Saint Patrick may have used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the mysteries of the Holy Trinity when converting the Emerald Isle over 15 centuries ago while Ireland may be on the verge of clinching the Triple Crown (not to mention a grand slam) in Six Nations rugby tomorrow, but Irish Ambassador Gerard McCoy has a treble play of his own for his mission to Argentina starting last August, he told the Times in an interview to mark Saint Patrick’s Day.
McCoy (Ireland’s second Limerick-born envoy in a row following on from Jacqueline O’Halloran) places his bet on a trio of areas with the acronym of BET – business, education and tourism. Such is the alphabetical order but McCoy would not necessarily give economic relations the primacy they almost universally receive in diplomatic work. He believes that Irish education has plenty to interest Argentina – quite apart from the quality, Ireland offers the added bonus of being the only English-speaking country in the European Union (courtesy of Brexit), thus bestowing extramural reinforcement in the world’s language.
The European Union is also a plus when it comes to the business relationship with McCoy setting high hopes on an EU-Mercosur agreement boosting the post-Covid opportunities. Trade is already picking up again following the long hiatus of the coronavirus pandemic – last year’s bilateral trade volume was 783 million euros, strongly up from 2021. While trade in goods was heavily in Argentina’s favour, trade in services favoured Ireland. Not surprisingly, agricultural products are a huge component of Argentine exports although it might seem more surprising from the standpoint of farming being such a key driver of the Irish economy. But the two agri-food sectors are also complementary since Irish farm production and exports stem overwhelmingly from livestock, thus leaving open a considerable appetite for Argentine grain.
The two star Irish investments here are both located in Greater Buenos Aires – Smurfit Kappa packaging materials and Guinness beer is brewed at the Rabieta plant in Pilar. Attorney-General Rossa Fanning (here this year to honour Saint Patrick’s Day in accordance with Dublin’s policy of sending out key figures to visit the most important countries of the Irish diaspora) will be at pains to visit both in spending the second half of the week here, alongside such traditional Saint Patrick’s Day protocol as visiting Irish schools, laying a wreath at the tomb of Admiral Guilllermo Brown (the founder of the Argentine Navy) in Recoleta cemetery and attending the “greening” of four City landmarks (Argentina has been intensely celebrating Ireland’s increasingly globalised national day for at least 15 years now).
Fanning’s presence here is a homage to Ireland’s largest diaspora outside the English-speaking world – some half a million. Trained as a historian, McCoy is impressed by how many Irish people came to Argentina long before the Great Famine as from 1845 expelled up to a third of the population worldwide, going back as far as 1740. Also impressing him is how Irish-Argentines break with the urban profile of Hibernian immigrants almost everywhere else (not least in the United States in such cities as New York or Boston) – here they were drawn by the prospect of owning and working land on a scale inconceivable in Ireland.
No wonder Argentina was the hub of Irish relations with Latin America throughout the past century with no embassies between this city and Washington DC – this has changed in recent decades with Irish embassies now in Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. McCoy still covers Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay apart from Argentina although in none of those countries has he been able to present his credentials with the same astonishing speed as here (within 11 hours of arrival!). Despite no longer covering an entire subcontinent, the diplomatic component of his staff has been increased from two to three.
Although Irish immigration here has dried up for a century or more, McCoy is encouraged by the third leg of his “bet” – tourism, which often takes the form of youthful backpackers, sometimes just passing through but sometimes staying for months.
McCoy is too professional a diplomat to be drawn into political comment – asked by the Times if Ireland’s rotating Taoiseach premiership (with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar returning to the helm from Fianna Fail’s Micheál Martin last December) could be a model for grieta-torn Argentina, the envoy replied that each democracy must find its own path, while also describing Argentina as a deeply federal country whose various parts he feels both the need and the desire to explore.
As he celebrates his first Saint Patrick’s Day here, the new ambassador would like to underline that he placed Buenos Aires right at the top of the 18 vacant missions available for an application. This despite having been here only once before for a week during the 2014 World Cup – his seven months here include the Qatar triumph when the name of Alexis MacAllister tilted many Irish sympathies Argentina’s way against the EU partner France. Oddly enough, McCoy’s previous (and first) ambassadorial posting was to the only country to get the better of Argentina in Qatar – Saudi Arabia (2018-2022). Earlier postings were Luxembourg, Cairo, Rome and Vienna. But he only joined the diplomatic service at the age of 30, devoting his earlier youth to historical studies culminating in a D.Phil from Oxford.
Ambassador McCoy has laid his bet on Argentina – seeing how the business, education and tourism opportunities work out still remains ahead.