Warm welcome in Windy City
On a stroll through the Art Institute of Chicago with Paul O’Connor, a longstanding friend of Belfast and executive with global architecture firm Skidmore Owings Merrill, I think we nailed it!
Between Norman Rockwell’s An End To Want and Grant Wood’s American Gothic (not to mention the stunning works by Ireland’s William Harnett), we decided that what united Chicago and Belfast was the content of their character.
Both cities — one of three million souls, the other of 300,000 — are gritty, resilient and proud. Heritage is important in both the Windy City and Béal Feirste na Long but faith in the future more important still. And while the cities themselves are compact in scale, both stand on continents of culture.
There was a time when both cities defined themselves by what they were not: Chicago wasn’t New York, Belfast wasn’t Dublin. But today, they stand confidently on their own merits, declaring lustily: we are who we are, come join us.
The warmth of my welcome to Chicago — where I met political heavyweights including Illinois Governor Pat Quinn — was testimony to Irish America’s continuing influence in the City of Broad Shoulders. But it also reflected the 21st Century nature of Belfast’s relationship with the rest of the world as one of my most important engagements brought me to the Chicago headquarters of Allstate which employs 1400 people on the banks of the Lagan.
I was in the 10,000-strong campus of Allstate to present Seren Gupta, the Allstate director with direct responsibility for the Belfast operation, with a Belfast Ambassador Certificate. That was recognition of Allstate’s incredible contribution to our city but I had, of course, an ulterior motive: I’d like the global behemoth to double down on its Belfast investment in the time ahead. That will require continuing the close ties between city and company and ensuring we are training up our young people in the tech programming skills Allstate needs.
But this week all our efforts to build Belfast were overshadowed by the passing of that giant of peacemaking Nelson Mandela. At the South African Consulate in Chicago, where I signed the Book of Condolence, you could sense both the heartache and pride of the country’s diplomats. And at a Chicago vigil, I think the Rev Jesse Jackson caught the power of Mandela’s message when he said: “he chose to get ahead rather than to get even. He chose reconciliation over revenge and retaliation.”
Grásta ó Dhia air.