There is still the smell of freshly laid carpet and the occasional whirr of a drill in the office of Adrian Farrell, Ireland’s new consul general to Texas and the American Southwest. “I came in this morning and my doors were gone,” he says from an empty meeting room, explaining that the delegation is so new the conference table and Irish crystal are still en route. For Ireland’s first diplomat to the region, the past six months have been a baptism in the ways of the American south, from the intricacies of Texan politics to the region’s famous brand of hospitality.
This is only the second consulate that Ireland has opened in the US in the past 70 years. It gives Farrell a remit over a vast region spanning from Louisiana to New Mexico and the plains of Kansas to Texas’s southern tip. “We don’t open consulates very often,” he says from his glass-fronted office in downtown Austin. “It demonstrates how important we think this state is for us in the future.”
With an economy that has consistently outshone the US average in recent years allied to low unemployment and a growing tech scene, Texas proved an interesting proposition for Ireland, a country trying to carve a position for itself as a kind of Silicon Valley on the western fringe of Europe.
While most consulates with a presence in Texas make their base in the sprawling oil hub of Houston, Dublin decided to spurn convention in favour of the state capital, one of the fastest-growing cities in the US and a place garnering a strong reputation for its IT industries and vibrant start-up scene.
“In terms of economic profile Houston is important but we are not a big energy economy,” says Farrell. “Austin provided the perfect match in terms of tech, start-ups and the medical and pharma industries that are starting to grow here.”
With only one diplomat this will only be a small mission – but not one that is lacking teeth. The Irish PM has already paid a visit, while Farrell spent the winter jetting around the state with both trade and diplomacy high on the agenda.
He has also learnt that even in the highest echelons of power you need to understand, if not master, the Texan-Longhorn hand salute, a sign of support for the state university used by everyone from former president George W Bush to local football fans. “That’s one of those things you don’t pick up in the briefing booklet,” he says, smiling.
Ireland House is on the 17th floor of the Bank of America building, an office that soars over downtown Austin. From the CG’s office, huge glass windows look north to the dusty pink Texan Capitol Building five blocks away and west to the Austin hills.
Just the one diplomat – Farrell – plus two American staff and four trade representatives.
The biggest challenge
“Getting used to the scale of this state,” says Farrell, where it can take 10 hours to drive from one end to the other.
David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to the People’s Republic of China from 2009 to 2012. In his new book, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, he assesses the state of the relationship between the two countries.
China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner. But is Canada getting its relationship with Beijing wrong?
In Canada we are used to a world where our wealth is measured in terms of our relationship with the US and we have felt until now largely free to choose where we get involved in other parts of the world. But China is occupying much more space on the world stage. We need to manage the relationship in ways that maximise the upsides but also deal with the significant downsides of a rising China.
How does Canada’s relationship with China echo Canadian foreign policy more broadly?
I think China represents the prime example of a worrying trend in Canadian international relations. It sees us relying more on photo opportunities and rhetoric rather than a serious approach.
In your office in Beijing you kept a plastic panda on your desk.
When former president Hu Jintao announced he was willing to loan two pandas to Ottawa, that became my top priority. The government in Ottawa was obsessed with getting the pandas. China doesn’t have a lot of soft-power cards but it certainly plays pandas very well.