Honourable Mayors, Excellencies, Honorary Consuls, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to join you this evening for the inaugural Diplomat Dinner and to celebrate the work of the diplomatic corps – both career diplomats and Honorary Consuls – in Ireland. As representatives of our many global partners, you are at the forefront of the strong international relationships we enjoy, both politically and economically around the world. I hope that you have had a chance to meet with businesses in Cork or with the Cork Chamber while you are here and indeed that some of these contacts grow and develop into mutually beneficial partnerships.
Ireland has a proud record of international engagement in peacekeeping and peace support operations which is personified by tonight’s other speaker, Lt. General Pat Nash.
Lt. General Nash’s has had a very distinguished military career, including service on peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, the former Yugoslavia and the Lebanon. His last command was as the Operational Commander of the European Union EUFOR mission in Chad which was a first for our Defence Forces and testifies to the immense regard in which he is held by both his Irish and overseas colleagues. In addition to receiving the Distinguished Service Medal here in Ireland, he has been appointed as an Officer of the Légion d’Honneur by France in recognition of his leadership in the EU Chad mission. I very much look forward to hearing from General Nash later this evening.
I would also like to extend a very warm welcome to the many representatives of the business community who are here this evening. I hope that tonight will serve to deepen the relationship between the diplomatic corps and business in Ireland and lead to new trading opportunities. Cork is a great place to talk about trade and investment. This city’s development was built on its trade links, with Europe and with the Americas. While the days of the Shandon Butter Exchange may be gone, Cork today is home to some of the most innovative companies in the world, from global brands like Apple to home grown success stories like VoxPro and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow like James Whelton who founded Coder Dojo while still a pupil at Presentation Brothers College Cork. Cork has always been successful by looking outwards, exchanging both merchandise and ideas with the world.
Now, more than ever before, Irish businesses are looking overseas for new markets and new opportunities. At the same time, Ireland is attracting more and more high-tech foreign owned multinational companies to our shores. As a Government, we are committed to helping business in every way we can, by pursuing competitive policies at home and providing hands on assistance overseas through our Embassy network and the State agencies.
Day after day our Embassy network is busy, promoting Ireland as a destination for inward investment and R&D activity, lobbying and negotiating for market access for Irish goods, building Irish business networks, promoting Ireland in the media and to high-level contacts, making introductions for Irish companies and organising high-level visits and trade missions. Since the onset of the economic crisis, our Embassy network and our State agencies have also been at the forefront of restoring our reputation overseas.
Last month my Department hosted the Global Irish Economic Forum, with meetings in Dublin, Galway and here in Cork. The Forum focused on opportunities for job creation, especially for the young, and on economic growth. Over 260 of the most influential Irish and Irish-connected individuals from around the globe gathered to discuss and advise on opportunities in education, tourism, investment, new technologies, trade and culture.
Since taking office in 2011, this Government has been working towards a fundamental objective of rebuilding an economy devastated by the property bubble, while dealing with the enormous legacy of debt it left, and ensuring that we return to a path of sustainable, job-creating growth.
It has required a huge effort, including by our Embassy network and the State agencies. But we have gone an enormous distance, and our approach is working. Our General Government Deficit has fallen from over 30% of GDP in 2010 to a projected 7.3% in 2013. Our deficit in 2012 was over €10 billion lower than in 2011 and we are on course to meet our 3% deficit target by 2015. In 2013, we expect to achieve a third successive year of economic growth, and in 2014 we anticipate that the economy will expand by 2%.
We have worked hard to restore Ireland’s international reputation. We have made the hard choices and delivered what we promised.
That determination means we are now firmly on track to be the first country in the Eurozone to exit an EU/IMF programme of assistance later this year, even in the face of unexpectedly difficult global economic conditions.
It means that Ireland is once again in a position to raise finance in the international bond markets and our 10-year bond yields have declined to historic lows of around 3.5 per cent.
It is Ireland’s global trade and investment links that are responsible for much of our economic momentum. As one of the world’s most open economies we know that we need to look outwards to grasp new economic opportunities and to drive recovery.
We have achieved strong export growth, with total export levels at a historic high of €182 billion in 2012, some 16 per cent above the pre-crisis peak in 2007. Our balance of payments is expected to remain in surplus for the fourth year in a row in 2013.
I am glad to say that this progress has translated into the number that really matters - jobs. In the second quarter of this year the private sector created over 21,000 new jobs - 7,000 per month - and unemployment has come down from a high of 15.4 per cent to a figure of 13.4 per cent in August. Importantly, the rate of long-term unemployment is declining; it stood at 8.1 per cent at the end of August, down from 9.2 per cent a year earlier.
This is hardly cause for complacency, but the real economy is headed in the right direction. We are doing everything we can to accelerate it. My colleagues, Minister Noonan and Minister Howlin, announced 25 significant pro-business and pro-jobs measures in Budget 2014. Our latest Action Plan for Jobs sets out specific, measurable actions to spur employment through disruptive reforms in areas like big data, online business, energy efficiency, health innovation, reducing red tape for business and ensuring that within five years Ireland leads Europe in terms of ICT graduates as a percentage of all third-level graduates.
I look forward to continuing that work, both at home and with our partners abroad and I know that Ireland’s entrepreneurial spirit and openness to the world, which can be seen so clearly here in Cork, mean that we are well placed to take advantage of those opportunities in the years to come.