Shamrock diplomacy on St Patrick’s Day

By Christine Quigley

Outside of Ireland, St Patrick’s Day is often associated with shamrocks, green Guinness, public drunkenness and ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish’ hats. However, in capitals across the world, Ireland’s national day is an opportunity for Ireland to reinforce its soft power and strengthen diplomatic relations.

Sometimes dismissed as ‘shamrock diplomacy’, the Irish Government every year plans a major programme of visits for Ministers to countries with significant Irish presence and heritage. While this year’s diplomatic missions are primarily online due to the coronavirus pandemic, Taoiseach Micheál Martin will meet President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi today. This week also sees a programme of over 80 country-specific ‘virtual receptions’ organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs, with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar hosting a series of virtual engagements with groups in the European Union, India, China and Australia.

Why so much effort to celebrate a fifth-century Christian saint? From an Irish government perspective, it’s an opportunity to tap into the Irish diaspora abroad. Ireland has a higher proportion of its population living abroad than any other country in the world, with nearly one in five citizens born in Ireland currently living in another country (including myself and several other members of the SEC Newgate UK team). Over 100 million people internationally claim Irish ancestry – fifteen times the population of the island of Ireland. Enterprise Ireland, the organisation supporting Irish companies to export, and foreign direct investment body IDA Ireland, are similarly keen to utilise the Irish diaspora in establishing bilateral trade and investment links.

US administrations have also found it helpful to participate in the annual tradition of receiving a bowl of shamrock from the Taoiseach, as an opportunity to win favour from the 32 million-strong Irish-American population. President Biden, as only the second US president to claim Irish heritage, takes this very seriously indeed. 

Biden’s support for Ireland extends further than an annual meet-and-greet; instead, he has expressed on several occasions recently the importance of the UK continuing to respect the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. Similarly, several senior members of Congress have made clear that a US-UK trade deal will only be agreed if the Good Friday Agreement is upheld.

St Patrick was himself an emigrant. Born into a Roman family in Britain, he was first captured by Irish pirates, but later volunteered to return to Ireland to spread Christianity. Today’s bout of virtual shamrock diplomacy is a vital opportunity for Ireland to tap into its population of first- and second-generation emigrants and beyond to improve trade links and bolster international support.