I am honoured to make my first Budget speech as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I would like to begin my remarks by paying tribute to my predecessor, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, who, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, steered the Department through an unprecedented time of economy crisis with a skilful hand. In particular, during his tenure the Trade remit of the Department was considerably strengthened and the embassy network was refigured with a strategic emphasis on new markets. Along with Deputy Costello he helped to stabilise the overseas development aid budget.
In 2011 this Government introduced a plan to repair the public finances and return the economy to growth. The huge sacrifices made by the people of Ireland have been crucial in turning around the economy from ruin to growth. Now is the time to solidify the nascent economic recovery and to ensure that the benefits of healthy growth in the economy are dispersed so that the recovery is widened and deepened. That is what Budget 2015 is all about.
In Foreign Affairs and Trade, there is positive news.
In 2011, part of the Government’s plan to repair the Irish economy involved a fresh approach to our Embassy network and to the State agencies to ensure that these important State resources are positioned to take full advantage of new opportunities in key emerging and high growth markets while maintaining our focus on mature markets. As the recovery takes hold, we must continue to deliver maximum overall benefit for the economy – meaning good jobs for our people at home in Ireland.
Consistent with this overriding priority, Budget 2015 will enable my Department to complete the process of opening five new Embassies and three new Consulates General in key locations across South East Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. These new Missions – not least new Embassies in Bangkok and Jakarta – expand the global reach of our economic diplomacy efforts and strengthen our capacity to advance key national interests in trade, tourism, investment and education promotion.
The expansion of the Embassy network also takes full account of a ‘new market approach’, as provided for in the Review of the Government Trade, Tourism and Investment Strategy published by my Department earlier this year. This provides a more strategic, up-to-date and nuanced direction for Ireland’s international trade, tourism, investment and education promotion efforts. It incorporates, for the first time, markets that may deliver in the long-term, while immediate sectoral opportunities exist in some cases, e.g. Nigeria (food and drink) and Vietnam (education), supported by our Embassy footprint in these locations.
Overall, the work of the Embassy network is essential to efforts to enhance Ireland’s international reputation and to drive economic recovery through the promotion of trade, tourism and investment. That activity makes a difference on the ground in Ireland – to Irish farmers who export vast amounts of food; to Irish companies who depend on exporting to foreign markets; and to all Irish taxpayers – who benefit from a growing economy with a strong export market. The Government has introduced important tax reforms in this Budget and we have protected our 12.5% Corporate Tax rate again, which I know from the wide range of business leaders I met recently in New York, Washington and Boston, is a significant factor – though not the only factor – that makes Ireland such an attractive investment destination for foreign investors.
Our aid programme and the fight to end extreme hunger and poverty and provide humanitarian relief in the world are at the heart of our foreign policy. I emphasised the Government’s commitment at the UN in New York in September. And I underlined the importance of political will when I co-hosted the major international meeting on the Zero Hunger Challenge at UN Headquarters on 24 September.
We have demonstrated our commitment in the Budget today, by ensuring that there will be no reduction in Ireland’s overall Official Development Assistance. For 2015, we have allocated just over €600 million for ODA.
€476 million will be managed through Vote 27 – International Cooperation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which administers the Irish Aid Programme. An estimated further €125 million will be provided through other Government Departments, and Ireland’s share of the EU Development Cooperation Budget.
While this will entail a very slight reduction of €3 million (or about a half of one percent) in my Department’s Vote 27, there will be no reduction in Ireland’s overall ODA in 2015.
We have been recognised internationally for successfully stabilising our development budget over the past three years, after severe cuts, and in the face of serious economic difficulty. I believe that maintaining the budget, by providing €601 million for Ireland’s aid programme, will be seen as a very significant Irish contribution in 2015. This will be the international year of development, when Ireland will continue to play a leading role at the UN in negotiating a new set of global development goals to follow on from the Millennium Development Goals.
The Government’s development policy, “One World, One Future” restates our commitment to the target of providing 0.7% of GNP for Official Development Assistance when economic circumstances permit. Today’s decision is confirmation in practice of that commitment.
My colleague, Minister of State Sherlock, will elaborate on our ODA programme priorities in 2015.
