Two hundred and twenty years of mutually beneficial engagement

Daniel J Lawton
Daniel J Lawton

On May 27, 1796, the United States of America’s first president, George Washington, signed the order that established a US Consulate in Belfast.

At the time, the focus of our new republic was inward as our states worked together to “form a more perfect union”.

In his farewell address prior to leaving the presidency, President Washington warned Americans to “avoid foreign entanglements,” adding that it would be “unwise to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of European politics”.

Yet eight days after President Washington delivered this warning, James Holmes was named the first US Consul to the Port of Belfast.

As his title suggests, Belfast had become a major seafaring gateway, and the dual activities of emigration and trade justified Belfast’s place among a small group of US consular representations around the world.

As a new nation looking for trading partners, even then we saw this region as a place where mutually-beneficial ties could flourish.

James Holmes was an ideal fit for the position.

He was born in Belfast into a prominent merchant family and had formed extensive business relationships, including in the United States.

His offices at 11 Chichester Quay facilitated a diverse range of imports such as wheat, flour and timber, and exports such as linen and glassware.

Three years before his appointment, Holmes was advertising “prime quality flaxseed from New York and Philadelphia” in this very newspaper.

Since James Holmes’ appointment, over fifty men and women have led our continuous presence through both good and turbulent periods in our shared history.

The US Consulate facilitated commerce and the migration of hundreds of thousands of emigrants and pioneers – many of whom played a profoundly important role in shaping the character and development of the United States.

My predecessors also supported 300,000 US service members stationed across Northern Ireland as they prepared to help defend our freedoms in the Second World War.

The United States has cared deeply about peace in Northern Ireland for a long time. We have engaged with all parties to help them achieve that goal. In so doing, this has brought us closer still.

We have also redoubled our efforts to promote two-way trade and investment and boosted our educational exchanges.

Most visitors from this region travel to the United States visa-free using the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, but we also facilitate travel to the United States for a variety of purposes, including business, study, tourism, and investment.

Today, the dockside of the River Lagan is a very different place than when James Holmes worked there in the late 18th Century.

The over 70 cruise ships that are due to sail into the Port of Belfast this year will provide a different kind of maritime commerce. Buildings like the SSE Arena, the multi-use Titanic Building, and the Paint Hall illustrate that Belfast, while grounded in its proud industrial heritage, is focused firmly on its promising future.  

When President Obama addressed several thousand young people at Belfast Waterfront Hall in 2013, he acknowledged that America’s story began right outside the doors of the arena.

He said that our histories were “bound by blood and belief, by culture and by commerce”, and added that our futures would remain “equally, inextricably linked”. 

The shared future that President Obama espoused looks bright. At present, some 175 American businesses operate across Northern Ireland, employing over 24,000 people. Like any good relationship, the dynamic is two-way.

Innovative Northern Ireland firms are making inroads in the United States, exporting over £1billion of goods in 2015. Their energy, initiative, and foresight are evident everywhere I travel in Northern Ireland.

Today, on the 220th anniversary of James Holmes’ appointment, a blue plaque will be unveiled in his honor, just a few yards from where he had his offices. The unveiling has been made possible through the support of the Ulster History Circle and Belfast City Council.

Our commemoration will reflect on our interwoven heritage, our common values, and of course, the presence of the second longest continually running U.S. Consulate in the world. It will also recognize that the ties between the United States and Northern Ireland are as strong, vital, and vibrant as ever.

Daniel Lawton is US Consul General in Northern Ireland