Portland

Chain of office is perfect calling card

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir in Portland, Ore., during a year that involved the most frenetic engagement ever with America by a Belfast First Citizen. DONAL MCCANN PHOTOGRAPHY (The photographer followed the lord mayor for his year in office. To view the images, go to: http://www.donalmccann.com/BelfastLordMayor.html.)

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
For a people whose finest hour was serving notice on the British, Americans have a decidedly inappropriate interest in the imposing solid gold chain of office sported by the Lord Mayor of Belfast.
And that goes right to the top, as I found out when I met President Obama and family during his visit to Belfast at the time of the G8 meeting in Fermanagh last June. "So what's this all about?" queried the President as he pointed to the chain when I formed a welcome party of one for him in the very bowels of Belfast's Waterfront Hall.
"Mr President," I replied, "this is the mayoral chain of office and no matter how high you rise, it's an item you will never get to wear."
All of which he took in good sport even as he instructed the sternest and most officious of his security detail — earlier she had admonished me for suggesting I would take a snap with my iPhone — to take our picture together. He also took time out to chat and sign a photograph I had carried home with me from Sandy-devastated Rockaways with the words, "Breezy Point, I admire your courage". (That signed photo made its way back to the fire station at Breezy, courtesy of then New York City Small Business Commissioner Rob Walsh.)
There was an important lesson there that I was to take with me during the remainder of my term in office: for all its pomp, the chain of office, insured for the best part of a million dollars and dating back to 1782, was the perfect ice-breaker in the corridors of power.
It became my calling card in city halls, state assemblies, governors’ offices and corporate boardrooms across America in what was the most frenetic engagement ever with America by a Belfast First Citizen.
Indeed, that partnership with Irish America was at the very core of my mayoral mission and kicked off with a conference call to Congressman Richie Neal, Democratic Head of Friends of Ireland on Capitol Hill, and Kieran McLoughlin, Chief Executive of the American Ireland Fund, just minutes after I took up office on June 2, 2014.
The focus of that call was jobs because the provision of employment for our citizens remains the burning issue for mayors the world over. And any attempt by Belfast companies to woo investment, build business partnerships, win trade or broker commercial deals begins and ends in the U.S.
It's not just that America presents a staggering market opportunity for emerging Northern Irish companies but with its talented workforce, common language, stable business environment, and links of history and heritage, Belfast represents the ideal European bridgehead for US businesses.
That's why within two weeks of my instalment, I was addressing the annual New York-New Belfast Conference at Fordham and presenting the first Belfast Ambassador Awards to Liam Neeson. Sauntering in alone to attend a theatrical opening to the summit, Neeson cut a relaxed but imposing figure who is clearly at home in his adopted city.
Belfast Ambassador Awards didn't just go to expatriates, they also went to those who had become advocates for Belfast as a location for global high-tech business by their decision to invest there. Thus came a three-day visit to Chicago to address surely the biggest — and rowdiest — gathering in Irish America — the Irish Fellowship Luncheon — which included a race out to the suburb of Northbrook to present a Belfast Ambassador certificate to Seren Gupta, the AllState executive responsible for the bluechip company's 1400-employee Belfast operation. Like Chris Caldwell, President of Concentrix in Fremont, Calif., who was elevated to Ambassador status in October past, Gupta said he would employ another 1,000 workers in Belfast if we could find him the tech-savvy workforce. Caldwell made good on his promise when he announced those 1,000 jobs and a $10 million headquarters construction project in Belfast in May — the biggest-ever single jobs boost to Belfast.
But not every job bid involves a multi-million pound investment, in October, I had the honor of leading 20 of Belfast's most ambitious start-ups on the first-ever business mission to Silicon Valley. There they pitched in the famed capita of Venture Capital — Sandhill Road in Palo Alto — and were coached in the secrets of success in the world’s toughest testing place for tech innovation.
Everywhere, we traveled, the famed network of Irish America opened doors and delivered access which would be the envy of visiting Presidents.
How many mayors of European cities would be given the red carpet treatment afforded us across the States? (A few admittedly. I defer, especially, to the new mayor of the metropolis of Paris who snagged a meeting with Mayor de Blasio of New York in late May when his diary was too busy to meet his Belfast counterpart!)
Certainly, it would be unusual for State Governors to make time in their busy schedules for the mayor of a city of 300,000 souls but two did: Governor Jerry Brown of California and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. There was a mayoral thing going on at the Governor Brown engagement as he had been mayor of Oakland where our meeting took place but the presence of civil rights veteran Tom Hayden, who flew in from L.A., made it a conversational free-for-all as well. In fact, we ended that meeting in the most appropriate fashion for a Governor proud of his Irish roots: with a sean-nós song by our driver Dónal O'Sullivan, a Cork native long moved to California.
That in turn, highlights the real joy of traversing America: connecting with the heart of Irish America. Yes, reaching out to America was about jobs and opportunities, but it was also a chance to renew a relationship with sons and daughters of those had left Ireland to make a new beginning across the Atlantic.
To see Ireland not only in their faces but also their body language and characteristics, to sense homeland in their sentiment and worldview and to be a part of a renewed connection with the land their ancestors left behind was both thrilling and humbling. And those special moments of reconnection were many: An elderly O'Sullivan, over since the 1960s, who wore his Cork GAA jersey to the Famine Monument in Portand, Ore., proudly shown off to their Belfast visitor; A Farrell, whose father fought for fair play and justice for Northern nationalists in the North, opening his Commissioner office in San Francisco City Hall; an O'Reilly who has brought the courage of the Irish Chieftains of Cavan to a sublime winery in Oregon; a McCormack in Albany, N.Y, who clears the boss's diary when the mayor of Belfast comes calling because that's what being Irish means.
Whether holding high office distinguished by ceremonial garb or not, who wouldn't want to be a link in that chain of unbroken Irish spirit and humanity?

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