SETTING UP THE NEW IRISH CONSULATE IN WALES
Given the economic, academic, cultural and sporting connections that have existed for generations between Wales and Ireland, it was perhaps inevitable that the day after the Queen had formally opened the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, the first ever Irish Consulate was established in the capital city of Wales.
Under the inspirational leadership of Conor O’Riordan, it quickly made an impact in improving the relationship between the two nations and as I had spent two years researching the economy of Ireland as a postgraduate research fellow at University College Dublin, I was welcomed into the group of Welsh supporters that Conor had gathered around him.
We quickly became good friends cemented through a mutual love of Guinness and rugby, and had many hours of discussing how Wales could learn lessons from the economic experiences of Ireland in turning itself from the ‘poor man of Europe” as the Economist magazine described the nation in the early 1990s, to the Celtic Tiger that was then the envy of nations around the world.
But that economic success did not last and following the financial crisis that engulfed Ireland and the resulting public sector cuts, the disappointing decision was made by the Irish Government to retrench its overseas activities and close the doors of its consulate in Cardiff in 2009.
A decade later, and with the challenges of Brexit facing both nations, the Irish Government has made a confident decision to re-open the Consulate in Cardiff as part of Ireland’s expansion of its diplomatic network under the “Global Ireland” initiative which has also seen new Consulates General open in other cities around the World including Vancouver and Mumbai.
With both a government and economic focus, the new Consulate will play an important role in strengthening and deepening the existing relationships between Ireland and Wales. And with ports in Anglesey and Pembrokeshire acting as gateways to the Emerald Isle, Wales plays a particularly important role in ensuring the flow of trade between the UK and Ireland.
And the symbiotic economic ties between the two countries is demonstrated by the fact that despite having a small population, Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export market of goods and services and its eleventh largest foreign investor while the UK is Ireland’s second largest export market and third largest investor after the US and Germany.
In addition, Irish companies employ in the region of 100,000 people in the UK and there are currently over 50,000 Irish directors of UK companies, more than of any other nationality.
There are already been some excellent work in this area, most notably under the EU’s Interreg programme which has funded a large number of projects over the last twenty years which has brought together East Ireland with West Wales to develop a joint approach in a range of areas including innovation, climate change and culture.
But more can be done in creating and cementing greater links between academia, business and civic society and, more importantly, learning from each other’s experiences.
For example, for the last few years I have been privileged to chair a postgraduate and postdoctoral awards assessment panel for the Irish Research Council and have seen, at first hand, how their programmes are driving forward research excellence amongst young academics in Ireland.
Certainly, there should be no reason why the Welsh Government, by learning from the Irish experience, could not develop a comparable programme which would do the same for students and graduates here in Wales.
Similarly, with both the Cardiff Capital region and the greater Dublin area being recognised as hotspots for new technology start-ups, there are real opportunities for not only the ecosystems in each region to work more closely together but for entrepreneurial companies from both sides of the Irish Sea to potentially collaborate on developing new ideas.
And as part of the Newport Economic Network’s activities to regenerate Wales’ third city, there are already plans to create a network of smaller conurbations across Europe that would support each other in developing their local economies and naturally, that network would include one of the non-Dublin urban areas on the West Coast of Ireland.
Therefore, there could and should be a closer relationship between our two nations as we face some significant challenges over the UK’s exit from the European Union. One can only hope that the new Irish Consulate in Cardiff, in partnership with both the Welsh and UK Governments, will help facilitate these greater links over the next few years for the benefit of both of our economies.