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Address by the Tánaiste to the Asia Pacific Ireland Business Forum

Trade, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Asia and Oceania, 2011

Members of the Asia Pacific Ireland Business Forum, Uachtarán Chumann Lúthcleas Gael, members of the Diplomatic Corps, Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for your warm welcome today, and for the invitation to address this Forum, the first of its kind in Ireland. 

As a Galway man, I had no problem finding our distinctive venue this morning - I am very familiar with the road to Croke Park. Less familiar perhaps with the exact route to the presentation area for All-Ireland medals in recent years, but we hope to remedy that in 2011. In the meantime I’m sure that Christy would be more than willing to bring me in the footsteps of the likes of Joe Connolly and many a Cork person in recent years!

Our historic setting here today is unique. I know that people have travelled from Asia for this event, and we are also joined by members of the diplomatic corps in Dublin. For some of you, this may be your first visit to Croke Park. This ground has long been a symbol of national identity and pride to Irish people throughout the world. In recent weeks, through coverage of the historic visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II here, its role as a symbol of the best that Ireland can achieve has been reinforced again.

The event that we are attending here today is also unique. There are many Irish business networks all over the world, but this is the first one to be associated directly with a network of contacts formed through the GAA. During the visit of Queen Elizabeth here, Christy outlined some background to the formation of the GAA. He stated “ On 1st November 1884 a small group of visionary Irishmen, profoundly imbued with a spirit of national regeneration, formed our Association”. It might be too early at this stage to bestow the lofty title of ‘visionary Irishmen’ on the committee of the APIBF, but I think that we can all agree that as politicians, business people, sports men and women, we have  all been  driven recently  by  a renewed ‘spirit of national regeneration’.

Since the onset of the Global Economic Crisis, and all of the knock-on effects on the Irish economy, this country has been in engaged in a debate. Our egos bruised, our reputation damaged, our people suffering because of sacrifices that have been made in recent years.  We have been asking who we are as a nation? What does it mean to be Irish? How are we perceived abroad, and how can we influence this? 

Although our reputation has taken a battering, our national identity is still strong. We are clear as a nation where we want to go, and how to get there. We want to return to the prosperity and success of the past two decades, but we want to do it in a way that is inclusive, fair and sustainable.

One advantage of the economic crisis is that it has clarified our thinking on what Ireland is good at, across the board. There has been a lot of talk of the need to return to our roots. There is a general consensus that what makes Ireland great is its people. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Oscar Wilde writes: "Nowadays we are all of us so hard up that the only pleasant things to pay are compliments. They're the only things we can pay." Well, let me start by paying compliments and we’ll move on later to what else I can pay! 

Despite the constrained times, Ireland has many assets and resources still to draw on. The strength of this country has always been the person to person relationships and business to business contacts that we are so good at establishing, nurturing and maintaining. Irish people are keen to forge paths for others where they can.  They recognise the importance of building connections between people to sustain our reputation and grow our market share globally. This is particularly true in Asia. I don’t think that there is any other part of the world where the development and nurturing of relationships is so integral to ensuring success in business. 

Our business identity as a nation remains strong. That is an aspect of our image abroad which we need to promote again and again.  Our positioning of Ireland as the Innovation Island has real substance. Over the last ten years, we have invested heavily in research and development in Ireland to build an environment that will encourage the growth of cutting edge industries here. We are a globalised nation, and we rely on trade to survive. We have been and continue to be successful in attracting high quality Foreign Direct Investment, and we have world-class home grown companies.  Many have continued to grow despite the crisis, increasing their exports in very difficult circumstances, and giving some much needed good news stories.

At home, we are doing everything to ensure that we return to growth as soon as possible. The Government has stated consistently that our way out of this economic crisis will be through export led recovery. In 2010 exports grew by almost 8%, this means that the losses made in 2008 and 2009 have been recovered. In fact exports were at their highest ever level in 2010.

Within Ireland huge sacrifices have already been made to get to grips with the situation: cost-saving measures to a value of €14.6bn were implemented between 2008 and 2010 -this equates to 9% of GDP. 2011 and 2012 will see a further €9.6bn in adjustments implemented. Our funding partners in the EU and the IMF are clear that, as they themselves have put it ‘Ireland is making good progress in overcoming the worst economic crisis in recent history.’ Our message, therefore, is that we are meeting our targets.

There are indications that our economy is on the mend, and we have seen significant improvements in competitiveness.  Wages, rents and prices have all fallen, and this is positive for Irish businesses, as well as for Asian businesses with operations here, all of whose margins are lower. Ireland will record a balance of payments surplus this year. This shows that, unlike Wilde, Ireland is paying its way in the world.

We acknowledge that there is work to be done on enhancing our reputation. The new Programme for National Recovery recognises the need to restore our reputation in Europe and further afield, including Asia, and we are working hard towards that end.

My Department and our Embassy network work internationally with the State Agencies Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, Culture Ireland, SFI, Tourism Ireland and Bord Bia to get the message out that Ireland is open for business. 

Getting positive messages about Ireland’s recovery out, and increasing awareness of Ireland in Asia is, of course, a daunting task. The scale of the market, cultural differences, language challenges, are all difficulties for the Government and I know for companies operating in the region. Establishing our identity as a destination for business requires perseverance, patience, skill and innovation. But where better to look for these skills than amongst the ranks of the GAA! 

