January 22, 2018

The Herald meets Helen McEntee, Irish minister of state for mental health and older people

Monday, March 20, 2017

Planets align for St. Patrick’s Day

Irish eyes are smiling for the big day.
Irish eyes are smiling for the big day.
Irish eyes are smiling for the big day.
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor
All the planets are aligning for Saint Patrick’s Day today — not only does this increasingly global Irish festivity coincide with the one day our weekly publishes but for the first time this century Dublin has sent a minister here to honour the occasion. In the past quarter-century or so three Irish presidents and two prime ministers along with many others have visited but none on this red(or green)-letter day.
So is her presence here a tribute to Argentina or is honouring St. Pat’s abroad a more general policy, the Herald asked Helen McEntee, Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People (a demographic group which does not include her since she only turned 30 a few months ago)?
A bit of both, she replied — Ireland’s largest diaspora outside the English-speaking world certainly deserves attention but this year Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny has sent most of his numerous Cabinet across the globe. Essential for an island nation so dependent on the world to touch base — such efforts helped to attract nine million tourists (more than the Irish population at any time in history) last year.
And where do her priorities lie in her five-day visit (she returns Sunday) — with the Irish community here or Argentina as a whole?
Again the answer is both. Her launch of the Irish film festival (see box) would be in conjunction with the Saint Patrick’s Day reception for the Irish community whose main pillars she would also be visiting — schools like Cardinal Newman (President Mauricio Macri’s alma mater), St. Brendan’s College (founded by the Scanlon family) and Colegio Santa Brigida together with the Hurling Club. Rugby is also a key interface of Argentine and Irish interests. And of course she will be in Plaza de San Martín tomorrow for the main festivities (again see box).
All this in the future tense because the interview was soon after her arrival — her only previous activity had been a meeting with Senate provisional head Federico Pinedo. Still ahead lay “presenting the shamrock” to Vice-President Gabriela Michetti (who formally heads the Senate) and other bilateral meetings.
But McEntee also takes today’s 25th anniversary of the terrorist car-bomb destruction of the Israeli Embassy extremely seriously — she will be there at the commemoration of that horror.
Although her portfolio is health and her agenda is dominated by Saint Patrick’s Day, McEntee means to make the most of this visit to promote economic ties — highlighting that Ireland will be the European Union’s only English-speaking member once Brexit materialises as a bridge between the EU and the rest of the world.
Asked by the Herald if reunification with Northern Ireland as a possible by-product of Brexit could be added to the potential gains (her own county of Meath is closer than most to Ulster), McEntee weighs this against all the damage which would arise if Ireland’s extremely close links with Britain were to be disrupted. She sums it up as crisis and opportunity — “this could bring us further apart or closer together.”
This post-Brexit scenario coincides with Argentina emerging from isolation and looking further afield for business partners, making McEntee extremely optimistic about future prospects. But the success story of Irish foods has placed Ireland on Argentina’s list of EU members hostile to more open agricultural markets within the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement, the Herald points out. “Healthy competition,” responds McEntee — and Irish beef mostly goes to Britain, leaving the rest of the world to Argentina. She also brushes aside other obstacles to Ireland’s economic revival such as the dispute over Apple’s tax bill as any threat to the massive foreign direct investment attracted over the years by the Emerald Isle. And Ireland’s relatively youthful population (40 percent even younger than her) also helps, she enthuses.
Beyond the economic sphere, one parallel between Ireland and Argentina is a minority government (Kenny’s coalition is such an intricate construction that it took three months to form). The young minister was asked about her experience and tips for making it work. She was willing enough to oblige.
“Don’t be afraid to do what is right even if unpopular,” was one tip and also: “Show clearly where you want to go” if you need to take people with you. In many ways she has enjoyed the last 10 months — working across party lines to reach agreement on policies and not allowing important issues to become political footballs. The benefits never arrive at once but they will come — thus Kenny’s Fine Gael-led governments (also her party) has brought unemployment down from 15 to 6.6 percent in the last five years.
The Herald also asked the minister about the popularity of Argentina’s Pope Francis in traditionally Catholic Ireland against a backdrop of declining Church credibility (with the most recent scandal being the mass infant graves found in Tuam, county Galway). Simultaneously belonging to a party of Christian Democratic inspiration and to a younger generation deeply aware of changing times, McEntee was cautious with this question — things were not being silenced like before, she said, and some religious people were also beginning to see the need for change.
But all in all, a politician who brings a fresh sincerity to that jaded profession.                              w
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