A very important part of my Department’s work is the support provided to Irish emigrants overseas.
Funding of the Emigrant Support Programme will be maintained at its 2014 level of almost €11.6m, while an additional €1m has been allocated to new Diaspora projects. This support, along with the appointment of my colleague, Minister of State Deenihan as Ireland’s first ever Minister for the Diaspora, demonstrates Ireland’s commitment to assist Irish people living abroad. Next year funding will increase to over €12.5m. A further €1 million for Diaspora projects will be provided under the auspices of the Department of the Taoiseach.
Building and maintaining connections with the Diaspora is a priority for the Government, and the Emigrant Support Programme is one of the key tools we have for this. It provides funding for community organisations around the world working with Irish emigrants and their descendants. Since its establishment in 2004, the Emigrant Support Programme has disbursed more than €110 million to support emigrants and build connections with the Irish Diaspora. In 2013, the programme provided funding to 182 organisations in 15 countries. Almost €6.8m of the funding went to organisations in Britain, €1.6m to those in the US, €1.4m to Ireland-based organisations, and €400,000 to Australian community groups. The remaining funding supported organisations in Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, France, South Africa, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Norway, and the Netherlands.
Since my appointment as Minister three months ago I have visited emigrant support centres in London, New York and Boston. I have been very impressed by the wide range of support services provided by these centres and I’d like to take this opportunity to place on the record my deep appreciation for the hard work of the staff of these important centres and, indeed, the supports provided by a range of voluntary organisations working with the Irish abroad.
While we rightly celebrate the successes of many Irish people around the world, we must not lose sight of those who haven't enjoyed that success, those who are rendered vulnerable by loneliness, dislocation or other factors. Welfare projects and programmes account for the majority of Emigrant Support funding.
We also support culture and heritage projects and, in recent years, we have provided support to Irish business networks and I met a number of these exciting networks during my recent trip to the United States. In addition to the established centres of Irish emigration, new and strong communities are emerging in Western Australia, the Gulf, Canada, and elsewhere. It is important that we connect with those new communities and keep them in touch with Ireland. I am delighted that Budget 2015 will facilitate the strengthening of these relationships.
Finally, the House will be aware that very important work is being undertaken by the Government in relation to the Peace Process. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have announced our intention to convene all-Party talks involving both Governments and these are expected to begin tomorrow.
I am strongly of the view that the talks are required to overcome the current political impasse within the Northern Ireland Executive – including on the legacy issues of parades, flags and identity and dealing with the past, commonly referred to as the Haass issues. The goal is to ensure that the Northern Ireland’s political institutions not only function, but flourish, to the benefit of all, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement.
While these developments are happening at the political level, important work continues on the reconciliation agenda. Shortly after my appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade I visited Belfast and saw, at first hand, the positive impact of the Government’s Reconciliation Fund in communities across the city. I had the pleasure of meeting many of the hardworking groups involved in Reconciliation projects at the Annual Reconciliation Networking Forum in Dublin Castle last month. Accordingly, I am very pleased that the Reconciliation Fund’s budget will be maintained at the 2014 level (€2.74 million), despite the ongoing budgetary pressures. This is a strong signal of the Government’s commitment to peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland as is the allocation of responsibilities in the area of North-South Cooperation to my colleague Minister of State Sherlock, who has already visited Northern Ireland on a number of occasions to build relationships, particularly in the area of trade.
In 2013 the Reconciliation Fund made grants to over 150 projects, supporting organisations across the community and voluntary sector. These groups are building meaningful links across communities and the border addressing issues, including sectarianism, and are working to create better understanding between people and traditions on the island of Ireland.
Since its establishment in 1982, over €43 million has been disbursed to over 1,800 projects. The current political impasse in Northern Ireland highlights that we cannot take for granted the huge progress that has been made since the Good Friday Agreement and I am confident that our continued investment in the Reconciliation Fund is both important and necessary.
This year’s Budget contains much positive news for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I have focussed on four key areas which reflect the breadth of my Department’s activities and its current priorities. I will now hand over to my colleague, Minister of State, Seán Sherlock.