Published Date: November 12th, 2020
In what was a minor coup for the Ireland Canada Chamber of Commerce in Montreal, the newly appointed Irish Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas, Dr Eamonn McKee, took time out of his busy schedule on 4 November to hold a wide-ranging video conference with members.
A recording of ICCC President Conor Barry’s discussion with Ambassador McKee is available to ICCC members in the Members’ Section of this website.
Speaking from the Ambassador’s residence in Ottawa, Dr McKee was seated in front of an impressive painting of the Céide Fields on the Mayo coast and with the tricolour standing in view over his left shoulder. But as formal as his surroundings were, the Dubliner cut a relaxed figure as he spoke knowledgably about Canada, Ireland and the global economic picture, touching on a number of important issues, including trade, ‘Global Ireland’, Brexit, COVID-19 and even the recent results of rugby’s Six Nations Championship.
A career diplomat, Dr McKee is no stranger to North America having holidayed in Quebec and other parts of Canada previously, while also having previously served at the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. and the Consulate in New York.
Educated at University College Dublin, Ambassador McKee comes to Canada having collected diverse and extensive experience since joining the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1986. In addition to D.C. and NYC, he served stints in the Anglo-Irish Division and the United Nations before securing his first Ambassador gig as Ireland’s man in the Korean peninsula from 2009-13. He was then stationed in Tel Aviv for two years as the Ambassador to Israel before being appointed Director General of the Trade Division, a tenure that included preparing for Ireland’s participation at Expo Dubai, now postponed until 2021.
This strong recent background in trade is something that should interest member organizations of the ICCC as Dr McKee clearly has a knowledge of and interest in business and commerce, no doubt now with an eye on ensuring Irish enterprise can continue to thrive on this side of the Atlantic. Coupled with Enterprise Ireland’s plans to open an office in Montreal next year, his appointment should be seen by all in this neck of the woods as a very positive move.
“There have been some very encouraging business developments between Ireland and Canada in recent years,” he told ICCC members via video link, with President Conor Barry asking the questions. “We have Enterprise Ireland (EI) and the IDA in Toronto with EI about to set up in Montreal and also the work of the various chambers of commerce around Canada is absolutely essential because of how they connect with people.
“We have CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) and some really important advancements. A lot of the credit goes to my predecessor, Jim Kelly, and others for their hard work in building the platform, which led to 23 high-level visits from Ireland since 2017, including two Taoisigh. That really gives you a great basis on which to develop the relationship.
“We’ve seen a 27% increase in trade between Canada and the EU since 2017. We want to build on that improvement. By removing barriers to trade such as double-testing of electronic goods, the removal of tariffs, harmonization of standards and so on, CETA allows us to do that. It’s a great opportunity for Irish companies to look to Canada and for Canadian countries to look to Ireland – and not just to Ireland for its own sake but also to use Ireland as a platform in the EU. Now that Britain is leaving, Ireland has a number of attractions. We will be the only English-speaking country in the EU, our business roots are in the Commonwealth system, culturally and in business terms we are very similar so there are all these very positive things that are creating opportunities for us… There are 40 big Canadian companies investing in Ireland right now and I would expect that to grow.”
The reasons behind this relatively recent blossoming of Irish-Canadian relations are manifold with Dr McKee referencing the wave of Irish immigrants coming to Montreal and the rest of Canada in the wake of the financial crisis from 2007.
“I think the peace process has helped as well. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 and then the Irish President Michael D Higgins visiting Britain in 2014, in a way stitched up some wounds and normalized relations with the Crown and that has removed a niggling uncertainty of how we should approach Canada. It took something complicated out of the equation. Ireland and Canada share so many values in terms of rule of law, multilateralism, human rights and so on and a big part of that is the Irish heritage in Canada.”
Underlining that point, ICCC President Barry pointed out that 40% of Canadians claiming Irish ancestry is a higher proportion than those in the USA.
“Absolutely,” responded the Ambassador, “one of Canada’s founding fathers, Thomas D’Arcy McGee (born in Carlingford, County Louth) set a vision for Canada that is still in place today – an acceptance of diversity.”
Fresh off the boat himself, Dr McKee is using his first few weeks in office to meet Canadian officials and starting work on bilateral and multilateral initiatives, although the COVID-19 situation is not making things easier for him.
“The big drawback for me during COVID is not being able to meet people,” he said. “It is great to have an extensive contact network so that when something comes along, whether that is a problem or an opportunity, you can go and ring someone up and there is nothing to compare to face-to-face relationships. We just have to adapt to new ways of working.
