Jamie Pow: Hello and welcome — you’re listening to the Northern Slant podcast. Northern Slant is an online publication that seeks to showcase a new, diverse Northern Ireland. I’m Jamie Pow and welcome to our second episode.
Today, Northern Slant contributors Julia Flanagan and Alina Utrata sat down with the new US Consul General for Northern Ireland, Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau.
Alina and Julia asked her about her impressions of Northern Ireland, the role the US plays here, and her dream of being invited to a rugby match. Let’s take a listen.
Alina Utrata (AU): I’m Alina
Julia Flanagan (JF): I’m Julia
AU: And we’re here today at Danesfort, the US Consulate in Belfast talking with the new US Consul General for Northern Ireland Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau. Consul General, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau (EKT): It is such a pleasure. I am very happy to have this be my first interview since I’ve arrived in Belfast, so thank you for your time.
AU: We’re so excited to talk to you. So you’ve just arrived in Belfast to take up this post which sounds very exciting, so can you tell us a little bit about how you got the news that you were coming to Northern Ireland.
EKT: Oh well see this is great. So in my previous post I was the US Consul General in Lahore, Pakistan — wildly different countries, different places. And when I got the news that I was coming to Belfast I was actually sitting in my office in Lahore and someone had sent me a note and they said, ‘oh, I think you’re getting Belfast’ and I said, ‘Belfast is too nice. I’ll never get Belfast.’
And this is a true story: so the timing was a little different, so obviously it’s 11 hours in front of Washington. I was on my way to a dinner in Lahore, so I’m in my big SUV, we’re rolling through the streets, I’m sort of anxious because I had heard informally.
And I got a phone call from Washington patched through the Department of State operation center, our 24 hour operator, and they said ‘the assistant secretary is on the line for you’. I got on the line and they said we’d like to offer you the Consul General role in Belfast. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I squealed, because I was so happy that I was coming to Northern Ireland. That’s a true story.
JF: Is this your first trip to Northern Ireland?
EKT: No, I’d actually been to Northern Ireland a few times. I was here within the last five years. And we can talk more about this, and the changes in Northern Ireland since I’ve been here before. I only landed five days ago, but Belfast is such a vibrant, alive city. We were just coming from City Hall today, the sun was out, streets packed with people, the diversity of people, the tourists coming in, the vibrancy of the city center. When you see what Northern Ireland is right now and what it has to offer foreign investors, including investors from my own country, I mean, it is a dynamic growing place.
AU: So Senator Mitchell was on our podcast recently and he reminded us about the important role the US has historically had in Northern Ireland. Twenty years after the GFA was negotiated, how do you see the US’s role here today?
EKT: I think that the United States considers Northern Ireland an important place in the world. It’s a place where the US has always been an honest and impartial broker and I think we’d like to continue that role; certainly we have deep cultural ties with the people of Northern Ireland.
But we also see the important role that the people themselves here have made to secure and protect the gains made in the Good Friday Accord. The US will continue to support that, that’s part of my job here, that’s part of my embassy’s job in London, certainly the role of the US in Washington as well.
JF: Last year following the general election, the Conservative government went into coalition with the DUP here in Northern Ireland. Recently there has been some criticism of Westminster that when they say they’re listening to NI, they’re only hearing one side, one voice, the DUP.
From your previous postings — and many of them sound quite challenging — how do you get beyond the gated walls of the US embassy and really get to know people and hear what’s on their minds? And how are you planning to engage with the communities here?
EKT: I would say there’s two parts: One, it would not be the US’s role to make any sort of decision or judgment on the role of how the people of Northern Ireland engage with their elected leaders. That is for the people to determine themselves. It’s not our job nor is it our place to say that.
In the second part of your question, in terms of how we get out, frankly it’s our number one job. Our job is not only to talk to journalists, but to students, to businesspeople, to people who work in factories, to farmers. One of the things I speak to my colleagues about here in the consulate, is that we need to get out beyond Belfast. You know, Belfast is beautiful.
It would be very easy to stay in Belfast all the time. But we need to go to Derry/Londonderry, we need to go to Antrim, we need to go to Enniskillen, we need to go to Larne, we need to go to Carrickfergus, we need to hit all those little villages the names of which I don’t even know yet.
One of the things I want to be very clear about for your listeners is that we’ll always say yes to invitations. Ask us to a hurling match, ask us to a football game, ask us to go see rugby. We’ll say yes. That’s our job. And also because we want to go.
AU: That’s good for any of our listeners who are out there who might have invitations…
EKT: You can always hit us on our social media, on our Facebook, Twitter, we are always accessible. And we’re part of this community. I cannot tell you how privileged I am to be able to live in Northern Ireland for three years. I have a lot of time. So, you know, invite me places, I will go.
