Opening Address to the Global Irish Economic Forum
Colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen,
Members of the Global Irish Network,
Fáilte roimh abhaile. Welcome home to this gathering – in what is, of course, the year of The Gathering.
Some of you are frequent visitors. For others, you may not have witnessed the gradual change that has been taking place since we last gathered here in 2011.
At that time we were still in the grips of a crisis, the details of which we are all - all too familiar with. But today we are meeting with a wind at our backs. It’s a gentle wind, but it is gathering momentum.
We are now creating 3,000 new jobs every month, the economy is seeing modest but all-important growth, our national finances are largely back on track, Irish exports have now exceeded even their pre-crisis levels and we are about to successfully exit an EU/IMF bailout.
Doubtless, it has been a difficult period for all Irish people, at home and abroad, but we are getting there. What we are doing is working.
As members of the Global Irish Network, you have all played a crucial role in kickstarting the recovery that is taking hold in Ireland today, and I want to thank you for that.
I want to thank you for your time, your knowledge, your unique expertise and for your personal presence here today. There are very few small countries which can call up a reserve army of this size and calibre. What greater vote of confidence in this great nation than a gathering like this one? You have travelled from far and wide to be here, and for that we are grateful.
But we have work to do.
The next two days will be about giving real meaning to Ireland’s recovery by focussing on job creation. We have consulted a lot with you over the past 12 months on how this Forum should be structured in order to make it as effective as possible.
You told us you wanted focused discussions on high-potential sectors for growth and for jobs. You told us you wanted to give a boost to our indigenous SMEs. And you told us you wanted to apply your collective energy to tackling the scourge of youth unemployment.
Those themes form the backbone of our programme for the next two days.
We are also here to create a vision of post-recession Ireland, and I look forward especially to hearing the reflections of our first panel of speakers on their personal ambitions for Ireland as a country in which to grow up, do business, work, raise a family and grow old with dignity and respect.
I also want to say that I am speaking this morning not just to those who are here in the room with us. Many more are physically absent, but are here, all the same, in mind and in spirit.
To those of you watching online – in Sydney, Toronto, New York and in Texas... in London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Johannesburg, Rio, Bangkok and beyond – hello, and a big virtual welcome.
Some of you left for adventure and for opportunity. And I know that many of you left more recently because you felt you had no choice but to leave.
Whatever your reason, we want you to be part of this. Our focus on job creation is not just about those seeking work who are still here on the island. It is also about those of you who have left and would like to come home. If you want to come back to work at home in Ireland, we will do everything in our power to create the conditions, and the jobs, that will make that possible.
Before we get started with our discussions, we should recognise what has been achieved in the years since the last Global Irish Economic Fora. They have delivered both innovative policy reforms and practical outcomes such as the Gathering – the most successful tourism drive ever undertaken by this State – Connect Ireland which, in partnership with the IDA, has been working to bring new companies to Ireland and I know they have some good news to announce this morning in the form of 83 new jobs for Cork and Dublin.
The Fora have also given us the Farmleigh Fellowship – a programme that gives young Irish graduates business experience while also building crucial business contacts in Asia – and, it has given us the Global Irish Contacts Programme, an initiative that links up senior executives based in near and far flung locations who give of their time, expertise and local market knowledge to Irish exporters who want to break into those markets. Previous Fora also spawned the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards that recognise the extraordinary contributions being made by Irish individuals abroad. The list goes on and includes of course the efforts of Enterprise Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Bord Bia.
And I believe we will see great outcomes from this Forum too.
This event has evolved from its first incarnation in 2009, much as the economic environment in which we are operating has.
That first Forum – which I attended in my capacity as opposition leader – was a call for help at a time of crisis. The second, in 2011, was about our path to recovery.
That recovery looked, at times, to be precarious. The challenges were so great, the burdens so heavy, the crisis so unprecedented, that Ireland’s detractors might be proven right. But we were determined – determined that Ireland would, once again, offer its people a secure future, a bright future.
Determined that Ireland would be Europe’s success story.
That is why we took decisive action to recapitalise and restructure our banks. That is why we insisted on re-writing the terms and conditions of our bail-out, and we tore up the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note. That is why we have not shirked our deficit targets. That is why we instigated major reform of our welfare services, so that we do not have – as we did in the nineties – years of jobless growth. That is why we have prioritised investment in the infrastructure, the training, the reforms that reflect not just our needs now, but our aspirations for the future.
