December 16, 2017


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

New Irish ambassador finds ‘cohesive community’ in Argentina

Irish ambassador Justin Harman.
Irish ambassador Justin Harman.
Irish ambassador Justin Harman.
By Michael Soltys / Herald Staff

Irish Ambassador Justin Harman is new to the current Embassy building and to the top job there but he is certainly not new to Argentina — at the other end of his diplomatic career he had an early posting here (when he married into the well-known Irish-Argentine Casey family).

The exact duration of that stint was from November, 1975 to August, 1978 — which those familiar with that period will recognize as the worst of the political violence and military repression between the last months of the Isabel Perón government to just after the World Cup. During that time he helped to save the late Pat Rice from disappearance by making a noise in the international press.

So how would he compare now with then, asked the Herald in an interview to mark Saint Patrick’s Day today? A much more genuine and “vibrant” democracy. And thanks to the explosive growth in travel and tourism in the last 40 years, the two countries know each other much better with a new pride also emerging in Ireland since the 1970s. A working holiday agreement with Argentina is a specific boost for interchange.

And the community? Still catching up after only arriving in October but although the pillars of the community 40 years ago are mostly no longer around while some people have left, he finds it more cohesive in many ways with the Federation of Irish Societies working closely together. It is a large community numbering over half a million even if the original 19th century immigrants were no more than 30-40,000.

For recent highlights he mentioned the 140th anniversary of The Southern Cross newspaper early this year and Argentina emerging champions from the Irish football (akin to Australian) World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

But the warm ties (with an Irish Embassy here since the late 1940s and never any grounds for bilateral disputes) become slightly trickier when the interview moves to the economic sphere. Irish trade and investment here peaked in 2006-7 and is now well below those levels — if it takes two to tango, the problems also lie on both sides.

After the “Celtic tiger” grew in the 2001-6 period without becoming more competitive thanks to credit, reality bit with a banking crisis (even more than the real estate bubble bursting) and this killed overseas investment everywhere. But since 2012 Ireland has turned the corner again, even if it is still paying the social costs of collapse — growth was five percent last year and projected to be four percent for this, debt was now a relatively low 90 percent of Gross Domestic Product and unemployment has fallen from 15 percent to single digits. All propitious enough for Harman to devote much of his energy in his first weeks here to organizing business encounters to prepare for the next wave of Irish ventures but first there are also problems on the Argentine side to sort out.

The difficulties here since those peak 2006-7 years are too well-known and too widely shared by other countries to need much repeating here — the import restrictions, the more recent currency curbs and (perhaps above all) the ban on repatriating dividends all discourage Irish investors. Argentina has formidable fundamentals but needs to break out of this cycle, Harman insists. And when it does, he wants to be ready with his encounter groups linked via social media — a lighter model which he prefers to the more traditional and cumbersome Chambers of Commerce. Since Ireland exports well over 100 percent of its GDP (with a falling euro making it even more competitive after learning its lessons from the crisis), it is more than willing to trade.

Meanwhile Harman is crossing his fingers against May’s elections in the United Kingdom pointing too much in the direction of “Brexit” from the European Union after the referendum slated for next year — this would be bad news for the Irish economy and the peace process in Northern Ireland alike. The EU has made enough progress since the 2008-9 crisis towards banking union and common deposit protection to deserve a chance, he argues — reform is needed but not a break-up. Ireland itself has no Euroskeptic party as such although Brussels is criticized by the leftist and nationalist Sinn Fein, who currently top the opinion polls — a key question for next year’s elections will be how well they perform.

Last but not least, cultural ties are as lively as ever in the 150th anniversary of W.B. Yeats’ birth (June) and with Dublin’s Diaspora Minister due here in October.

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Edition No. 5055 - This publication is a property of NEFIR S.A. -RNPI Nº 5343955 - Issn 1852 - 9224 - Te. 4349-1500 - San Juan 141 , (C1063ACY) CABA - Director Perdiodístico: Ricardo Daloia