“I really want to get to know the Irish community, to reach out to them and making sure we are aware of the issues – the immigrant experience is often a very difficult one. For example, at the moment with COVID if you’re in the hospitality section you might find you’re out of a job. We really appreciate the support offered by the Irish community here and we support them through, for example, the Emigrant Support Fund, which has been a critical and flexible resource for people to call upon if they need it.”
And he has a reassuring word for anyone concerned that foreign mission budgets might suffer in the context of a COVID recession.
“The word I got back from headquarters is that support for ‘Global Ireland’ is undiminished at the most senior level of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and Minister. This is really great news because it is an investment in our resilience and adaptability. We’ve seen with COVID that you need resilient supply chains and market diversification.”
With COVID-19 and the U.S. presidential election continuing to dominate the news cycles these days, people may have forgotten about the other moose in the sugar shack, Brexit. As you would expect from a career diplomat, the Ambassador is, well, diplomatic when it comes to discussing this complex and thorny issue.
“Both sides are working on it,” he said hopefully, “which is great because that hasn’t always been the case. They are still working on the issues. I think everyone wants to avoid any kind of chaos. And working on World Trade Organization rules. We want as close an economic position with Britain as possible. It’s a big economy and very important to Ireland and the rest of the EU. The economic reality is that trade halves as distance doubles. You trade with your local partners. That’s the reality. We just must make sure that we avoid complications on the island of Ireland and around the border.”
To illustrate this point, he uses an example we can all relate to – if all else fails, there is always a Guinness analogy.
“If, for example, we revert to WHO rules, we would have a huge problem with rules of origin because Guinness, for example, is made in Dublin, trucked up to Belfast, put into cans and brought back again. So, under rules of origin, would that pass as an EU good? Same with milk, same with other goods, on and on it goes. Preserving a good economic relationship with Britain is so important to everyone. Hopefully common sense prevails.
“With the loss of Britain, new European alliances will have to be formed. Ireland and the UK shared a lot of common values and were well aligned on many things. Both pro-business, pro-globalization, pro-mobile capital and investment. We do share common ground with some of the Nordic nations, with Benelux and so on. We will certainly miss Britain as a member of the EU, there’s no doubt about that. But the EU knows it must be flexible and Ireland is committed to its position within the EU – that’s the right call and you can see it in our exports. We are showing resilience and we are definitely stronger within the EU.”
The Ambassador is eagerly anticipating the opportunity to get out and fully explore the territory his remit includes, which of course is not just Canada but the Bahamas and Jamaica, too. One to reserve for January or February perhaps?
“Far be it from me to speculate that that’s why they were added onto the job but yes, it might be nice to head down there in winter. Of course, there is great Irish heritage in Jamaica. We have a good Irish community there and also in the Bahamas. It’s not an unattractive dimension to the brief, I would have to say.”
A keen rugby fan, it is not yet clear if he will be donning his sheepskin coat and wellies, and heading down to watch Ottawa Irish RFC but he did enjoy the resumption of the Six Nations, albeit in its unfamiliar November slot and albeit Ireland were soundly beaten by France in Paris.
“It was good to see the Six Nations back. When it comes to Irish rugby, I live in perpetual hope. I admire them greatly for how they have adapted to the modern game. Sometimes, they are amazing and other times… yeah well [trails off]. That’s the joy of sport – you never know what’s going to happen.”
Like I said, he’s a career diplomat.
Eamonn Christopher McKee
Education: He earned a BA (hons) at University College Dublin in 1978 and later completed a Ph.D at the National University of Ireland in 1987.
1986-89: Third Secretary, Anglo-Irish Division
1990-94: Political Officer, Embassy Washington DC
1994-96: Press Officer, Embassy Washington DC
1996-99: First Secretary, Justice and Security Section, Anglo-Irish Division
1999-01: Press Officer, Consulate General New York
2002-05: Counsellor, Justice and Security Section, Anglo-Irish Division
2005-06: Counsellor, Emergency and Humanitarian Unit, Development Cooperation Division
2006-09: UN Director and Founder Director Conflict Resolution Unit
2009-13: Ambassador, Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
2013-15: Ambassador, Israel
2015-20: Director General Trade Division
2018-20: Director General, Ireland at Expo Dubai 2020
2020: Ambassador to Canada, Ambassador-Designate to Jamaica and the Bahamas
Dr. McKee is married to Mary McGillis-McKee, a former congressional aide in Washington D.C., and they have three grown-up children and a cat. His interests include cycling, running, hiking, rugby, reading and writing. In preparation for trips to Quebec, he is rebooting his Leaving Cert French with some lessons and, having already sampled poutine, he is looking forward to visiting Montreal for the real thing.