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Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar addresses a luncheon audience at the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit at Seattle Center. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar touted the connections between his country and Seattle tech heavyweights such as Amazon and Microsoft during a quick visit today, and said he’s looking forward to still more.

“There’s so much going on between Ireland and Washington state, and we hope it grows in the years ahead,” he told GeekWire during a luncheon at the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit at Seattle Center, hosted by Irish Network Seattle.

The visit was part of Varadkar’s first U.S. visit as prime minister, a governmental role that’s better known in Ireland as Taoiseach. When Varadkar took on the role in June, he made history as Ireland’s first openly gay head of government, and the first with Indian heritage. The 38-year-old physician is also the youngest person to become Taoiseach.

Today’s one-day visit was sandwiched tightly between other meetings that Irish officials had scheduled in California this week. Despite the time crunch, Varadkar managed to make stopovers at the headquarters of Microsoft and Amazon as well as at other Seattle attractions. He got a glimpse at Amazon’s 90-foot-tall Spheres, and a walkthrough of the Chihuly glass exhibit guided by artist Dale Chihuly himself.

Irish prime minister with Dale Chihuly and wife
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar gets a guided tour of the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit at Seattle Center from artist Dale Chihuly (center) and his wife, Leslie Jackson. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

During his luncheon talk, Varadkar emphasized the tech ties linking his country to Seattle, going back to a small manufacturing facility that Microsoft opened in 1985. Since then, Amazon and Microsoft have invested billions of dollars in Ireland, and other Seattle-based tech companies such as Tableau have set up offices on the Emerald Isle.

“We’ve a number of data centers already, and we’re very keen to have some more,” Varadkar told GeekWire. “We’ve dealt with some of the planning issues that delayed some of them, and obviously we’re keen to see the existing operations expand.”

For example, Amazon is working with Irish government officials on plans to build a $1 billion data center north of Dublin, to be powered with renewable energy. The way was cleared for a similar data center for Apple in western Ireland today, when Ireland’s High Court turned down a challenge from two local residents. (Varadkar is expected to meet with Apple CEO Tim Cook in California on Thursday.)

Varadkar hinted that more deals were in the works.

“LinkedIn already opened their European HQ in Ireland, and Amazon and Facebook will open their new buildings next year,” Varadkar told GeekWire. “Obviously we’re looking to new investors as well, beyond the big names, but we have to keep that confidential.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft and the Irish government have been making common cause in challenging the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to get access to customer data held by Microsoft on servers in Ireland. The U.S. government says the data may shed light on a drug-trafficking case, but Microsoft says it’s contesting the warrant on privacy grounds.

In the past, the Irish government has supported Microsoft’s stand in “friend of the court” briefs. Now that the case is going to the U.S. Supreme Court, Irish officials are considering further legal filings, sources told GeekWire on condition of anonymity.

Varadkar emphasized that the ties between Seattle and Ireland go beyond technology. He pointed out that Irish-born businessman John Collins was one of Seattle’s first mayors, and that Seattle-born community activist Katherine Zabbone currently serves as Ireland’s minister for children and youth affairs.

The prime minister acknowledged that Ireland is facing a wide array of challenges, such as dealing with the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

That process raises issues for Ireland in particular, having to do with travel and trade with Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain. Varadkar said his government would aim to minimize the negative impacts of the Brexit process, ensuring that there’d be “no new barriers to trade” and no retreat from the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Despite the challenges, Varadkar said he was “enormously optimistic” about Ireland’s future.

“Today, Ireland is not so much an island on the edge of Europe,” he told the Seattle Center audience. “It’s very much an island at the center of a globalized world, at the heart of a common European home which we have built, and a country that’s confident about our place in the world, at a time when so many other countries are not.”

Amid a background of economic and political uncertainty, Ireland was becoming “increasingly diverse, progressive, and open and liberal,” Varadkar told the Seattle Center audience.

“That’s why we’re very keen to deepen our relations with cities like Seattle, and states like Washington, which I believe share our values,” he said.

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