PhillyDeals: Irish leader seeks to grow ties in area

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny (left) meeting with Gov. Corbett at the Union League on Friday.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny (left) meeting with Gov. Corbett at the Union League on Friday. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: October 15, 2012

Enda Kenny, Taoiseach (TEE-shock, Irish for Big Chief) of Ireland, left troubles home in Dublin when he flew into Philadelphia at dawn Friday.

The prime minister is presiding over a bundle of miseries: Managing an unpopular multibillion-euro bailout of the nation's profligate banks. Making ugly budget cuts amid tough negotiations with tight-fisted global bankers and Eurocrats. Bailing out deadbeat borrowers, an initiative that has frugal Irish who pay their bills steaming. And watching frustrated job-seekers support leftist and nationalist rivals, or leave for the mines in Canada and Australia, restarting the long emigration the Irish thought they had left behind.

But they love Kenny outside Ireland. Time magazine just pasted his clear eyes and clean-cut features on its European cover, dubbing him leader of a "Celtic Comeback." So Kenny's gone on the road to the vast Irish-descended diaspora, reaffirming old ties and pitching for investors to exploit the country's low taxes and young workers, in hopes they'll move in and post for Help Wanted.

"It's never going to be a bed of roses where we're coming from," Kenny told me as he ducked into a private meeting with Gov. Corbett at the Union League in Center City. "But I'm here to report on our progress we're making economically. Our business connections are very strong here."

Kenny asked Corbett for advice in exploiting Ireland's natural gas deposits, according to Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley.

Between Kenny and Corbett, one wonders who was putting the bite on whom. Both want outside capital to move in, bust the slump, and hire locals.

"This is not a zero-sum game. We can grow together," admonished ex-congressman-turned-Jersey Shore resident Patrick Kennedy, whose uncle was the first Irish Catholic U.S. president 50 years ago, as we stood in the queue at a ham-sausage-eggs-potatoes breakfast in Kenny's honor at the Rittenhouse Hotel.

The elegant chow line was organized by the Irish American judges and lawyers of the Brehon Law Society and the Irish-American Business Chamber, and paid for by John J. Dougherty Jr., business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98.

The absent Dougherty, who is part of the Irish Society of Philadelphia sponsoring an event for Kenny's rival, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, in Philadelphia next month, was represented by his father, John Sr., and his brother, Judge Kevin Dougherty, who heads Philadelphia's Family Court. "My son sponsors these events because he's a huge supporter for the Irish American community and any community that engages in business here in Philadelphia," the older Dougherty told me.

The Irish "are trying to be the gateway of Europe" for U.S. business, said John J. O'Malley, partner at Philadelphia-based intellectual-property lawyers Volpe & Koenig, a sponsor of a two-day U.S.-Ireland Legal Symposium, which scheduled the breakfast into its program.

"The Irish have focused on building ties in New York and Silicon Valley. We're trying to bring them more into Philadelphia," said O'Malley, whose firm's clients with Irish interests include drugmaker Novartis, Malvern-based electronics-maker Vishay Intertechnology, and Bethlehem-based Flexicon Corp.

Kenny had special praise for Gerald Crotty, boss at Morris Plains, N.J.-based Weichert Enterprises, which wants to build a bio-fueled power plant in County Mayo using fast-growing willow to be planted in local farmers' pastures.

"The Americans have moved in to rejuvenate the project," and are seeking Irish bank loans to go with the European energy credits and American capital they've arranged so work can start, County Mayo manager Peter Hynes told me.

"Ireland now is a changed country after [several years of] stagnation," Kenny told the group. He cited $188 billion in U.S. financial and physical investment in Ireland and $25 billion invested by Irish enterprises in the U.S. - places like Ireland-based Zenith Technologies, with an office in Blue Bell.

Kenny defended the bank bailout. "One of our first jobs was to restore financial stability to the banks," he said, so they could resume lending to business and stem "the scourge of forced immigration." Farm exports have risen "above pre-crisis levels," he added. Tourism is up, helping the government pay down its debt.

Property prices, on the other hand, are still down half from the bubble years of the 2000s.

"We've no intention of returning to the years of the so-called Celtic Tiger, with the illusion of returns for no work," Kenny said.

Acknowledging opposition, he promised reform. By 2016, the centennial of the bloody Easter Rising that led to Ireland's independence from England, Kenny pledged that Ireland "will be seen as the best country in the world to raise a family . . . to start a business . . . to grow old with dignity," he told the hall.

The American Irish applauded.


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

 

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