The link between the Asian County Board, the GAA and the development of the Asia Pacific Irish Business Forum is a good example of where the building of relationships between people, in this case on the football field, has led to business progress and opportunities. It is a tangible symbol of Ireland in Asia, and one which has attracted interest across the spectrum.

From the first club founded only in the late 1990s, there are now 800 people playing games in the Asia region.  27 clubs have been established.  14 nationalities are represented and over 40% of those who play are women. The great Mícheál Ó Mhuircheartaigh – himself not without Asian connections, having a son, Cormac, living in Singapore and involved with the club there - has a famous quote;  ‘Sean Og Ó hAilpÍn...his father’s from Fermanagh, his mother’s from Fiji, neither one of them a hurling stronghold’.  I think when Mícheál made that comment, even with his great foresight he would have found it difficult to predict the spread of Gaelic Games in Asia. We are now in a situation where it seems entirely feasible that Fiji could become a hurling stronghold in the not too distant future!

In this century Asia will be the economic fulcrum of the world. In 1999, the Government of Ireland recognised that the economic importance of Asia meant that Ireland could not afford to ignore opportunities arising in Asian markets. The Asia Strategy was implemented to reflect this important shift. It had two principal objectives; to improve political and business contacts in the region and to raise awareness of Ireland both as an investment location and as a source of high quality goods and services. That Strategy was largely successful although there has been such radical development in Asian economies in recent years that we can ill afford to rest on our laurels. 

The follow-up to the Asia Strategy, ‘Trading and Investing in a Smart Economy,’ retains a central focus on Asian markets.  With the addition of trade promotion to my portfolio as Minister, my Department and our Embassy network will drive the implementation of the new Strategy in close cooperation with other relevant Departments and the State Agencies. I look forward to working with partners such as the APIBF and other organisations represented here today to increase Ireland’s profile in the region.

Our enhanced responsibilities under the banner of trade promotion will allow the Embassy network to develop further their role in supporting Irish business and more importantly, in building economic linkages between Ireland and our priority trading partners. When I spoke to the conference of Ambassadors at the beginning of this month in Dublin, I stressed that the task of Embassies in the future, as before, will be to continue to turn our network of contacts into an asset which can demonstrate tangible returns for the Irish economy.  Under the new arrangements, my Department will have responsibility for managing the new Export Trade Council, which I will chair. As well as Government and Agency representatives, it will have private sector representation and draw on the experience of those involved in growing export oriented business.

The Government can also draw on the expertise of the members of the Global Irish Network. Its establishment was one of the key outcomes of the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2009. The Network is an outstanding resource, bringing together members of the worldwide Irish community who are among those best-placed to contribute to our economic recovery. I am delighted that a number of the members of the Network are here today.

The Taoiseach has invited over 300 members of the Network to meet later this year at the second Global Irish Economic Forum. This meeting in Dublin Castle will be a unique opportunity for the Government and State Agencies to engage with leading members of the Diaspora. Naturally, one of the priority topics will be Ireland’s engagement with, and presence in, new and emerging markets, including those in Asia.

I could not address a gathering such as this without acknowledging the tremendous achievement of one of the most practical and innovative initiatives to come out of the first Global Irish Economic Forum. The Farmleigh Fellowship, established by Network members based in Singapore is providing 23 graduates with the opportunity to gain vital experience in Asia. The participants in this MSc programme are developing invaluable networking experience and knowledge of the various regions in Asia in which they are placed. When they have completed their periods of study in UCC and Singapore, and the practical work placements across Asia, they will be uniquely positioned amongst young Irish professionals to take advantage of the opportunities in Asia that you will be discussing today.

The Government will continue to give all necessary supports to business leaders who are so energetically pursuing the rewards that Asia has to offer, as well as to those who will follow that example in the future.

George Bernard Shaw said “Nationalism must now be added to the refuse pile of superstitions. We are now citizens of the world.” It is rare that Shaw and I, both internationalists after all, would disagree. It is even less frequently that I would disagree with a Nobel prize winner. However, in the case of Mr Shaw, while I agree that we are all citizens of the world, I think that today’s event shows that constructive  nationalism, demonstrated here through the flourishing of the GAA in Asia, can be a contributing factor both to our own economic success and to global prosperity .

I know that every Irish business person abroad is a proud envoy for this country. The APIBF shows that we can draw on what we are proudest of within our identity, and use these strengths to rebuild our reputation internationally. The Irish in Asia, whether running a company, working in a multinational enterprise or teaching English, know that all of the elements of our presence; political, business, sporting and cultural, need to be harnessed to project a strong sense of country and purpose, if we are to rebuild our reputation and secure our future prosperity.  I commend the APIBF for your contribution to these crucial national objectives.

Ireland as a country, as a nation of talented people, as a home of creativity and as a strong brand internationally, is something that I believe in. With this in mind, I wish you well in today’s discussions about how best to develop Ireland’s reputation in Asia, and am confident that we have the best people in the room here today to do just that.  I can assure you that you have my support and the support of my Department and the Embassy network in your endeavours. I am hoping that it will be possible for me to join you at your next meeting in Seoul in October.

Before I conclude, I would like to thank Dr. Tom Hardiman in particular for all that he has done over the years to promote Ireland’s relations with Asia.

Thank you all very much. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.