And it is that future that is the subject of this Global Irish Forum, as we look forward to post-recession Ireland.
You have come prepared. Your working groups – divided up according to your skills and expertise – will give us sector-specific recommendations aimed at creating jobs.
And, for the first time – again, at your request – this year’s Forum includes an event for 100 Irish SMEs who will benefit from mentoring sessions and expert advice on how to grow their business, from Network members who have been there, and done exactly that.
Our inaugural regional events, which brought together members of the Global Irish Network with local businesses and educational institutions in Galway, Cork and Belfast, yesterday were a great success and a welcome addition to the Forum. I was particularly delighted to hear the announcement of one thousand new jobs headed for Belfast at the event there yesterday.
There is one thing I would change about today, however, and that is the number of women in the room.
If the Network has one weakness, it is that we are not connecting with as many women as we are men. And I want to address that.
That is why I have asked Global Irish Network member and former Chief Operating Officer with UBS Wealth Management in the United States, Anita Sands, to take the lead in devising ways for us to attract more senior business women to be members. The Network cannot consider itself to be truly global if it does not reach as many women as it does men.
I want also to pay tribute to those organisations that help us in our outreach work of a different kind. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the GAA after many years of close collaboration. There are now GAA clubs all over the world, playing in regional championships and forging important bonds in communities far from home. The GAA’s skill in making these connections, and its openness to collaboration with our embassies and consulates, has been an invaluable asset in many locations globally. I also want to acknowledge the many dozens of organisations abroad that provide invaluable advice and assistance to our emigrants, both longstanding and new, and particularly to those most in need.
I am proud that, despite our tough financial situation, the Government has been able to maintain a significant level of funding to these groups. Since our election in 2011, a total of €34 million has been provided.
That’s just one way in which we support, and maintain contact with, our Diaspora. And this country is rightly regarded as a world leader in the way it does that.
But now we need to build on the success of recent years and evolve our approach to Diaspora issues, to get even better at what we do – to learn, and to meet new challenges.
In that context, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will soon carry out a Comprehensive Review of our Diaspora Policy to examine all elements of our engagement with the Irish abroad.
It is the right time to do this. The current structures for dealing with the Irish Abroad have been in place for ten years, and the face of emigration has changed.
As I said earlier, recent years have seen a wave of new, young and largely skilled emigrants heading to new destinations as well as the more traditional ones. No matter where they go, or why, they still face challenges. So while continuing to support the older generation of emigrants, we also need to identify ways of better engaging with the younger generation.
The review will build upon the success of the Global Irish Network and the Emigrant Support Programme, address the legacy of the Gathering and the needs and potential of both longstanding and new emigrants.
A consultation exercise with stakeholders at home and abroad will be central to this effort. I intend to convene a Diaspora Advisory Group, initially for the duration of the review, to bring external perspectives, and to challenge and refresh our thinking in Government.
The Advisory Group will bring together representatives of diverse communities: young emigrants and those whose roots abroad go back generations; successful business people and those working with our citizens abroad who have fallen on hard times.
We do not intend to wait for the results of the review to action every new idea that will emerge from this Forum. We will move as soon as possible.
We will make new funds available for new initiatives, particularly those aimed at assisting new emigrants.
We will seek to develop an all-island dimension to Diaspora issues.
The next decade will see the commemoration of important centenaries in the growth of our nation and the birth of our State. The Diaspora will have a full part to play in these commemorations, both at home and abroad.
They also have a continuing role to play in advancing the peace process and promoting the all-island economy. We need to make sure that they can play this role to the full.
We will share our knowledge and experience with local communities and with local Government, as they build on their success in local mobilisation as part of The Gathering.
One such local initiative is now going global. Ireland Reaching Out has thrived since its inception and has had enormous success in linking localities in Ireland to their own emigrants and their descendants. They have set themselves the ambitious goal of creating a database of the whole Irish Diaspora.
My Department has assisted them significantly since their inception and we look forward to working with them in the future, as they advance their ambitious efforts.
Ladies and gentlemen, our work together since the first Forum in 2009 has been innovative and results-driven.
You have helped create new policy initiatives that have benefited Irish companies and Irish citizens.
You have been a vital voice for us in the international media and in boardrooms around the world.
You have supported and created foreign direct investment.
You have assisted Irish exporters
You have made Ireland a world leader in diaspora engagement.
And now, together, we will continue that work to deliver true recovery and a future of which the Irish at home and abroad can be proud.