AU: So for our listeners who don’t really know the intricacies of the US State Department bureaucracy, can you explain a little what your role, the US consul general is, and how that fits into the wider state department and US mission to the UK?
EKT: So the State Department is sort of our ministry of foreign affairs, it’s the best way to think about it, it’s the foreign office. I’m a career diplomat — the State Department is sort of unique in that we do have political appointees, as well as career diplomats. So I’m a career diplomat, I’ve served across administrations in different parts of the world. I’m a foreign service officer, which is actually a commissioned office within the State Department.
We have something called worldwide availability, so that means I can serve anywhere in the world doing any job. I won’t say and I won’t pretend to your listeners that I could do all jobs equally competently, but that’s what they say. For our job here at the US consulate, we do a number of things. One is the support of US citizens, especially when they travel overseas, the people who are resident in Northern Ireland as well as tourists. And we hope to see increasing numbers of US tourists here in Northern Ireland.
Second is the support of US businesses. Right now there are over 185 US businesses here. 50% of foreign investment in Northern Ireland is from America. We think that should increase, but we also think it should be two-way. You know, the shared prosperity we have we think is on the upward track, and it should only grow. And part of it is explaining US foreign policy, making sure that we can get beyond the headlines, making sure that not just the politicians, but you know, your shopkeepers, your farmers, also understand where we are on the issues that impact us both.
And part of it is actually going out and showing people that the America they may think they know, is not really the America that may be portrayed in the headlines. We are an enormous country. And we’re a very diverse country. I think part of what we do here is make sure that we’re sharing that message. And that may be going to rugby matches too. So, not circling back to the thing I really want, but you know.
JF: Obviously the big political question that is pre-occupying both the UK and Ireland at the moment is Brexit. A report came out recently that said that a hard Brexit would threaten peace in Northern Ireland. What do you think the US role is at this pivotal moment, especially with Washington traditionally seen as an honest broker between Northern Ireland, Ireland the UK?
EKT: Again, so Brexit is between the UK and the EU. The US obviously has interests there for American businesses and investment. What we want to see is the UK continue to play a strong role globally, but we also have deep and abiding ties with the EU.
What happens within Brexit is really for the UK and the EU to sort. We do though want full consideration placed on the importance of Northern Ireland and that this is a unique situation, it has a unique heritage, a unique history. These things need to be considered as Brexit is considered.
AU: You’ve obviously had a lot of very diverse postings as an FSO. And you’ve served under various administrations, and had to implement a lot of different policies. So how does a shifting of policy between administration and your own views and what you think is right for the US fit in with how you execute your role?
EKT: I think for my colleagues and I here at the consulate within the broader mission around the world, the core of America is America. We represent our country. We take an oath to the Constitution. America is a hugely diverse and complex country. One of the — I’ll be honest — one of the gifts that I have of being in this job is explaining that.
And part of that reflects the democracy of our country. America’s vote counts. We elect presidents. Our policy changes. That’s how democracy works. And if anything that’s a good model for the world. Peaceful transitions of policy, the change of policy, career diplomats who are able to articulate and support that policy.
I think that I’m very lucky to be able to work for a country that I believe in, that welcome my ancestors, and that continues to do good things around the world.
AU: The Trump Administration has created a totally unprecedented way of communicating policy, so we have new initiatives announced through tweet, or information can change from day to day.
How do you respond to this way of working, does it feel unprecedented from your position, and for people in Northern Ireland how can we cut through the noise and see where America really stands on certain issues?
EKT: I think President Trump has really revolutionized communication in a way that we see is unprecedented among world leaders. He’s a man who understands the power of direct communication, whether through the media, or through Twitter, through I think you’ve seen recently they’ve been doing express videos out to people.
You know, this is someone who understands who he’s speaking to, which is the American people. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. I also think, though, in many ways it is the evolution of where we are as a global society.
And if you think about it — and I always like when I see journalists do stories like ‘what if there was Twitter when JFK was president, how would he have used it?’ — I think President Trump has harnessed a lot of the new technology. I think a lot of us are still understanding how that works.
In terms of diplomacy, it’s been great as a tool. I mentioned before the Consulate’s Twitter and Facebook account. I mean, how else do we get instant feedback? One of my colleagues was telling me, I was at City Hall meeting with the Lord Mayor and I signed the guestbook. Well, someone who came in after me took a photo of what I wrote in the guest book and tweeted it out. Which was hilarious. I just laughed, I mean come on, have you ever seen a more 2018 moment? I didn’t know, I just signed a guest book.
But the question is how are we harnessing that? And doing exactly what you asked, which is cutting through the noise. One of the things we’re very focused on is being responsive. If you have a question, if you don’t understand, are we accessible as Americans?
