Page last updated at 22:45 GMT, Friday, 14 November 2008

Obama's foreign policy in focus

Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show

The White House
What will the White House have in store for Northern Ireland?

In his weekly Irish News column this week, Brian Feeney took a swipe at President Elect Barack Obama's foreign policy outlook.

He suggested that Northern Ireland would fall well below the radar of the new administration and that economic policy would be driven by a new protectionist philosophy that would cost jobs in Ireland north and south.

"There are 580 US multinationals in the Republic. They pay about $2.5 billion a year to the Irish government in corporation tax but that's a lot less than they would pay in the US where corporation tax is 35% compared to 12.5% in the south.

"Obama has proposed to crack down on US companies leaving their income abroad and avoiding US tax. In general he's looking at ways to end US companies finding it more attractive to invest abroad than at home," writes Feeney.

In an article in Friday's Irish Times, Trina Vargo and Mary Lou Hartman, of the US-Ireland Alliance, offer some suggestions as to how Ireland should respond to the Obama era.

Mary Coughlan
Tanaiste Mary Coughlan has been in the US this week

Firstly, they argue that now is the time to "recognise and embrace the fact that Irish-America is now part of the US political mainstream". This doesn't mean that there is a powerful "Irish-American lobby", in fact it means the opposite. It means that Irish-Americans see themselves as fully American with a cultural affinity to Ireland. Their priorities are close to home.

"They want our economy back on track and they want decent jobs with fair wages so that they can support their families. They want a healthcare system that is not so expensive that it forces them to choose between buying groceries and buying their medications. They want college to be affordable. They want us to stop ignoring the increasingly serious problems of the environment.

"There is no such thing as an 'Irish-American' vote motivated solely, or even primarily, by issues relating to Ireland," they write.

All of this is important stuff for our politicians to consider. And in this context the term Irish-American includes those of Ulster-Scots descent.

Our devolved government's economic focus in its first year in office was clearly fixed on the US. It began with the Smithsonian cultural festival, continued with the Paisley and McGuinness victory lap of New York and Washington, and culminated in the US-NI Investment Conference in May.

The general thrust of the message from our politicians to the Americans was: "We're related. You'll like our place. Come and visit. Please stay and give us your money."

Differences in outlook

What Feeney, Vargo and Hartman are pointing out is that even if that approach had any chance of success in the past, it will certainly not work in today's transformed environment.

Feeney is scathing in what he sees as the differences in outlook and ability between North and South.

"No wonder that Tanaiste Mary Coughlan is in the US this week and that Brian Lenihan has promised to keep in continuous contact 'through diplomatic and overseas channels' to watch for changes in the US tax system.

Arlene Foster
Brian Feeney has focused on Arlene Foster's response to changes in the US

"Now, what you might ask is Arlene Foster doing about any of this? Even more important, what can she do about any of this given that the Stormont administration is but a twig on the branch of government that is the NIO?" he writes.

Vargo and Hartman, however, offer a potential way forward - a green solution that has nothing directly to do with Irish Americanism: "Ireland can and should be a leader and a model in the creation and development of 'green jobs'.It is a natural partner for the United States on this vital 21st century issue".

They note that this would play to Obama's priority of creating green jobs, and would play to the strengths of universities here on both sides of the border. Politically it works in the Republic where the Green Party has a cabinet seat. Does it work so well in Northern Ireland where the environment minister is a climate-change sceptic?

The fact is, Northern Ireland has to respond if it is to survive. US-owned companies currently employ about 16,000 people here. In the last five years the amount of US money coming here has dwarfed investment from Great Britain or the Republic on a scale of about five to one.

Barack Obama promised to unleash the wind of change. We can see which way it's blowing. It will be up to the politicians here to try and harness its energy - even if that seems a shade too green for the DUP and isn't quite the right type of green for Sinn Fein.

See you Sunday,


PS - Politicians offered an insight into their private lives this week with a cook book of their favourite recipes, revealing that Gerry Adam's salmon must be wild and Irish, Gerry Kelly's beans are borlotti, and Iris Robinson's balls are chocolate. But one ministerial contributor has confessed to me that they've never cooked the delicious-sounding dish appearing under their name. "Can't cook, won't cook," they revealed sotto voce. Or another way of putting it: "Can lie, will try."

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