Madam President, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome you all to Iveagh House.
I would firstly like to commend my co-hosts, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, for the excellent work that they do to support business in this city. I’m sure that companies find the services and networking opportunities that the Chamber provides to its members an invaluable asset to their business.
This evening is about helping you to grow your business overseas; to find new opportunities; and to learn more about the culture and practices of the countries that you are targeting. It is also about facilitating connections, and building partnerships. Ireland has many companies that are selling their innovative goods and services around the world. They are developing cutting edge products in the ICT, pharmaceutical and environmental sectors, as well as leading development in engineering and financial services.
I am pleased that there are so many representatives from the Diplomatic Corps here this evening. This is an opportunity to learn how the Irish businesses can work with companies from your home countries to mutual benefit. It is also an opportunity for Irish companies to find out more about overseas markets where their products might meet local demand. I hope that you all also engage with the representatives of my Department, and the other Government Departments and State Agencies that are here tonight, to understand better what the Government can do to assist your growth.
Everyone in this room is keenly aware of the challenges facing this country, and the wider global economy. I do not think I underestimate the gravity of the situation when I say that we are at the beginning of a critical two weeks, both for Ireland, and for Europe.
Last February, this Government inherited a banking crisis; a fiscal crisis; and a crisis in the real economy, all of which need to be tackled at the same time. Next week, our Budget for 2012 will be outlined over two days, by my colleagues Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan.
As you will know, it is our intention to make a €3.8 billion adjustment in that Budget, in order to meet the 8.6 per cent deficit target set down as part of Ireland’s EU-IMF programme. We made a decision not to pursue a more aggressive deficit reduction target than that, because we want to make room in our economy for jobs and growth.
This is a Government elected with a clear mandate from the Irish people: to fix the economy, and to do it in a way that is fair and balanced.
To achieve that, we are going to have to make some difficult choices, at a time when our choices are limited.
Our priority in this Budget will be to protect family incomes as much as possible, in order to restore confidence in our economy, and with it consumption and investment.
We are committed to reducing our deficit, but we cannot do that without also prioritising jobs.
Last week, we held a Cabinet meeting dedicated to progressing a number of initiatives aimed at helping businesses to trade and to expand, even in these tough times.
They included a Temporary Partial Loan Guarantee Scheme for viable businesses facing difficulties accessing credit; a Micro-finance Loan Scheme for small start-ups; and a second call worth approximately €60million under Innovation Fund Ireland.
Another priority decision were the twelve initiatives arising from the Global Irish Economic Forum in October, to be implemented between now and March 2012. These range from strategic measures to contribute to the restoration of our international reputation, to practical initiatives like the support by Global Irish Network members for Irish companies in the form of mentoring, coaching and sponsorship.
The second Global Irish Economic Forum, was just one example of how the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is undertaking the work of rebuilding our international reputation, and growing Ireland’s trade opportunities.
There are others:
It is almost six months since I stood in this room to address a conference of Ireland’s Ambassadors. I spoke to them of the underlying strengths of the Irish economy, of the dynamic and well educated workforce, and the pro-business environment. And of the business people who have shown determination and resilience in seeking out new opportunities abroad, despite the challenging global conditions.
I also spoke of the new responsibilities for trade promotion that this Department has taken on. I reminded them that high up in their responsibilities is that of trade envoy.
Ireland’s network of Embassies is very focused on the promotion of Ireland’s economic interests abroad. Our Embassies work actively with their extensive network of contacts in their countries of accreditation so that they can provide useful introductions to new Irish entrants to the market. They are a resource that you can call on as you seek to establish or grow your business in new markets.
Since that Conference there have been a number of significant initiatives to support Irish Exporters. As well as the Global Irish Forum, in September I chaired the first meeting of the Export Trade Council, which was established to promote and develop trade and investment with our priority markets. The forum will also be a means to drive trade policy, as set out in the Strategy and Action Plan for Irish Trade, Tourism and Investment to 2015.
In doing so, we will be building on some modest successes. Despite the challenges we are facing, Ireland has a positive story to tell. The economy is growing again. We have had two successive quarters of growth for the first time since 2006.
Exports are at an all time high, thanks in no small part to significant improvements in competitiveness. Our strong export performance has seen our current account balance move into surplus. This means Ireland is paying its way in the world.
Meanwhile the Government’s Jobs Initiative announced in May has seen an impressive and welcome increase in tourist numbers.
These are efforts we are making ourselves, to find solutions to our own problems. But we know that there are challenges, too, in the global economy – challenges that impact on a small, open, exporting economy like Ireland’s.
We in Ireland are determined to fix what was broken in our economy, and we will bring that same determination to resolving the problems in the wider Eurozone. I have consistently set out that Ireland’s crisis was not just an Irish problem, but a European problem, that required a European solution. That solution will not be easy, but it is absolutely essential that we in the Eurozone work together to achieve it. It is in our own interests, as European citizens, and in our children’s interests.
These are interesting times. They are difficult times. And we, each of us, have a duty to ensure that our actions now secure a fair and sustainable future for our country, and with it, the hopes of a new generation.
In conclusion, I would like to re-state my thanks to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, and wish you all an enjoyable and productive evening, which I hope will lead to new connections and new partnerships.