Northern Ireland can boast of having the second oldest Consul General of the United States of America, established in 1796 during the Presidency of George Washington.
Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, who arrived in Belfast towards the end of last year as the new Consul General, speaks with DIPLOMAT NI’s Jerome Mullen.
JM. Thank you Consul General for agreeing to meet today for Diplomat NI. You arrived in Belfast as Consul General less than a year ago, what do you think of Northern Ireland so far?
EK. I think it’s a beautiful place and I regularly speak to the team here at the Consulate about how lucky we are to be in Northern Ireland and remind our northern Irish colleagues they live in a beautiful place, that they live in a place that is moving forward and that has really become a hub for investment, for education, for entrepreneurship, so I feel very positive and lucky to be here.
JM. This was not your first appointment as Consul General, where were you before you came to Northern Ireland?
EK. I was in Lahore, Pakistan from 2017 – 2018. Just a 1-year assignment.
JM. What was that like in this very large populated and complex country?
EK. The size difference between the two positions was the main difference. I was Consul General in Lahore, a city of 14 million people, and the province in which I had consular responsibility for covered a population of 110 million people. I am told that if it was a country it would be the 12th largest country in the world. The main issues we faced there was working with the Government on political issues on counter-terrorism, on extremism, on democracy, on education and basic health. Here in Northern Ireland, the United States has had such a large and important role, it works a bit different and it’s more mature here because clearly, the United States has had such a strong partnership with Northern Ireland for so long that I can build on decades of success.
JM. How well did you know Northern Ireland before you came here?
EK. I had been to Northern Ireland several times before; the last time was in 2015/16 when I was stationed in Brussels at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. I think it’s always dangerous, if not rash, for a diplomat to say they know the country, but I have learned something new about Northern Ireland every single day and I expect that will happen again over the next 3 years.
JM. What led you into the world of diplomacy and your decision to join the United States Diplomatic Service?
EK. I studied journalism and I think it was probably the same interest in journalism that led me into the foreign service. Journalists like to get to the facts and the truth, but they also like to make sure that other people understand what they see. It’s not so much like telling a story but being able to present information that people can understand and that’s what diplomacy is and it’s both ways. My job here is to help the people of Northern Ireland understand the United States priorities, its trade, its shared security, but at the same time it’s also my job to help Washington understand what’s happening here, whether it’s Enniskillen or Lisburn or Belfast – so it’s explaining the facts in a way that people can understand.
JM. The United States has the oldest established Consulate General in Northern Ireland established in 1796 under President George Washington and was up to recent years the only one here. Tell me a little bit about what you know of the US Consulate history?
EK. The US Consulate is, I believe, the second oldest in the world and you know it’s funny what I have learned about the US Consulate here is what my friends and colleagues from Northern Ireland tell me and the most spectacular thing is meeting city councillors or local members of civic society or academics since coming here relating stories about the history and ties between our two countries. I learned not only about Northern Ireland, but I have also learned something new about America. I was downtown recently and I attended the unveiling of a blue plaque to a Mr Mullholland who was born in Belfast and was an architect in Los Angeles, he is famous for building the water system that sustains the city and he has a well-known street, Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, called after him. Up to a month ago I didn’t know he was born and christened here in St Patrick’s Belfast and this is the sort of information you learn – every day is new.
JM. The United States has traditionally been a major investor in Northern Ireland with many US companies based here. What is the current position in terms of US investment in this economy and what are the challenges you see?
EK. Now that’s a great question! Right now, the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. We have over 180 US companies based here, and we hear of more every week. I will say that Invest NI and the Northern Ireland institutional structures have done a tremendous job in supporting US businesses who are interested in basing here, but what we are also seeing too which is great, is the two-way trade and the shared prosperity with Northern Ireland, companies opening offices in the United States and the more we see of that the better because it is the economic ties that are going to build the economy here and will also contribute to our own prosperity in the US.
JM. We have large companies in the IT sector like First Derivatives based in my own City of Newry who have major investment in the US.
EK. Very much that is right, and we see more of that every day. It’s not just big companies but also, we see family businesses setting up in the US. Northern Ireland has wonderful products, services, people and we think we can benefit also.
JM. Brexit is the big topic of discussion right now with the UK leaving the European Union, how do you see this major change impacting on the United States?
EK. Our view on Brexit is that this is a question for the United Kingdom. What we hear from investors is predictability, people would like to know where it is going so that they can continue making investments in Northern Ireland. We value our relationship with the United Kingdom clearly – it’s the quintessential special relationship, so we will continue to stand with the United Kingdom as they move forward through this, but we think the smooth transition through this will be important.
