HomeNewsTaoiseach's Speeches

Opening remarks by the Taoiseach at Department of Foreign Affairs Conference “Representing the Global Island” Dublin Castle, 13 January 2015

 

Ministers, Secretary General, Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to open today’s Conference , which coincides with the launch of a comprehensive review of Ireland’s foreign policy, entitled “The Global Island: Ireland’s Foreign Policy for a Changing World”. It is very appropriate that the review is being launched in the presence of the practitioners at the coalface, those who represent Ireland around the world on a daily basis.

Modern technology means that those of you in far flung corners of the world are as connected to Iveagh House as are those of us in Merrion Street. Video conferencing, email and mobile technology ensure immediate connectivity and the instantaneous transmission of information between the mission network and headquarters.
Sometimes, however, there is simply no substitute for coming together in one place. Realising Ireland’s full potential as a “Global Island” in the twenty-first century cannot be achieved without an effective and dynamic foreign service. This conference represents an excellent opportunity to harness the huge breadth and depth of your collective expertise in identifying how Ireland’s interests and values can be promoted in a diverse range of contexts. The world around us is changing, but our own country has also undergone profound change – not least in the last decade.

I last met with all Heads of Mission in Dublin in June 2011, not long after becoming Taoiseach. Our focus then was squarely on how to restore our country’s battered reputation overseas; I will come back to that shortly.
Since 2011, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can take pride in a range of high profile achievements, including our extremely successful EU Presidency, our effective Chairmanship of the OSCE, and a range of historic bilateral visits, above all those to and from the United Kingdom. Just before Christmas the Minister and his team helped broker an agreement sustaining the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Such events demand huge commitment and rightly command public attention. However, the business of implementing our foreign policy continues day to day across the globe, with little fanfare and often a limited awareness back here in Ireland.

It is very welcome that this conference includes participation from across Government Departments and State Agencies; from the private sector, media and academia; from the UN and European External Action Service, with High Representative Mogherini having been present here yesterday.

Foreign policy does not exist in isolation from domestic concerns and priorities. On the contrary – developments outside Ireland are crucial in setting the context for our own national situation. And our foreign policy is at heart about protecting and promoting our national interests, broadly defined. Crucially, a responsive and relevant foreign policy depends on effective partnerships and teamwork for its execution – at home and abroad.
Minister Flanagan will shortly present the foreign policy review, which Government approved last week. I wish to focus my own remarks on a few specific areas: on the economic role of missions; on our EU engagement; and offering some brief reflections on wider priorities.

The focus of today’s session is on “Partnerships for Prosperity”. I do not need to set out the trajectory of Ireland’s economic fortunes to this particular audience. As the face of the Government overseas during a turbulent and traumatic period, you are more familiar with the statistics than most.

From the beginning of its term of office, this Government made a strategic decision to invest the time and resources needed to rebuild Ireland’s reputation internationally, particularly in Europe. Driven by a dispassionate analysis of Ireland’s national interests, my Government chose the path of constructive engagement, not confrontational unilateralism.

The task was a formidable one. By 2011, Ireland’s reputation was in tatters. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade more than rose to the challenge and played a crucial role in the overall recovery effort. I know this was not easy. I know it often felt like swimming against the tide. I know and appreciate the days and weeks that were spent countering the onslaught of negative narrative, whether with your government and local business contacts, or in the media of your host countries.

But I believe the strategy and the enormous effort needed to implement it have been fully vindicated by events.

Our economy is now firmly in recovery. The credit for that lies with the Irish people, and the sacrifices made to put the Irish economy back on a sound footing.

Those sacrifices might, however, have all have been in vain were it not for the efforts to secure the renewed support and trust of our European and international partners since 2011.

The bail-out programme my Government inherited in 2011 was penal and unaffordable: interest rates of over 6%; a requirement to borrow €3 billion at high interest rates every year to pay into the bank - Anglo Irish – that helped ruin the economy; a commitment to further raise income taxes on low and middle income workers; and a growing assault on our 12.5% rate of corporation tax.

Investors – both domestic and international – knew this could not work. Yields on Irish bonds rose to over 15%, property prices collapsed and banks teetered on the edge as billions in savings flooded out of the country. Two hundred and fifty thousand jobs were destroyed in just three years.

Without more help from our international partners, it was clear that our economy would not recover. Securing this help was, I believe, the single greatest foreign policy challenge that our State has ever faced. I want to thank the Department of Foreign Affairs for stepping up to that challenge. You have worked with other Government Departments and State institutions to deliver the support from our international partners needed to complement domestic efforts to turn around Ireland’s economic fortunes.

