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I don’t think there’s a better place to be, or better company to be with, than this gathering here tonight. Occasions as beautiful as this one are not possible without a lot of work being done by so many different people. In recognition of this, I want to thank the Board of the Ireland Fund of France for their great endeavour and for organising this event.
I particularly want to recognise your President, Áine Ades O Scannail.
But above all, I want to pay tribute to your guest of honour, Stephen Roche. Stephen is one of Ireland’s greatest sportsmen and his 1987 victory of the 74th Tour de France is now sporting legend. Stephen has always been a great ambassador for Ireland and is probably the first Irish name that French people have on the tips of their tongues. Stephen won the Tour de France at a very gloomy time in Ireland’s history. But his victory instilled us with a sense of hope, of pride and of possibility, when we needed it most.
Today his son, Nicolas, and his nephew, Dan Martin continue Ireland’s fine cycling tradition.
The following year, you may recall, the Republic of Ireland took part in the European Football Championship Finals for the first time - or as Christy Moore put it, Joxer went to Stuttgart.
These sporting triumphs gave us great confidence in ourselves as a nation. They also coincided with an upward trajectory for Ireland’s economic progress. So perhaps, the confluence of Stephen’s attendance tonight and Ireland’s return to the European Cup Finals in Poland later this year are omens of better times to come.
On behalf of the Irish Government, I want to acknowledge the fine work done by the Ireland Funds for worthy causes in Ireland which place an emphasis on peace, culture, education and charity. Charities across Ireland are under pressure. As a consequence of our economic crisis, demand for their services has soared while government support and private income has reduced.
I am sure that the Ireland Fund’s ‘Promising Ireland Campaign’ will play a vital role in filling that gap and helping us to keep our society together during these harsh and challenging times.
When I was doing my research for this speech, I was very pleased to see that the transport, tourism and sport sectors were to be well represented among the charities supported including the Railway Preservation Society, Bantry search and rescue, Special Olympics Ireland, Fermoy Boxing Club and the Irish Georgian Society.
On a personal level, I was pleased to see that both Trinity College and the Washington-Ireland Programme are among the bodies which the Funds have supported.
Ireland, as you know, is in the throes of the worst recession we have experienced for a generation. I will not talk about how we got there. You all know. But the effect on our people has been grave. Tens of thousands have followed the wild geese and emigrated overseas, hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs and millions have seen their incomes and standard of living decline. Some have given up hope and have turned to anger or despair.
But there are those among us who will never give up hope. We might be a small country, but we are no small people. We know that Ireland has seen tough times before and we always pull through.
Slowly but surely, real progress is being made. The economy returned to growth in the first half of 2011 and we recorded our first current account surplus for a very long time.
Our budget deficit fell to just under 10% of GDP. That’s still serious, but not far off the deficits recorded in the United Kingdom or United States.
Irish exports worldwide grew strongly last year with the French market out-performing most others in terms of growth.
France is Ireland’s second largest market in the world for food and drink, our third market in the world for indigenous Irish companies, our fourth most important source of inward tourist traffic.
Last year, exports to France by indigenous Irish companies rose by some 20%, with Irish exports of food and drink to France probably exceeding that rate of increase.
Visitor or tourist numbers from France to Ireland increased by some 13%, almost twice the global average of all our tourist markets.
France remains Ireland’s fourth largest source of inward investment in terms of number of companies located in Ireland.
Indeed, Franco-Irish relations seem to have recovered fully from that serious diplomatic incident in 2009 involving ‘le main de Thierry Henri’.
This week, our ten year sovereign bond yields have fallen below 7% for the first time since we entered the IMF/EU programme of support.
We are in a hole, but slowly, we are clawing our way back out.
Warren Buffet famously said ‘When others invest, I am afraid. When others are afraid, I invest’. With falling bond yields, rising competitiveness and property prices down 50-70% from peak, now might just be the time to set aside any fears and invest again in Ireland.
