Irish Ambassador Kevin Dowling has been in Hungary since the summer of 2012. Recently, he gave an interview to the Irish country focus section of Diplomacy & Trade, talking about bilateral relations as well as his experiences in Hungary.
“Ireland and Hungary have many similarities, both having been part of a larger empire, and both having to struggle to establish their own identities and secure autonomy. I was struck by a real depth of understanding here of the influence of Irish authors in the English language. It is not just Joyce but also Yeats and Shaw, O’Casey and Heaney, and several others. It has been interesting to get to know Hungarian people and learn about their impressions of Ireland, as well as to visit some Irish investments in Hungary,” Ambassador Dowling tells Diplomacy & Trade.
He notes that there are “about a thousand or so Irish citizens living in Hungary, and 12-15,000 Hungarians in Ireland. We have daily air-links between the two countries. This forms a very solid basis for bilateral relations. In the future, we would like to enhance the cultural ties, certainly, and also to make Irish investors and other business people aware of the opportunities that Hungary offers. The experience of Irish companies already here can be of great help in this respect.”
Before the economic crisis hit the world, there were substantial Irish investments in real estate in Hungary. The Ambassador says “that era is over, but Irish investment is certainly continuing. There is still a great level of interest in Hungary’s strategic location for doing business in Central Europe. As I understand it, this factor has been very high on the list of priorities of Irish companies. The proper infrastructure is also here. These are all good reasons to invest in Hungary.”
In talking to investors, he has heard that “it is the common view of business that companies want certainty and a clear and stable environment. Irish companies are no exception. However, they are also aware that the strategic advantages of Hungary are of long term value. So, when they make investments here, it is with a long-term view. The short term also matters, of course, and there is need, indeed, for transparency and predictability in business life here,” he adds.
The Ambassador has already had the opportunities to see some successful and well established Irish investments in the country. “In Szolnok, there is McHale Hungária, that has been producing hay bailers in this central Hungarian town and they even expanded their production lines last year due to promising trade figures. The company had been successful in Ireland and in the USA and so they then looked further afield, at the Central European market. They came to Hungary and found the skills that would be an excellent fit and so, set up an agricultural machinery plant here.”
Another Irish company, Kingspan, manufacturing panels and other components for the construction industry, is thriving in Újhartyán, despite the general difficulties in the construction sector. They have good markets for their products, mainly in Hungary, as well as Romania and other neighboring countries. The plant is therefore strategically located – in central Hungary and the center of Europe – considering transport costs.”
He has also visited Dunaföldvár where Pannonia Ethanol is an investment with a green aspect. Corn, as a base material for the clean fuel produced by the company, is available in good quantities there. The US-Irish company has recently been developing a second plant and is seriously considering further expansion of their Hungarian ethanol production.
One of the next trips of the Ambassador will take him to Debrecen. “The reason is not only the cultural links we have but also, there are quite substantial academic links, that is, in the study of Irish literature. I’m really struck by the fact that a variety of Hungarian universities have courses in Irish language and literature.”
He already visited the town of Gyõr where he was attracted by the legacy of Irish bishop Walter Lynch who found refuge there in the late 17th century, during the time of religious persecution in Ireland. Lynch became a major figure of the church and came to be known for a portrait he brought from Ireland which allegedly shed tears of blood on Saint Patrick's Day. "This is, by now, not only a religious but also a cultural, people-to-people connection. This July, there was a musical festival with Irish performers as well as Irish dance, with a Hungarian interpretation,” Ambassador Dowling notes. Between Gyõr and Galway (Ireland’s third largest city) there has been an intensive dialogue, not only on religious and cultural themes, but also at the local government level and between business organizations.
Another town visited was Szombathely. “It was the Joyce connection, really that took me there. I was really delighted to find that – as a literature scholar from way back– such a connection could be built on a literary work. James Joyce’s character, Leopold Bloom comes from Szombathely. Besides Dublin, Zurich, and Trieste, Joycean fans celebrate Bloomsday in Szombathely too, every year on June 16th with extravagant theater performances and literary productions. In this town, there is a quite intriguing statue of the character emerging from a wall. It is a fine example of how a cultural link can develop into a social link.”
Irish investors and entrepreneurs also enjoy the vibrant cultural variety of Hungary. A successful Irish businessman, John Ward and his wife have a passion for the contemporary arts in Hungary. They founded the Leopold Bloom Award in 2011 and are the exclusive patrons of it. This initiative, in collaboration with Summa Artium, was recently nominated for the best Private-Public partnership.
The student connection
The presence of Irish students in Hungary is another means of fostering ties. There are over 200 of them in Budapest studying primarily in the veterinary/medicine area as courses are offered here in English also. The Ambassador is of the view that “it’s a real win-win situation. They are getting an excellent education here and I think they are contributing a little to the cosmopolitan atmosphere in Budapest. They are taking back very positive impressions of Budapest and Hungary to Ireland and spreading the word about their experience in Budapest. It is a real builder of the future. It is a good export industry for Hungary, as well. The students also enliven our St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, adding an extra dimension.”
The Embassy launches the EU Presidency not only with a presentation of priorities but also with a special inauguration concert of traditional and contemporary Irish music. Ambassador Dowling is looking forward to the launch, not just for the serious business of promoting the priorities of the Irish Presidency, but also as something that will be enjoyable for the Hungarian audience. This theme of promoting the Irish Presidency through cultural activities will continue throughout the six month term, with a range of events planned, including a number of exhibitions and a special focus on Irish films in this year’s Titanic Film Festival in Budapest in April.
As for European issues, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is an issue on which Hungary and Ireland have a common stance within the EU. “We both have substantial agricultural capacities. I’m very much struck by the quality of the land here; it is a very productive asset. We share a need for rural development, a need for agricultural investment and a need for agricultural reform in which we are able to benefit from the very large common market. Food security is a growing issue. Demand for food is going to be strong, which makes investment in agriculture a very sound policy.”
The Tobin case
A sour issue in Hungarian-Irish relations is the case of Francis Ciarán Tobin, an Irish national who caused the death of two young Hungarian children in 2000. Ambassador Dowling, who has had discussions with the lawyer of the family and the father of the children, acknowledges that “it is a very sensitive case and we are very much aware of the reaction here. The situation is that the Supreme Court in Ireland is independent of the government. The Government pursued the European arrest warrant through the court system. It arrived to the Supreme Court and it made the decision that it was not applicable in this case. So, the Government is not able to intervene any further. It would be misleading to the family of the victims to claim that the government would be able to pursue any further legal avenue. There is not much the Irish government can do; the Supreme Court is fully independent, there is no court of appeal beyond that,” he explains.
First assignment as Ambassador
Kevin Dowling began his international diplomatic career as Third Secretary at the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. before working as Economic Attaché in the then German capital, Bonn. Later, he represented Ireland at the United Nations, first as Deputy Head of Mission in Geneva and then as Counselor in Ireland’s Mission to the UN in New York. Before his arrival to Hungary, he worked at the Foreign Ministry in Dublin. Through the Embassy in Budapest, he is also accredited to Kosovo and Montenegro.
As his two children are studying in the United States and Ireland, respectively, he lives here with his wife who, he says, is enjoying all sorts of activities. “We have met many friends here, old and new, some we knew from other postings. It is not difficult to enjoy yourself in Budapest. There is a vivid cultural life here, a rich level of activity. Hungary is a very varied place, and we have had very, very positive impressions. For instance, we’ve been to Lake Balaton in the summer. It is a real delight; I wish we had something like that in Ireland – including the warm weather!”