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Frank Costello: There should be a voice providing representation in the EU for Northern Ireland

American businessman and historian Dr Frank Costello on his 20 years in Northern Ireland, and why he's optimistic for the future despite Brexit

Dr Frank Costello
Dr Frank Costello
Dr Frank Costello
Richard Haas
Senator John McCain

By Lindy McDowell

A native of Boston, the prominent businessman and historian Dr Frank Costello (63) has been domiciled in Belfast for almost 20 years during which time he has helped to create thousands of local jobs by partnering US venture capital companies and funds eager to invest in Northern Ireland. He served in the US Federal Government during the Clinton years and has held posts in state and local government including chief of staff to Rep. Joseph P Kennedy II. Dr Costello, who has also worked for the Cullinane Group, Boston, and as head of fundraising for Crescent Capital, gained his PhD in Irish Studies from Boston College and has a clutch of degrees from other US universities. He has written a number of books on Irish history. Here he talks about Brexit challenges, Orange Order outreach - and being "on the run" from Donald Trump.

Q. Where do your family come from originally?

A. My daddy was a Fermanagh man from Kinnally right on the border. Like Arlene Foster, my roots are in Fermanagh. Arlene did very well I think, going to the GAA football final. She enjoyed it. That was great. My father was one of eight children in Kinnally - I'm named after him. He emigrated to London where he met my mom Kathleen, who was from Galway. He was working in London, as many were after the war, in the construction trade with the McAlpines and companies like those, working on houses, on roads, helping rebuild London. There was plenty of work to be done. After London my parents moved to New Jersey and then I came along after that. My father worked in New York on various construction projects there including the World Trade Center.

Q. When and why did you decide to move here?

A. I've been here almost 20 years now. Much of my previous work was in economic development. I worked as a consultant for Belfast City Council. Then I moved on to Crescent Capital. I helped start companies and helped them locate partners in the US.

Initially I was working here, coming back a week at a time, now and then. Then we decided to make the move permanently. I voted with my feet. I came here with my wife Anne (Anne O'Connor Costello) and my family. That was a big investment in this place for Anne and I. We have four sons. At the time we moved Owen was 10, Emmett was seven and Conor was the baby of the house. And then we had another son, Ronan, that was our mark of confidence. We invested ourselves in this place and voted with our feet. To see Belfast now from what it was then... we can take people to great restaurants, hear music, it's a great place. Our sons' schools and Queen's University were good to them. Queen's is on a par with many good US universities. And they've all made great friends, they mixed with people from all communities. In their schools, in GAA and in rugby, all that's helped them get friends for life.

Q. What do you work at now?

A. I'm working, as I have been since I came here, helping partner companies in the US on the venture capital side and various funds with companies here. And that will continue, Brexit or no Brexit. The impact of Brexit we just don't know. It's no secret that Northern Ireland is vulnerable but the reality is there will be Brexit in some form. The border issue will have to be resolved. I think Theresa May is doing her best to ensure it's on the soft side. If that's what prevails, that's encouraging. The last thing we need is a hard border on the island. The next few weeks will be important. From the standpoint of what will be lost due to Brexit, the European Investment Bank is crucial. You look around so many places in Northern Ireland and you see that blue sign 'Supported by the EU' - and that means something. The seed funding of a lot of companies here was tied to the European Investment Bank. There will be European funding for the next five years, cross-border funding. I've been working with colleagues, pushing the idea of maintaining at least two of the three seats in the European Parliament. The argument for that is that there is still the Good Friday Agreement and there is still European money coming in, so there should be a voice providing representation in the EU for Northern Ireland, not simply having the Irish Republic dominate that. You've got six seats on the European Parliament from Cyprus, and that's a divided jurisdiction. It would be key to Northern Ireland because there is the cross-border funding, there's £155m a year - that's £620m over the next four to five years coming in, Brexit or no Brexit.

Q. Do you worry that companies will be reluctant to invest here post-Brexit?

A. Capital is a coward. Worldwide capital will always look to places that are stable and steady. That's a fact of life and that's not going to change. There are plenty of places investment can go to. And the fundamental thing, as I say, is that capital investment is a coward. Companies have to get the best secure investment. Northern Ireland has been doing well in financial services. A lot of things have been attractive so the trick is to keep that attractiveness. For example, a good workforce. Not losing people is key. You don't want young people going to work in Frankfurt or Belgium in financial sector jobs there. But you also have to acknowledge the hard realities. In agriculture there's only so much the UK Government will do to make up the gap to farmers. We created a very useful venture capital industry in Northern Ireland from zero from the 1990s on. People take that for granted. It took time to stabilise and now, to have the rug pulled from under that is not good. The European Investment Bank going, in no way is that positive. But what you do is showcase the attractiveness of the workforce, the skill set, an English speaking workforce who if they do a job, they do it well... there are many pluses. We have the tools to do well in a global market and we can show that. But Northern Ireland previously had the ability to sell itself as an entry point to the EU. In future it's going to be a lot tougher. What happens with the border is crucial. What the Prime Minister has been trying to do in the last few days, that does offer some hope. And what needs to be fully understood and fully supported within all parties and on all sides in Northern Ireland is that a rising tide raises all boats.

Q. Do you see continued signs of confidence in Northern Ireland?

A. One mark of confidence is that Allstate Insurance company, because of a shortage of quality office space, just built their own building, a new development. That's a tremendous statement of confidence. They didn't wake up one day two months ago and say: "Hey, let's build this." That takes a lot of time and research and it takes a lot of confidence. You want to keep that kind of stability going. That's how you attract another company in when you're showcasing a place. It's not because it's grant-aided or because they gave you a free site. We are an island off the coast of Europe, off the coast of another island. Geographically the deck is stacked against us but we have shown by skill sets and doing the job well that this is a good place from which to attract major companies.

