Opinion: Ties linking Ireland, Georgia, Atlanta are deep

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Underpinning trade relations are deep networks of family, community and people-to-people ties.

I am delighted to represent the government of Ireland at St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Georgia this year. The Peach State is more Irish than most people realize: almost one million Georgians claim Irish or Scots-Irish ancestry.

Savannah’s St. Patrick’s parade is said to be the world’s second largest, while Atlanta’s parade is the longest-running event in the history of the city. I am here to pay tribute to that heritage, to connect with our million-strong diaspora in the state and to express our appreciation for the fact that Georgia has been a place where Irish people could thrive.

Our ties here are deep and longstanding. Best of all, they are renewing at pace.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Fifteen years ago, aside from San Francisco, there was no Irish diplomatic presence in the U.S. south of Washington, D.C. When we opened our consulate in Atlanta in 2010, it was the first new Irish consulate in the U.S. since the 1930s. Since then, we have added offices in LA, Austin and Miami. That is because we recognize that so much of America’s future and promise is in the South.

Irish people and businesses are flocking here, as they are from all over the world. At a conservative estimate, Irish companies employ around 7,000 Georgians. Ireland is one of the top 10 sources of foreign direct investment into the state. CRH, the largest Irish employer in the U.S., has its headquarters in Atlanta. Our financial services companies have made their home in Atlanta’s “Transaction Alley.” During my visit here, I will participate in announcements by two Irish fintech companies, Keeper Solutions and Swoop, of new partnerships with Georgia-based companies.

In the other direction, Atlanta giants such as Coca-Cola and UPS have been enormously valued partners and we are proud that their operations in Ireland have contributed to their continued global success.

Irish investors can see that Georgia offers a rare combination of business-friendly environment, quality of life, a highly educated workforce and authentic hospitality. Those ingredients are familiar to us in Ireland because they have been the secret to our own transformation in the space of a few short decades from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the most highly developed nations in the world.

Underpinning our trade relations are deep networks of family, community and people-to-people ties. Emory University’s Rose Library contains one of the preeminent collections of Irish literary papers in the world, not least the papers of Nobel Prize-winning poet Séamus Heaney.

It has also been important to us as a government to tell the story of the diversity of Ireland’s diaspora in the United States. We have supported the establishment of a new organization called the African American Irish Diaspora Network (AAIDN), with which we have been working to create space for important conversations about overlapping Black and Irish identities. AAIDN estimates that 38% of African Americans have some Irish heritage.

In our work in Atlanta, we have also placed a spotlight on the civil rights parallels, imperfect though they are, between Ireland and the United States, going right back to Frederick Douglass’ 1845 visit to Ireland and his inspiring encounter with Ireland’s “Liberator”, Daniel O’Connell. Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement was profoundly influenced by Atlanta leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, down to singing the same hymns (”We Shall Overcome”) and to emulating the example of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

Ireland has become one of the most diverse countries in Europe. Where once it was a country of emigration, 17% of people living in Ireland today were not born there. And that is without taking account of the approximately 75,000 Ukrainians we have welcomed to our homes and communities since Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine.

This year, we mark a particularly special St. Patrick’s Day. Ireland is celebrating three major anniversaries that go to the heart of our identity as a country. We mark the centenary of Ireland’s joining of the League of Nations, when we took our place among the nations of the world; the 50th anniversary of our accession to the then-European Economic Community; and the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought to an end decades of political violence in Northern Ireland. All along the path of our development as an independent, peaceful and prosperous nation, our U.S. friends and partners have stood by us and provided support when we needed it.

I think especially at this time of that great son of Georgia, President Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 became the first U.S. president to issue a statement on Northern Ireland, in the face of strong objections and marked a decisive shift in the United States’ approach to Ireland. As we approach 25 years since the signing of the transformational Good Friday agreement in April 1998, we recall the momentous role of the U.S. in helping to bring about peace and salute President Carter’s leadership.

Darragh O’Brien, member of parliament, is Ireland’s minister for housing, local government and heritage.