Peter and Patrick: The Irish have arrived

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Peter Ryan, Ireland’s first ever Consul General in Hong Kong, is about to paint the city green. Arriving at Hong Kong just before the outbreak of the Umbrella Movement, he was shocked by the protests but offers some advice to the city. On the right is Deputy Consul General Fiona Nic Dhonnacha.

Pope John Paul II: “Love is never defeated. And, I could add, the history of Ireland proves that.”

Yellow and blue may have been the colours of the streets last year, but March 15th will see the town painted green. The Irish have arrived, bringing a global phenomena with them: The St Patrick’s Day parade. With the opening of their consulate in Hong Kong, this is just the beginning of a new green wave in Hong Kong.

“If you are not sure what to expect, just wear something green and bring your family here to have a look,” said Mr Ryan, who is trying to make the Sunday parade not only a family-friendly day but also an event to celebrate the friendship between Ireland and Hong Kong. “My ambition is that the locals will outnumber the expatriates.”

The parade will be slightly different to what have been hosted in other cities. “We want to showcase the best of Hong Kong,” Mr Ryan told HT and that’s why we will be seeing some Hong Kong features in the upcoming parade, such as Chinese music, Kung Fu, dragon dance and lion dance alongside the green crowds, Irish kayleigh dancing and marching bands.

Green over yellow

It was only last August when Mr Ryan landed in Hong Kong amid strong political and social dissent across the city. He received a special welcoming two months later as the Umbrella Movement unfolded right in front of him, precisely under his temporary office high up in Admiralty Centre. With a front row seat every day, he observed the development of the Occupation movement in the area for the next two months.

He was shocked, partly at the scale of the mass protest, but also partly because he could still conduct official-level meetings around the area amid the conflict. “It was not inconvenient to me at all,” Mr Ryan recalled.

“I think the Irish experience showed that everything can be solved.”

The impossible, possible

Ireland experienced a bloody war with Britain in its quest for independence which had resulted in over 2,000 dead. The Umbrella Movement was nothing similar to the revolution almost a hundred years ago but the chanting and the tear gas were perhaps, a little reminiscence of the Anglo-Irish conflicts of the last century.

“People said that this [Anglo-Irish problem] couldn’t be solved. I think the Irish experience showed that everything can be solved. If people have enough goodwill and if people come with the right approach and always take it step by step.” Mr Ryan remembered when he studied the Anglo-Irish problem in university, textbooks claimed there was no solution to the problem. History proved the academics wrong. The peaceful relationship the UK and Ireland enjoy now was quite unthinkable a few decades before.

In 2012, Queen Elizabeth II shook hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness who is now Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), the long-time enemy of Britain, murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, a second cousin of the Queen, together with his 14-year-old grandson in 1979. The handshake was historical and marked the beginning of a new relationship between Ireland and UK. If the two former foes could make peace, Mr Ryan saw no reason why others can’t.

“to be able to see so many young people who are able to contribute in an informed way to public debate, this is quite a healthy thing.”

He pointed out that the key to solving the violence between the two states was for all sides of the debate to be respected and listened to, which he believed can be applied in the context of Hong Kong now. Ireland’s response to the Umbrella Movement has been in line with the position of the EU – while it supports the move towards universal suffrage in Hong Kong, there is no explicit backing for the Umbrella Movement.

Speaking to HT, Mr Ryan is not reserved in sharing some lessons learnt from Ireland’s history. “Hong Kong has transformed today. So, to be able to see so many young people who are able to contribute in an informed way to public debate, this is quite a healthy thing. If this can continue to be done in a way which will enable all sides to have their voices heard, I think this could only be very positive.”

Despite the heightened political and social tension in town, Mr Ryan says it was probably the best time in history for the country to establish a career consulate in Hong Kong.

queen shake hands with former IRA

Closer economic ties

Wrecked by the financial crisis in 2008, Ireland has bounced back strongly in recent years. The European Commission estimates the GDP growth for Ireland this year will be 3.5%, a drop from a staggering 4.8% last year but the figure has already exceeded UK’s 2.4% and Germany’s 1.5%. The unemployment rate is expected to be down from 11.1% from last year to 9.6% in 2015.