Q. You're not a fan of Brexit?

A. Collectively, it's an act of self-harm to the UK. Is it a good idea, instead of being a leader in Europe, shaping European policy, to opt out of that? How it's measured and managed remains to be seen. But it's in the interests of all sectors of the community to minimise its impact. That's why we have to present a unified face of opportunity and stability.

Q. What does your wife Anne do?

A. She's got a company called Wellness for Life that works helping people in business, educational institutions, the social sector and so on. The corporations now accept that's important for the workforce. Anne previously worked as a nurse. And you get a lot of that, people setting up their own businesses based on their skills. We have a lot of great entrepreneurs here in Northern Ireland. There was actually a time when I came here at the beginning when small companies didn't want the big corporations coming in because "they're going to poach our workers". That's not the right attitude because if someone gains expertise working in a big company they often move on and start up their own company. We're creating a management class and we can't lose that. That's how you create jobs and wealth and opportunity. There's no longer a big government sector to absorb people coming out of university. And that's a good thing. Vital as the Civil Service is, you don't want the cream of the crop of young people just supposing they can join the Civil Service for years. You create jobs and people have families and then they stay in Northern Ireland. The quality of life is what makes it attractive and that's what makes it a selling point to companies. It's not tax breaks or grant aid necessarily - the quality of life is important, the stability, it's a nice place to live, the cost of living... all those things are important to sustain.

Q. Outside of work you play an active role in the local community - you enjoy sport and you're a member of Bredagh GAC and Malone Rugby Club. How important is that to you?

A. I think it is important for us all to remember we are part of a commonweal, a wider community. I was part of the recent visit by members of my GAA club (Bredagh GAC) to Ballynafeigh Orange Hall - you'll have read about that. These are things that come from the grassroots, bottom up and build a sense of commonweal. It doesn't mean everybody's going off on vacation together tomorrow, but it means we're living together and respecting each other. And young people are seeing that. And that's important.

Q. You've written a number of books on Irish history. What are you working on now?

A. I'm currently working on a book about the Great Famine and how it affected the north of the island and Belfast in particular; how the local population, particularly Presbyterians responded to it. It affected all sections of the community here. No religion was exempt. It was a global event that transformed America, Australia, Canada. People who left for America had a hard struggle. A lot of them were lost at sea, people forget that. And when the survivors got to America that was a struggle too. But they did it.

Q. Your President has just visited the UK. What do you make of Mr Trump?

A. (He laughs). What's the last thing he said today? It changes by the minute, what he says. I'm what you could call an OTRT. You know what an OTR is, right? An On The Run. I'm on the run from Trump. He doesn't bother me, I don't bother him. I do know that if America has him for four years or for eight years, it will survive one way or another. That's my optimistic thinking. Let's see what happens. I'm glad he's not too involved in Northern Ireland, though - that's no bad thing, that's helpful.

Q. But do you think it's helpful that we no longer have a special envoy?

A. I would not want to see an envoy unless it's someone who knows what they're doing. I would move cautiously on that. I would not be jumping up and down and saying give us an envoy because leadership comes from the top in that way. Before, you had people of the calibre of George Mitchell, and later Richard Haas, who was very important to me. It was a rocky period for him but he still speaks well of the place. I think we're at a point now in Northern Ireland, though, where it really has to be grassroots up, not people being parachuted in. There's got to be adult behaviour.

We're 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and I think we have the capacity to do it. The best US role I think right now is a business role, encouraging the best foot forward to sustain the economy and innovate. Things change. Companies grow and industries change and some get reinvented. It's about adapting to that. That's what we have to do.

Q. You don't admire Mr Trump. Name someone in American public life you do admire?

A. I'm a great admirer of Senator John McCain. I was in the Naval Reserve and I met him once. He is still someone I respect very much. I think he has shown great courage. And I will say, the classic example of American civility at its best when he ran a positive campaign against (Barack) Obama. He's a true patriot and anybody, anywhere who looks at patriotism would be well served, I think, to consider the example of that man.

Q. After all this time living here do you still see yourself as American?

A. I'm very happy straddling the Atlantic, I've become sort of mid-Atlantic lately. I'm back in the US with work and my interests. I have a great love for America and I have a great love for the island of Ireland, all of it and all the communities in it. I haven't had to dichotomise myself. People take me as I am and I'm happy with that. That's why I've been here for 20 years. I'm comfortable and I'm not going anywhere else. My family have been rooted in Northern Ireland for a very long time - we were a generation out of it - so I'm quite comfortable here. My wife and I move up and down between the west of Ireland and Fermanagh and Belfast quite happily. We have friends here and friends in England and it's just a great place to be.

Q. Finally, the big question (bearing in mind that this interview is being conducted before Sunday's game) - your prediction, Croatia or France?

A. You always like the underdog, right? The smart money will favour France but I have a soft spot for Croatia. My sons have been there and really like the place. It's still a poor, evolving country. I don't know if they'll win, but they're a small country of 4.5m and they've done really well to get as far as they have. So a good model for all of us, I think.

Frank J. Costello is author of The Irish Revolution And The Aftermath (Irish Academic Press), Michael Collins: In His Own Words (Gill & Macmillan), and Enduring Yhe Most: The Life And Death Of Terence MacSwiney (Brandon).

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