Throughout the economic crisis, we have enjoyed considerable support and solidarity from France and our other European partners. But, now, we need that solidarity to continue.
Had it not been for our membership of the Euro and the constraints that go with it, Ireland would have pursued, and would have had to pursue, very different polices. We would certainly have devalued our currency giving us an unfair competitive advantage over our neighbours. And without the backing and restraints of the ECB, we would certainly have had to embark on more aggressive bank resolution polices which would have meant passing on major losses to financial institutions here in Paris and elsewhere.
The flexibility and instruments that now exist were not in place when Anglo Irish Bank was nationalised. Had those instruments been in place at the time, the cost of the bank bailout would have been more manageable. For Ireland to emerge quickly from the IMF/EU programme, which is in the interest of all Europeans, we will need to find a new arrangement to replace the Anglo promissory notes and we will need support for our plans to re-invest the proceeds of sale of state assets into our economy.
When the global financial crisis crossed the Atlantic to Europe and landed on Irish shores, we stood in the breach. We guarded the bearna baoil for all of Europe and in the months ahead we will need Europe to stand behind us.
I would like to conclude with a few words about tourism. 2011 saw the beginning of a recovery in Irish tourism with visitor numbers increasing by roughly 7%. The first year of tourist number growth since 2007.
In 2012, we are targeting a further increase of about 4% with a major focus on events such as the finish of the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway, the Tall Ships, Eucharistic Congress and Notre Dame vs Navy games in Dublin and the opening of the Titanic Centre in Belfast.
But the big year will be 2013. The year of ‘The Gathering’. ‘The Gathering’ will be a year-long festival of festivals, a year in which Ireland reaches out to its diaspora, their descendants and indeed to anyone with a connection with or love of Ireland to ask them to come home. There will be a series of special events, we attach a diaspora-theme to existing festivals and there will be bespoke events led by alumni groups, civil society organisations, sports clubs and local communities.
I know that the Ireland Fund of France has taken a particular interest in cultural links between Ireland and France through projects such as the restoration of the tomb of Oscar Wilde in Pere Lachaise, the translation of the works of Samuel Beckett and the organisation of debates between French and Irish schools.
Tomorrow, it will be my great pleasure to open at the Hotel des Invalides, the Army Museum of the French Republic, an exhibition that celebrates the military ties which have linked France and Ireland since the founding of the Irish regiments in the armies of France during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth in the seventeenth centuries. The exhibition will run at Les Invalides until the end of April.
I would like to invite the Ireland Fund of France to take part in ‘The Gathering 2013’ and to consider ways in which you might be able to contribute to it, however big or small. For every person who complains about the state that Ireland is in, there is another who asks – how can I help? For them, The Gathering is an answer.
All that is left for me to do is to thank the Fund on behalf of all of those in Ireland who have benefited from your generosity and to wish the Ireland Fund of France every success in the years to come.
Before concluding let me take a moment to recall and pay tribute to the depth and warmth of the links that have united Ireland with France through the centuries. There is a very strong seam of friendship between our two peoples. Through history, France has extended a welcome and has given shelter to Irish people, soldiers and priests, writers and business people. We in Ireland do not forget these things.
The Irish who came to France and their descendants in turn made significant contributions to the life of this great country, in political and military affairs, to the arts, to business – and not least to the art and science of wine growing and cognac making. One hundred and thirty years ago the President of France was a McMahon. Forty five years ago, the President of France was a McCartan on his mother’s side.
I know the great work that official Team Ireland in France does to foster these relations and to seize the terrific opportunities here in France for Irish businesses, farmers, designers and artists. I appreciate equally the innovative efforts of Network Irlande, the Franco-Irish business and professional network, whose President Gilliane Quinn de Schonen is with us this evening.
The Ireland Fund of France is a vital element in this mosaic. Once again, Áine, I salute you, your colleagues and that great Irishman in France whom you and we honour this evening, our hero, Stephen Roche.
Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport Press Office Tel: 01 6041076 / 01 604 109