One thing we always pride ourselves in, Americans love myth-making, we love to tell stories about ourselves. How relatable we are, how accountable we are. Well, you know, put your money where your mouth is. Are we? And social media helps us in doing that. So it’s something I’m very focused on as well. It’s not sort of that old school diplomacy of like the 1960s where its government-to-government, a bunch of white men in grey suits talking to each other behind closed doors. It’s 2018. It’s not where we are. Diplomacy and politics and policy has changed. We need to make sure we’re changing too.
JF: Do you see any challenges in this growth of social media as well?
EKT: I think one of the things that we all need to be aware of, and I’d love to find out more about it in Northern Ireland, is media literacy. You know, it’s one thing that America is really starting to do, Europe is doing some good work on it, I think the UK is too. It’s up to consumers to be able to understand if what they’re reading is true.
And social media if anything proliferates because information is unfiltered. And as a consumer, and not even people who are adults, you know, 14, 15 year-olds. How are they being informed, how are they being able to make those determinations? It feels like, you know, we’re late to that because they’re all online. So how do we give them the tools so they can be good citizens?
And this is something that over the next three years you guys will hear me say a lot: is citizens have rights and responsibilities. They have a right to services but a responsibility to make sure that they are contributing to society and part of that is information. So are you making the right choices based on information you know is true?
JF: In NI, we have a lot of women leaders, this week you met Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill, Karen Bradley. The paradox of course is that there is a long way to go to achieve true gender equality, and there are a lot of issues with things like domestic violence in the region. Empowering women was obviously something that Secretary Clinton’s State Department focused on, so have you worked on that issue previously in your past roles? And does it provide any lessons for NI?
EKT: I think it’s an issue that everyone in the world struggles with. In my own country we continue to struggle with the issue of leadership, equality between genders, and also frankly diversity. Diversity is not just skin color, it’s sexual orientation, religion, country of origin, it’s something I think we all need to be cognizant of.
So I would almost broaden the question to how do we make sure that leadership looks like a country? Look like a population and what does the population or leadership training, or development or educational system of a particular society need to do to make sure you have the leaders you need in the future. So women leadership is obviously a big thing as you mentioned, I met just a range of women leaders this week. Northern Ireland is well ahead of the US in many ways, you’ve got the leaders of political parties, you’ve got the Secretary of State. We’ve been blessed in the US to have some very good women leaders, (but) we still have a long way to go ourselves.
JF: What is your message for young people in NI who are frustrated with the current struggles? There are obviously a lot of challenges, there always are. For a piece I wrote earlier in the year I talked about how confident I was in my generation who are not defined by the past but there are a lot of those younger generations losing faith in the current system. What’s your message to them?
EKT: Get involved. You know, this goes back to our conversation on rights and responsibilities. Government doesn’t happen to you. As a citizen in a democracy, you are part of government. Even if you’re not old enough to vote, you’re old enough to get involved.
That’s in your neighborhood, in your community, cross community, civic organizations, the third sector is enormous in Northern Ireland. It has a deep and storied history. What are you doing? And I say this to people in my own country, if you don’t get involved you can’t complain. The responsibility rests with you.
And I think we all, collectively around the world, need to start younger. Because you know, it doesn’t start the day you cast your first ballot. It starts the day you realize you’re part of a greater society. And for some of us that starts when you’re five or six years old. Are you going out on a beach clean up? Are you contributing to a community event? We need to grow leaders. It’s not enough to complain. It’s never enough to complain.
AU: You mentioned before that you’re very excited about going to some rugby matches. But besides that, what are you most looking forward to?
EKT: I think one of the things I’m most excited about is really understanding where this society is going. Where Northern Ireland is going. And that’s really talking to the whole spectrum of people, the young people, the religious communities, civil society, politicians, civil servants. What’s the vision for Northern Ireland? And how can we help as a partner in this? US places enormous importance on Northern Ireland and we will be there as that future unfolds. What I’d like to do over the next three years is figure out — with the input of the people here — what that future looks like.
Jamie Pow: You have been listening to Northern Slant: the podcast. Northern Slant is an online publication dedicated to to showcasing a new, diverse Northern Ireland and re-setting how we tell Northern Ireland’s story.
You can read more online at NorthernSlant.com, tweet at us on Twitter @NorthernSlant or like our Facebook page.
This podcast was produced by Alina Utrata, Julia Flanagan, Jamie Pow and Steve McGookin. A special thank you to everyone at the US Consulate and to Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau for talking to us.
Alina Utrata, Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau and Julia Flanagan at Danesfort, 18 September 2018 (pic: Jamie Pow)