JM. One of the reasons why there is such a large investment of US companies in the UK and Northern Ireland is that we are English speaking and a gateway into the rest of Europe for the United States. How do you see that changing in in the context of Brexit?
EK. The importance of the value that the people of Northern Ireland bring to US businesses really cannot be overstated because it’s not just English speaking, you have also a huge quality of education, rule of law, people who are very motivated, internet speeds are very high, it’s first world infrastructure and is a tremendous place to do business and when we have investors coming from the United States they think this is a wonderful place, and they are right. How the UK departure from the EU pans out they will continue to watch but Northern Ireland will always be important to the United States not only because of our historical role but because we really believe in the future of this place.
JM. The UK would be hopeful of negotiating a new trade agreement with the United States after Brexit, do you think that will be achievable?
EK. The President has certainly spoken about the importance he places on a UK/US trade deal as has Ambassador Johnston, so our position on that is very strong. We value our relationship with the United Kingdom and the President is very much supportive of this.
JM. There was a visit from a Senator Murphy to the Republic of Ireland last week and he was saying that he was very supportive of the “backstop” in the EU withdrawal agreement and that he would not visualise a trade agreement being reached if the backstop was undermined.
EK. We have equal weighted government in the United States, the Senate has a hugely important role in trade deals, I think though that what you have is that interest and commitment to maintain the special relationship we have with the United Kingdom while maintaining the gains Northern Ireland made under the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
JM. How are you enjoying your time here since you came and have you some goals you would like to achieve before moving on?
EK. It’s great! Again, it’s a beautiful place the people are wonderful. I should get out of Belfast more and it’s something I have talked about a lot I need to do it more. I have had the opportunity to go to several different places and relate the stories of Northern Ireland, each city and town and village is different. I am lucky to be here for 3 years so that gives me 3 years of exploring. Regarding my goals, one of the things I am very focused on is to make sure that Northern Ireland is looking ahead. You see the enormous talent of the young people here, their interest in continuing to build a bright future, starting businesses, starting families and investing in the place they call home. The United States is very focused on that generation because that really is the future of this place, so I engage a lot with young people – that’s really one of my focuses.
JM. The United States has made a major contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland under the Clinton Presidency and his wonderful envoy George Mitchell. You must be sad to see that the political institutions set up under George Mitchell have broken down?
EK. I would say we believe Stormont should be up and running. This is something we say privately to the political parties and we say it publicly too because the people of Northern deserve to have a voice. We think that the institutions play an important role, there are no issues that are insurmountable, and the people of Northern Ireland deserve to have their political leaders working.
JM. Would you see any role at the moment for the United States playing some part in helping to get our institutions up and running again?
EK. Certainly, the UK and Irish Governments who are the co-guarantors of the Belfast Good Friday agreement continue to be engaged. We consult with them and with the political parties and at the end of the day, it’s the citizens who will push their elected leaders back up to take their positions in government. That’s what we think needs to happen – it’s the idea that voters need to make their voices heard and to say to their elected leaders that its important you take your place in government.
JM. The build up is starting for the next Presidential election in the US, as a diplomat, you may not be able to comment on this subject but in general, is there anything you would like to say about the upcoming election for President of the United States?
EK. As a career diplomat, I am apolitical, but I think we see around the world is that voting matters. Political engagement matters whether you are in Northern Ireland or the United States. Voting is just not voting, it’s full-on engagement, it’s knowing the issues, talking to your politicians, it’s caring about policy and informing yourself – that’s democracy. While I would not have an opinion on the US political race, I do have an opinion about people engaging in their democracy.
JM. I am very impressed with the town hall meetings that are taking place and the noticeable number of women candidates emerging, it could very well be a women president the next time.
EK. We call that ‘retail politics’- you actually sit and talk to a politician and say I care about voting rights, I care about the environment, taxes, jobs and you hold your politician accountable, that’s what democracy looks like. Women make up 50% of the population so it’s possible.
JM. We have just celebrated St Patrick’s day, your first here in Northern Ireland. How have you enjoyed it?
EK. It was great and it was nice to have so many people from Northern Ireland in the United States meeting with policy leaders, professionals and having the opportunity to meet with business leaders and really seeing that showcase is great. Norman Houston from the Northern Ireland office in the United States, and who is retiring this year, does an extraordinary job and I can’t say enough about his talents.
JM. Finally, Consul General, we talked earlier about the United States being the oldest Consulate and the only one in Northern Ireland until recently. We now have China and Poland, I’m sure you were surprised by that?
EK. I think it is great, I think there is nothing more important than international ties and the more notice Northern Ireland gets on the international stage the better for business, the better for students, the better for cultural exchanges, which enriches all of our lives.
JM. Thank you Consul General for your time today.
EK. Thank you it was a pleasure.