The “special relationship” between Britain and the United States has been a fixture of international politics for decades. Could Washington now also have a “special friend” in Ireland?
Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador in Washington, thinks so. And he says it’s largely because of Britain’s departure from the European Union.
“Brexit is a game-changer for Ireland,” Mulhall said to The Washington Post. “We become a bridge between the European Union and the United States both for investment but also for influence,” he added.
Those hopes even have a tangible symbol: This month, seeking to expand its diplomatic mission in Washington, the Irish government closed a deal to buy a 6,500-square-foot building once used by the Egyptian Embassy. It’s still a far cry from Britain’s gargantuan embassy compound, one of the biggest in Washington, but it’s a signal of Dublin’s intent.
Before he took up residence in Washington last year, Mulhall served as Ireland’s ambassador to Britain. He personally campaigned against Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. in 2016; after British voters approved Brexit, he later told a reporter, he felt “sadness” that Britain’s relationship with Ireland was being risked.
Now he sees Brexit as a new opportunity for Ireland — one that could rival many Brexiteers' own hopes for an economic future that relies on greater trade with the United States and other nations outside of Europe.
“Britain is under a cloud of uncertainty as far as its future access to the European single market in concerned,” Mulhall said. “We feel that any country that’s looking at either expanding its presence in Europe or establishing a presence for the first time will look less favorably on Britain and more favorably on Ireland.”
After Brexit, British leaders have clung to the idea of an unbending Anglo-American bond. British Prime Minister Theresa May was the first world leader to visit President Trump after he took office last year. Both leaders praised the “special relationship” during that visit, with May saying it was based “on the bonds of history, of family, kinship and common interests.”
But at the same time, Britain’s position as a member of the E.U. was one of its key selling points. “We are strong and active members of the European Union, the gateway to the world’s largest single market,” said May’s predecessor, David Cameron, in a 2010 speech.
With Britain looking to leave the E.U., many other E.U. countries are now pledging to become Washington’s new “gateway to Europe.” Ireland may be a particularly attractive base for American companies: Its common-law system is similar to the American legal structure, and it is known for being one of the most business-friendly countries in the E.U.
And, of course, Ireland and the United States share a common language. “We will be the only English-speaking country left in the European Union,” Mulhall pointed out.
Outside experts agree that Ireland is well positioned to strengthen its ties to the United States. “Ireland’s institutions have been calibrated toward attracting U.S. investment for decades, which places the country in a strong position to attract investment which may pivot away from the U.K. post-Brexit,” said Neil Dooley, a politics lecturer at the University of Sussex.
Given that Ireland is a relatively small country — just 4.7 million people — even a small change could have profound effects on the economy. Irish firms are in the process of reforming their business plans for a post-Brexit future, according to Sean Davis, the regional director for Enterprise Ireland, a state economic agency that promotes new export sales.
Davis said that 73 percent of Irish companies that work with Enterprise Ireland have taken some kind of action to deal with a post-Brexit future. That often means planning to steer their exports away from Britain. “The U.K. is going to become less attractive to Irish companies,” Davis said.
Companies sponsored by Enterprise Ireland opened 59 offices in the United States last year, according to Davis. In total, there are more than 800 Irish-owned companies in the United States, with 100,000 people employed by Irish-origin companies.
That’s a useful talking point given the Trump administration’s focus on protecting American jobs, but there could be other issues down the line. The United States has a considerable trade deficit with the Ireland, and Trump has specifically called out the country as a “tax haven.” The tax cuts passed by Republicans in 2017 appear to have hit U.S. investment in Ireland, according to Irish estimates.
And with Trump, there’s always the risk of unexpected feuds. The president is at odds with the Irish government on a variety of foreign policy issues; he has already canceled one trip to Ireland amid planned mass protests.
As such, any hopes for a “special relationship,” with this president at least, may be premature. “I don’t think Ireland kids itself that it has a special, meaningful relationship with the U.S.,” said Brian Lucey, a professor at Trinity Business School at Trinity College Dublin. “Particularly with Trump, where there’s a hard-nosed, mercantilist approach.”
But Mulhall argued Ireland knows how quickly things can change. “We were by far the poorest E.U. country” 40 years ago, he said. “Today we’re one of the richest ones.”
“This is, I think, one of the most exciting projects of my 40-year career in the foreign service,” he said of Ireland’s new global ambition. “We’re no longer a weak country trying to pull itself up by its bootstraps. We now have strengths and we need to deploy those strengths to advance our interest further in this changing and sometimes volatile international environment.”