Ambassador encourages investment in Ireland during local visit


By Joe Tash

In the first-ever official visit to San Diego by Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, the diplomat told an audience of bio-tech executives at a breakfast meeting at the Grand Del Mar that, “despite all the travails and challenges, Ireland is very much open for business.”

Ambassador Michael Collins came at the invitation of the Irish Network San Diego, a group of Irish-Americans whose mission is to foster connections between Ireland and the United States, and provide both social and business opportunities to Irish immigrants. The group’s president, Eilis McKay, and her husband, Neil, also a board member, are Rancho Santa Fe residents.

Collins had a busy agenda of meetings and speeches during his visit, which began Sunday evening and concluded Monday. His day began Monday with the breakfast where he met with members of BIOCOM, an association of businesses in the life sciences.

He spoke briefly with a reporter after his breakfast with the bio-tech executives, before departing for a mid-day speech at the Joan Kroc Center for Peace and Reconciliation at USD. Collins, who was part of the team that negotiated Ireland’s historic Good Friday peace accord in 1998, was scheduled to speak on “Contemporary Ireland and the Northern Ireland Peace Process.”

Meetings with San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Police Chief William Landsdowne were scheduled before a Monday evening banquet back at the Grand Del Mar in Carmel Valley.

Collins, who has held the ambassador’s post since 2007, said he has tried to visit most of the major U.S. cities during his tenure. One purpose for his visit, he said, was to support the local Irish-American community.

But another key reason was to encourage investment in Ireland, which is trying to recover from the global recession that has plagued much of Europe and the United States.

“Ireland is a very strong manufacturing center for the bio-tech sector,” he said. “I’m here to encourage people to look at Ireland as a European location for investment.”

As part of the European Union and a member of the Euro currency zone, Ireland offers access to a market of more than 500 million people, he said.

Collins said nine of the 10 largest life sciences companies in the world already have operations in Ireland, and, “there’s room for plenty more. This area of Southern California has developed a strong footprint in the life sciences. We believe there are ways in which companies here can grow further through investment in Ireland.”

Brian O’Callaghan, president and CEO of San Diego-based Sangart, and an attendee at Monday’s breakfast meeting, said Ireland offers a number of advantages to U.S. companies, such as a 12.5 percent corporate tax rate, a pool of educated, English-speaking workers, lower labor costs and a strategic location relative to the European market.

O’Callaghan said his company — which makes drugs that enhance the perfusion and oxygenation of ischemic (oxygen-deprived) tissues — plans to break ground soon on a factory in Cork, Ireland.

O’Callaghan, who is also an Irish Network board member, said the message he heard from Collins was that Ireland is working its way out of the economic slump and that, “If you’re going to lay a bet, bet on Ireland.”

Eilis McKay, who moved with her husband from Ireland to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago, said the local chapter of the Irish Network formed in 2008.

“The purpose of the group is to allow the Irish to connect more on a level of cooperation in business,” she said. “They really haven’t done that so much before.”

The group also has chapters in a number of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and New York, as well as in other countries.

“Our mission is about supporting the Irish diaspora,” said Neil McKay.

The local group felt “privileged and honored” by the ambassador’s visit, said Neil. “It’s a little like the shepherd visiting his flock.”

The Good Friday peace accord set the stage for the emergence of the “Celtic Tiger,” the nickname for Ireland’s robust economic growth from the mid-1990s through 2007, said Neil McKay.

“I left Ireland in 1980, not because I had to, but because I had a profound sense of despair that the peace could never happen. To my amazement and delight in a short period of time… the peace in Ireland got delivered and Michael Collins had a hand in that being delivered,” Neil McKay said.

When he and his wife go back to visit friends and family, as they do frequently, he said, “We are in awe of the change of attitude, especially in the north of Ireland, where we are from.”

For more information, visit

For photos of the evening banquet, held May 21, see next week’s paper.