Prospects for Ireland’s economy certainly looks promising. Mr Ryan said the start-up technology industry is booming in the nation and Ireland is looking to connect with China, reasons why Ireland decided to establish its presence in Hong Kong to expand the business between the two.

Over the years, the economic ties between Ireland and Hong Kong have grown strong. In 2010, Irish Fund Industry Association set up its Hong Kong committee in collaboration with the Irish Chamber of Commerce of Hong Kong. This initiative from the local Irish community working in the finance sector sees volunteers boosting business between Ireland and Hong Kong in the funds industry. Mr Ryan was impressed by his fellow Irish taking the initiative to bring more businesses to Ireland and further strengthening Ireland’s leading position in the global hedge fund management sector. Fully half of global hedge funds are managed in Ireland and one of every two airplanes in the world are owned or leased from Ireland.

Mr Ryan has four years to execute on his plan for the nascent consulate. “I would like to see the relationship [between Ireland and Hong Kong] realise its potential in 3 to 5 areas ranging from financial services, technology, education, tourism and the premium food and drink sector.”

“My interest is what I can do to help my community and help my country to reach the potential I believe it can reach.”

The man with the Irish plan

Irish missionary schools have spread around the world and the La Salle and Wah Yan schools in Hong Kong are among the top schools in town. “Given the reputation of Irish education, I hope more young people in Hong Kong will consider Ireland as a destination for tertiary education.”

On the business side, he believes more Irish start-ups can establish their businesses in Hong Kong when they consider entering the Asian market and, in reverse, he hopes Hong Kong start-ups will see Ireland as a landing spot for entering the European market.

He also hopes there will be more cultural collaboration between the Irish and local community and more opportunities for Hong Kong young people to experience the Irish music, dances, national sports and the Irish language.

From Ireland with love

As a banker-turned diplomat, Mr Ryan has been in the field since 1994. “I want to serve my country, and I thought I could bring some of the skills I have learnt to help my country.” The work allows him the personal satisfaction of experiencing new cultures and meeting new people, but he is clear that being a diplomat is not about shaping his legacy or fulfilling personal ambition. “My interest is what I can do to help my community and help my country to reach the potential I believe it can reach.”

He has seen some big moments in Ireland’s recent history, such as in 2009 when Ireland held a second referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty which was later approved by the voters and in 2010, Ireland received a bailout of €85 billion from the European Financial Stability Facility, the International Monetary Fund and loans from UK, Denmark and Sweden.

During those challenging times, he was in Ireland working in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as the Head of the Political Secretariat and later the Deputy Director of Asia-Pacific Section. He then spent 4 years in New York as Deputy Consul General, with an immense task to rebuild the nation’s reputation after the financial crisis and support the trade investment and tourism with US.

It was in New York where he was particularly struck by the reach of the Irish community. Mr Ryan said he was impressed when the Irish community was so eager to offer help restore the nation’s economic health. Despite his significant work in the aftermath of the economic crisis, he saw his most remarkable time in his diplomatic career was during his postings in Asia.

“I don’t think there is anything to match the dynamism in the Asia Pacific region – the depth of differences, the depth of cultural diversity, the range of interests in the region, the speed of change, and the openness and readiness in realising international partnership is the key.”

Over the course of his postings in Asia he was struck by the fact that Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing underwent similar urban developments in the face of preparing of the hosting of the Olympics Game. “Being exposed to this period of extraordinary transformation in Asia and having the opportunity to hear it first-hand about these changes through some of the long-standing members of our community members was most rewarding,” Mr Ryan noted.

Addressing Irish youth in 1979, Pope John Paul II said: “In the long run, love always brings victory, love is never defeated. And, I could add, the history of Ireland proves that, if it were not so, humanity would only be condemned to destruction.” A proud Irish patriot, Mr Ryan inherits that love and brings to Hong Kong a friendly shade of green.