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Remarks by Ambassador Daniel Mulhall at the San Francisco World Affairs Council

Ireland is going through an interesting time of change at present, politically, socially and economically.

Politically, a younger generation of politicians has taken the helm. Our Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar is 39 years old while his deputy, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, and Finance Minister, Paschal Donohoe, are both in their mid-40s. Inevitably, they bring a fresh mind-set to bear on their responsibilities in Government. All three are very good communicators and they have rolled out some ambitious plans, such as Global Ireland, which aims to double Ireland's international footprint in the coming decade. One aspect of this initiative will be the opening next year of a new Irish Consulate in Los Angeles, which will become Ireland's seventh Consulate in this country. As things stand, only a handful of much larger countries have more Consulates across the US than we have. This reflects the unique relationship that exists between Ireland and the United States.

The impact of social change in Ireland can be seen in a number of places. First, the outcome of the referendum we held in 2015 which resulted in marriage equality being approved by 62% of those who turned out to vote. 

Confounding predictions that the measure would be popular in Ireland's cities but would be rejected in rural areas, all bar one of our electoral districts voted in favour of this constitutional change. Thus to the surprise of many people around the world, Ireland became the first country anywhere to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote. 

In last month's referendum on abortion, 66% of those who voted gave their approval for a liberalisation of Ireland's abortion laws. It is not necessary to make any judgement about the abortion issue in order to see how far public attitudes have shifted since the 8th amendment to our Constitution introduced a ban on abortion in 1984. At that time, 67% voted to enshrine the right to life of the unborn in the Constitution. 

Another indicator of social change is the fact that today 17% of Ireland's population was born outside of our state. This is an astonishing turnaround for a country that historically has exported its people all over the world and especially to the United States. Back in the 1990s, the foreign-born percentage of our population was in low single figures. 

Education provides another illustration of the changes that have occurred in Ireland in recent decades. Having invested heavily in our education system, our labour force is among the best qualified in the world. Today, some 60% of our school leavers enter third level education and in the 25-39 age group about 50% have 3rd-level qualifications. Ireland now has one of the youngest populations in Europe, with 40% of our people under 29. 

Another point of note is that these dramatic demographic changes have not given rise in Ireland to the kind of populist resistance that has become a fact of life elsewhere. No Irish political party has adopted anti-immigrant policies and the kind of Euroscepticism that is rife in other parts of Europe has to date found no echo in Ireland. 

Ireland's economic transformation has its roots in decisions taken as far back as the 1950s and the 1960s to open up our economy to trade and foreign investment, and to seek membership of the European Union. EU membership turned out to be a game-changer for Ireland. It is not that this has been a smooth, unhindered progression towards prosperity and economic security. When Ireland joined the EU in 1973, our per capita wealth levels were around 60% of the EU average and it took us a long time to bridge the prosperity gap between ourselves and our continental neighbours. Today, Ireland is comfortably above the Union's wealth average. 

We did, of course, endure some torrid years during the Great Recession that began in 2008/9. As a small open economy, we were very vulnerable to those seismic external shocks. As a consequence of the international downturn and the travails of our banks, Ireland's debt levels and joblessness figures soared. We were forced into an EU-IMF programme in 2010, which was a low ebb for modern Ireland. Since that time, our economy stabilised and we now have had the strongest growth figures in the Euro Zone for the past four years. Unemployment in Ireland is now down to just over 5% from 15% at its height. 

Ireland's success story has a strong American flavour. US investment in Ireland has undoubtedly helped change the shape of our economy. Today some 700 US firms have operations in Ireland where they employ 150,000, some 7% of our workforce. Their main reason for being there is that Ireland gives them a base within the European single market and they can tap into a well-educated, English-speaking workforce. Moreover, successive Irish Governments have created an environment conducive to business success. Our fair and transparent system of corporation tax, with a flat rate of 12.5%, is also part of Ireland's attraction. 

The outlook for Ireland at present is very positive. Our economy seems set to continue growing strongly in the coming years, but there are a couple of clouds on our horizon. The first is the decision of the UK to leave the EU, which we did not want to see happen but have to learn to cope with. 

Ireland has a unique relationship with the UK, a product of geography, history and people-to-people links. That relationship will continue to be vital to us and it will remain so in the future. 

The so-called Brexit poses genuine challenges for Ireland, to our trade links with Britain and with regard to Northern Ireland. Among our EU partners, Ireland is uniquely exposed to Brexit-generated disruptions and for that reason we will be looking to keep the UK closely aligned to the EU so as to minimise the impact on trade flows between us.

Our Government is determined to maintain the current invisible border between north and south in Ireland. In this we have the support of our EU partners and the British Government is also in agreement. The problem is how to achieve this in a situation where the UK leaves the single market and the customs union as it says it plans to do. 

Our Government welcomes the recent British White Paper on its future relationship with the EU which seems to us to provide a basis for negotiations between the Commission and the British Government. Ireland wants to see those negotiations succeed, and hopes that Britain will be able to show the requisite flexibility in order to find the right balance between the advantages of free trade with the EU and the obligations that must inevitably accompany such a privileged relationship. 

There will also be an upside for Ireland from Brexit. This is because the UK's departure from the EU will make Ireland an even more attractive location for US FDI than it already is. We expect to gain quite a lot of investment in the years ahead as companies look for a European base that will give them guaranteed access to the single market.  There will also be scope for Ireland to play an enhanced role in trans-Atlantic relations on the back of our close traditional and contemporary ties with the US.

This brings me to the second international challenge on Ireland - tensions in trans-Atlantic economic relations. These are of special concern to Ireland given our extensive stake in trans-Atlantic trade and investment. Few countries have benefited as strongly as Ireland has from the globalisation of recent decades and we have every interest in seeing a continuation of this positive environment.  The fact is that the EU-US economic relationship is one of mutual advantage. Ireland is a good example of the mutual advantage that flows from our trade and investment ties. US investment has helped to strengthen Ireland’s economy and in turn Irish companies have increasingly been investing in the US where today some 500 Irish firms employ around 100,000 Americans in all 50 US States.

It would be a mutually-damaging development if those productive trans-Atlantic exchanges were to give way to a tit-for-tat imposition of tariffs. This is why my country will continue to be an active exponent of continued free flows of trade and investment across the Atlantic. 

 

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the USA

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