Cowen Addresses Lansdowne Club, Sydney
It is a particular pleasure for me to accept your kind invitation to address the members and guests of the Lansdowne Club, the premier Irish Business Association in the Southern Hemisphere.
With some 30% to 40% of Australians having Irish heritage, the bonds of kinship between Ireland and Australia are strong. It is no surprise then that our outlook and attitudes are very similar. In our political systems, we put people not institutions first. We have a healthy disregard for titles and status by inheritance. We both take success with a pinch of salt. We regard sport as rivalling food and water as necessities of life. And at the end of the day, as an Irish writer once said, we both know that a pint of plain is your only man.
And if I needed proof that we share common tastes, I only have to point to the fact that in Ireland the consumption of Australian wine is now second only to French. More than that, relations between our two countries have developed at a fast pace over the last decade. The Australian Society at Dublin City University (1996), the Ireland Australia Association (1981) and the Irish Australian Business Association (1992) are working to enhance relations between us. Last March, the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited Sydney and opened Ireland House which concentrates our new Consulate General and the offices of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA in one convenient location. With this strong base I believe there are tremendous opportunities for more trade and more investment between us.
Indeed, you are among Ireland's top five most valuable export markets outside the European Union. The value of Irish exports to Australia soared to over A$ 1 billion in 1999 and maintained a similar level last year. Australian exports to Ireland have also increased substantially in recent years. Many of Ireland's best known companies have substantial investments in Australia. They see Australia as an important market but they also see Australia as a gateway for expansion into the markets of the Asia Pacific region. Indeed, some 20 Australian companies have invested in Ireland employing in excess of 2,000 people.
Our economies are strong, our friendship is deep and enduring. Your club and this occasion are testament to that and I say this with some confidence because what we have in common goes deeper that trade statistics or mutual benefit. As I speak about the transformation of Ireland, you as Australians you will recognise common themes and perspectives that allowed us to radically transform our society through economic development:
- an emphasis on education and the link between education and employment;
- the nurturing of a culture of innovation;
- the development of a tax regime conducive to investment and innovation;
- a welcome for multinational corporations;
- an emphasis on global integration and competitiveness; and
- a readiness to embrace the information revolution.
The best way to give you an idea of the magnitude of what has happened in Ireland in recent years is to look at some of the basic figures:
- Ireland has had the fastest growing economy in the European Union in recent years. Indeed, the Irish economy is now in its seventh year of sustained growth. Between 1994 and 1999, GNP grew in real terms by 8% per annum.
- Unemployment has fallen to 3.8%.
- Between 1993 and 1999, the total number of people at work in Ireland increased by nearly half a million to a total of 1.7 million - the highest number in the history of the State.
We are now reversing a centuries long trend and looking to recruit workers - native and foreign - into our economy. Emigration on any significant scale is now a thing of the past and last year some 45,000 people came to Ireland, half of them returning Irish people. The remainder were non-nationals seeking opportunities in our booming economy.
Like Australia, we have long understood the connection between education and economic development. Our first and most fundamental decision was the consistent investment in education over several decades:
- Ireland now has the highest rate in Europe of third-level qualifications amongst people under 35;
- 6 out of every 10 graduates we produce hold degrees in engineering, science or business studies;
- The output of graduate software engineers is higher in Ireland than it is in Germany.
The independent IMD World Competitiveness Report of 1999 ranked Ireland among the top countries in Europe for the quality of the education received. In that survey, the Irish educational system was judged the best educational system to meet the demands of a competitive economy.
Despite its unique character as an island continent, Australia like Ireland knows that no society can pretend to achieve sustainable success without engagement in the outside world. Our membership of the EU has changed the way we see the world, helped us develop our economy and infrastructure, and substantially diversify our economic and trade relations. And it allowed us to develop and hone our political and diplomatic skills in the complex EU arena.
Being part of the EU means being part of the wider trading world. Ireland has become an attractive location for foreign direct investment and almost a quarter of all US investment in Europe goes to Ireland. Not bad for country with only 1% of the EU population.
By providing foreign investors and exporters with access to a market of more than 370 million people, Ireland, in a single generation, became a trading nation. In per capita terms, Ireland is now the third largest exporter in the world. We are now, believe it or not, the world's largest exporter of computer software - having overtaken the United States. Although 90% of what we now export is non-agriculture produce, this year we are promoting the quality of Irish produce and the stringent measures we are taking to protect the State against any threat of the foot and mouth disease which has swept across the UK and parts of France. These efforts have been highly successful and with the continued co-operation of the entire country we will retain the foot and mouth free status which we have carefully guarded since 1941.
Membership of the EU alone, however, did not, indeed could not, solve our economic problems. In the 1980s we faced economic problems of such magnitude as to warp and disrupt our development as a nation. Tackling these difficult issues was greatly helped by the system of social partnership we developed. Under the framework of social partnership, we brought together Government, employers, unions and voluntary groups to agree development, taxation, and social priorities. The consensus provided by social partnership brought about a strong sense of national cohesion towards the achievement of clearly defined economic goals. These goals included fiscal responsibility, reduction in taxation, the promotion of a more competitive environment, increased foreign and domestic investment, low inflation and ultimately a better standard of living for all.
The great achievement of the four agreements under the social partnership policy since 1987 was to provide the Government and the economic and social partners with a clear and predictable way forward. The extent of our success may be a surprise even to us but together with the social partners we were determined to make our economy work.
A change of such magnitude in our economic fortunes inevitably meant a profound change in society. We have, I feel, managed to bring about this transformation in Irish society while still retaining what is best in our cultural heritage and tradition - our music, our language, our literature and our native sports have never been more full of vitality than they are today.
In short, we have tried to combine an openness to trade and outside influences with a determination to hold on to our identity as a society, an identity grounded in our long history, our heritage and the unique contribution of our emigrant people, particularly in the US and here in Australia. The true mark of our development as a nation since independence is the confidence with which we have engaged in the world around us. Rather than diluting our Irishness, we seem to have been able to plant and grow it abroad.
I could not end today without referring to the new peace we have found in Ireland. The Northern Ireland peace process has now endured since 1994. Fragile? Yes, at times. Needing support? Certainly. But peace is the new reality now, however we manage it. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is a new political covenant between the two great traditions of nationalism and unionism that share our small island. The search for peace and reconciliation between North and South was inextricably linked with the other changes in Irish society. The Good Friday Agreement could not have been possible without the new attitudes of openness and confidence that are the foundation stones of the New Ireland and the New Economy.
Our histories are interwoven with great events, with colonisations, wars, rebellions, suppressions, hardships, slaughter and exile. And we have triumphed because we survived all of these and have now prospered. And through it all we kept our humour. An Irish bishop once remarked that happiness was no laughing matter. I think we know better. With our sense of ourselves and our humour in tact, we both have emerged as societies of free men and women, with the confidence and talents to shape our own destinies.