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Latin America Report

Turning Ireland's 'Love Affair' With Latin America Into Cross-Atlantic Ties

Tom Hudson
Shane Stephens, Ireland's consul general for the U.S. Southeast

The Irish aren’t entirely strangers to Latin America and the Caribbean.

Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought for Mexico in the 1800s. Irish tycoon Denis O’Brien owns Digicel, one of the Caribbean’s largest cell phone companies.

But Ireland’s new government has set out a specific agenda for engaging Latin America that’s unusual for a European country outside Spain and Portugal. And Miami figures prominently in that strategy.

Shane Stephens, Ireland’s consul general for the Southeast U.S., based in Atlanta, spoke with WLRN’s Tom Hudson during a recent visit to Miami.

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Tell us about this change in perspective on the part of the Irish government regarding a hemispheric strategy to look at this hemisphere as more holistic – one that’s not solely concentrated on the U.S.

We have experienced in recent years that when we have developed a comprehensive strategy for a region, it can develop real results. Our Asia strategy, developed some years ago by our Prime Minister’s department, was extremely successful in building up our engagement with China, with [South] Korea, with Japan, with that region as a whole.

In the same way that Miami and South Florida can be a gateway to Latin America for Ireland, I think Ireland can be a gateway to the European Union for companies in this region. -Shane Stephens

When you have not just our foreign ministry working on such a policy, but the whole government structure, it can create real results. You get better prioritization, you get a more comprehensive approach. It can deliver.

What does delivery look like? What could success look like for this Irish interest in a comprehensive Americas focus?

We’d certainly like to see greater flows of investment in both directions. We’d like to see trade further built up, and we’d like to see even cultural understandings developed. We already have quite a love affair in Ireland with Spanish-speaking countries. Our President in particular loves Spanish-speaking countries. On one of his first visits abroad as President he went to Brazil and Argentina, and then soon after that he visited Central America and Mexico.

Our previous President was also a Spanish speaker. So there’s a lot of love for the Latin American region in Ireland.

South Florida and Miami particularly obviously have deep and historic roots to Latin America and to the Caribbean – not so much necessarily to the European Union. Is there an opportunity for Ireland to fill that void?

I personally believe that Miami can be a key point for this strategy. In the same way that Miami and South Florida can be a gateway to Latin America for Ireland, I think Ireland can be a gateway to the European Union – to the 500 million consumers in the European Union – for companies in this region.


That includes in Latin America through Miami?

Yes, that’s a very important point. Many of the great corporations of [Latin] America have headquarters or major operations here, that’s an excellent point. Ireland has a track record, a strong track record, as a gateway to the European Union for American companies and for the U.S. broadly.

The flag of the Saint Patrick's Battalion, a corps of Irish soldiers that fought with Mexico in the Mexican-American War of the 1800s.

Now nine out of the top 10 American technology companies have bases in Ireland. Nine out of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies have bases in Ireland, and most of those companies are of course American. Investment from American corporations in Ireland is as a whole worth more, amazingly, than investment from American companies in France and Germany combined. So the scale of American investment is enormous.

Why use Miami as a gateway instead of directly involving those [Latin American] countries?

We will of course be engaging directly with Latin American countries as well as engaging Latin American countries through Miami. That is certainly the case. But I think strategically it be unwise of us not to leverage our significant capacity here in the U.S. in terms of engaging with Latin America.

Ireland’s new engagement with South Florida included a high school football game in Dublin this month between Miami’s Belen Jesuit and Atlanta’s Marist School. (Marist won.)