The evidence of delivery is clear to all but the most committed begrudgers and eurosceptics: the recent changes to EU bail-out loans that enabled us to re-finance our IMF loans at record low interest rates saving us more than €1.5 billion; the maturity extensions on our EU loans reducing our borrowing requirement by €20 billion up to 2020; the scrapping of the promissory notes reducing our borrowing requirement by another €20 billion over the same period; and the reduced interest rates on our EU loans saving us €10bn over their lifetime. None of these changes would have happened were it not for the efforts across the political, diplomatic and civil service systems to win back the trust and support of our international partners.

These changes helped to win back investor confidence in the Irish economy, not just because of the direct benefits on the public finances, but also because of perception that Ireland and its economic policies once again had the full backing of our international partners.

If previously our missions tended to be viewed just as outposts of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the response to the crisis made it abundantly clear that Embassies and Consulates provide whole of Government platforms for representing the interests of the Irish State and people. From the large inter-Departmental team in our Permanent Representation in Brussels to the 60% of missions which consist of no more than one or two diplomats, no effort was spared by our representatives abroad in highlighting Ireland’s strengths and, step by step, winning back international confidence in Ireland’s ability to recover.

The speed and severity of the crash as we experienced it meant that strong cross-government coordination was essential in managing the fallout overseas. Local Market Teams, chaired by Ambassadors and bringing together relevant staff from Embassies, Consulates and State Agencies around shared objectives, have proven an effective mechanism for encouraging joined up thinking and maximising the effectiveness of limited resources.

Likewise, strong interdepartmental coordination here in Ireland has been essential in ensuring a consistent and compelling narrative in our overseas engagement. This strong cross-government approach must remain our modus operandi as we collectively rise to the challenges of the future.

Ireland’s economic recovery remains fragile and incomplete. Although confidence is improving, growth has not yet been felt by a significant segment of the Irish population. Our focus must be on securing that prosperity, and on a basis which is solid, sustainable, fair and widely shared.

That is why the number one goal I have set for this Government in 2015 is to help businesses in Ireland create 40,000 more jobs this year, building on the 80,000 jobs which have been added since the Government launched its Action Plan for Jobs in 2012. It is only by getting people back to work that the benefits of recovery can be equitably shared. Jobs, rather than deficit ratios or bond yields, are the evidence of economic recovery that matter most to the Irish people. Securing the recovery requires an evident and unbending commitment to remain at the heart of the eurozone. I reject the trite division by financial markets of eurozone countries between core and periphery. Ireland is, and will remain, a core eurozone country, with the same rights and responsibilities as every other.

One thing we cannot afford – not now, not ever – is complacency. Recent events in Greece show us how hard - won economic progress and credibility can be too easily reversed by political instability.

While the decision is absolutely one for the people of Greece, I hope that they choose the path needed to keep their country inside the eurozone. As we know only too well ourselves, it is a hard path, but I believe that the destination will justify the efforts. With the ongoing reforms to national, EU and eurozone institutions and policies, I believe that the euro can once again become a source of stability, security and prosperity for Greeks, our own people and indeed all of Europe.

What does this mean for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?

It means that efforts must be redoubled in promoting Ireland as a place to invest, as a trading partner, as a tourism and education destination. It means that you must expand the contacts, drive the new connections and win the market access that can in turn help deliver quality jobs for Irish people. As a “Global Island”, Ireland’s reputation internationally will continue to fundamentally influence the strength and sustainability of the recovery at home.

The world in which we operate is constantly evolving. Economic development in Asia, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere creates exciting new opportunities and markets for Ireland. However, geopolitical turmoil can mean a negative impact on exports in other markets. Meanwhile, new competitors are snapping at our heels in many sectors. This means that we must have a clear understanding of our comparative advantages, we must prioritise, and we must play to our strengths. The role of the mission network and State Agencies in providing rigorous analysis and actively seeking out new opportunities which can lead to job creation in Ireland has never been more important.

As I mention playing to our strengths, Ireland is fortunate to have a rich, distinctive and vibrant culture. Culture provides an immensely powerful vehicle for driving a positive awareness of, and affinity, with Ireland. Our missions must continue to work closely with Culture Ireland and other relevant bodies to ensure that the full potential of this resource is harnessed. Of course, the cultural and creative sector is, in itself, an important pillar of Ireland’s society and economy, which is nourished by international engagement.

My decision to appoint Jimmy Deenihan as Ireland’s first Minister for Diaspora Affairs points to the particular importance the Government attaches to engagement with people of Irish heritage globally. Through the Global Irish Forum, we have been able to bring leading influencers together around the shared objective of bolstering Ireland’s recovery. The Government remains committed to the further development of the Global Irish Network and I encourage you to keep in close touch with current and potential members in your countries.

Equally, I know that many of you are reaching out to the overseas alumni of Irish higher education institutions, as well as business people and researchers who have spent time in Ireland. These people have a particularly close affinity with Ireland, and provide a treasure trove of ideas and expertise for deepening relations between Ireland and their home countries.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Membership of the European Union since 1973 has been transformative for Ireland and remains fundamental to our interests. Happily for me and for many of you, we are, for a change, currently not planning for or running a Presidency, negotiating a Treaty or preparing for an EU referendum, or navigating a bailout programme! However, our fortunes remain closely dependent on those of the wider Union, and we must therefore ensure that our EU engagement remains focused, strategic and consistent.

