," said Ric Hubler, director of global business growth, of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Gleeson called the current corporate tax rate "rock solid" despite worries it might be raised. Irish officials have said they would maintain the current tax rate.

"At the end of the day, what we're saying is that the underlying factors that have made for a very strong economic relationship between Ireland and the U.S.  continue to apply," Gleeson said.

Some issues of importance to businesses have gotten better in Ireland, he added.

"Wage competitiveness has improved hugely," he said. "We had government (worker)  pay cuts of an average of 14 percent already. That has had a big impact on pay cuts in the private sector as well. Companies looking to invest in Ireland are getting much better bang for their buck now."

Besides facilitating business relationships between Ireland the U.S., Gleeson's mission, which has a four-year term, includes promoting tourism and educational opportunities in Ireland.

While the economic crisis has brought Ireland unwanted attention, Gleeson looks forward to a more stable time.

"To some degree we may need for the current saturation (media)  coverage to abate."  Then, he said, "we can restore a little bit of that perspective and a little bit of that calm."