Despondency and frustration among EU citizens is all too apparent. Holding the middle ground is becoming an increasing challenge, as people turn to both the far right and far left for answers to economic stagnation and disturbingly high levels of unemployment.

Boosting growth and getting people back to work must be the overriding immediate priority of EU Governments and institutions. Ireland placed these issues front and centre of the agenda during our EU Presidency; we must continue to work with our EU partners to ensure delivery. I am encouraged by the decisive action of the new Union leadership, including the investment package put forward by Commission President Juncker. This is no magic bullet, but the status quo was clearly no longer an option.

The Cabinet Committee on European Affairs recently reviewed Ireland’s strategic approach to engagement in and with the EU. Our priorities for the year ahead will clearly be strongly focused on economic and financial issues, with the national implications of the EU climate change and energy agreement also featuring strongly. The Government will, as always, value timely intelligence and analysis from our diplomats in Brussels and bilateral missions in EU countries and indeed elsewhere. The shaping of the detail of the Juncker investment package, issues around corporate taxation, and the progress of trade negotiations are just some of the issues which will need to be monitored with some vigilance over the period ahead.

It is worth mentioning that, here in Ireland, support for the EU remains strong. Indeed, a recent Eurobarometer report indicated that optimism about the future of the EU, at 78%, is higher in Ireland than in any other country. However, we cannot take it for granted that this will remain the case. Communicating the role and benefits of our Union membership is an ongoing task.

The debate in relation to the future direction of the UK’s relationship with the EU has been gathering pace. Given Ireland’s particularly close relationship with the UK, I am sure that many of you will have already been approached for your perspectives on the situation.

The Government’s position is clear and unequivocal: we want the UK to remain in the EU. This is clearly in our national interest, and in the wider European interest. Our shared EU membership has played an immensely important role in strengthening relations between our two islands, not least in creating the environment for business links to flourish and as a force for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

While we are respectful of the democratic debate which is ongoing in the UK, it is impossible to remain silent on an issue which impinges so directly on Ireland’s national interests. We support continued UK membership of the EU. We agree with many of its policy objectives in areas such as trade, effective regulation, and the single market. We will give our backing, where possible, for reasonable adjustments in the operation of the EU. But we will also be candid if we are presented with proposals that we do not see as achievable or desirable. Friendship is predicated on openness and honesty, and this will underpin our approach.

The tenth anniversary of the terrible tsunami in South East Asia was commemorated on St Stephen’s Day. This catastrophe brought into sharp focus two other very important dimensions of the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: the ongoing consular support provided to Irish citizens, and the humanitarian and development aid programme which provides hope and assistance to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The OECD, in a report published last month, identified Ireland as an international leader in delivering effective aid, and stated that we continue to punch above our weight on global development issues. Huge credit is due to the officers both in the field and at headquarters who have built and secured this impressive reputation for our aid programme. The Government is committed to ensuring that Ireland remains a significant aid donor while also exploring new opportunities to assist countries in driving their own development. In this context, the work of our Embassies in sub-Saharan Africa in promoting trade and investment links will continue to grow in importance.
The UN remains central to the articulation and implementation of Ireland’s foreign policy. Our willingness to play an active role in promoting global peace and development is evidenced in the significant deployments of peacekeepers on UN-mandated missions, but also in the leadership and facilitation roles undertaken by our diplomats. This will continue, as we seek election to the UN Security Council for the period 2021-22. We will continue to participate in the European effort to promote peace and stability on our eastern borders. We will also be resolute and unashamed in maintaining a leadership role in advocating a just and balanced settlement in the Middle East.

As I said earlier, just before Christmas, after 12 weeks of negotiations involving hundreds of hours of meetings, agreement was finally reached in the Northern Ireland talks. This deal was a significant and comprehensive one, which aims to foster economic growth and progress a lasting reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Many of you here, now or in the past, have worked directly to support peace and reconciliation on this island. There are now emerging opportunities to work jointly with Northern Ireland in our external engagement, particularly in newer markets, and I would encourage you to factor this into your approach.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have travelled a long road since our last meeting here in June 2011. You have responded with determination, imagination and resolve to the damage wrought by recession on our reputation overseas.
While Ireland’s recovery is more secure and our image considerably more positive than it was three years ago, we cannot rest as long as the scourge of unemployment persists. The Government has set ambitious targets for jobs growth. These targets depend on an open economy and our positioning as a Global Island. They also depend on strong and effective teamwork, across Government and between Government and business. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is an essential player on that team and I know you will again rise to the challenge.

Thank you and welcome home.