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Address at the opening of the 'Enterprise Ireland 1997' exhibition in the R.D.S. - Dublin


I was particularly pleased when the Small Firms Association asked me to be here today to open the 'Enterprise Ireland' 1997 exhibition, and I am honoured to act as patron for this event, because of the contribution it will make to developing existing businesses and encouraging new business. I am also pleased to be here because it allows me the opportunity to pay tribute to the SFA, and in turn to the community of small businesses in Ireland.

It is a great achievement to bring together, in this single location, the ultimate "one-stop-shop" of information and advice, for any person interested in small business. In doing so, you have made it possible for new businesses to meet with all the key players who advise and assist with start-up or developing businesses. Now, they can answer all their needs by means of a single visit, to a single location, over the next three days.

The combination of open stands, one-to-one advice, seminars and exhibitions, emphasise the unique nature of this event. It will provide visitors with information and advice, which they would fail to get in the absence of 'Enterprise Ireland'. We are all aware that with normal business pressures, there is rarely sufficient time to gather the type of information available here today. This initiative is of great service to business people, and hopefully it will set a trend for the future.

I would like to strongly commend the Small Firms Association for taking on the task of organising this event. It demonstrates your outstanding commitment, not only to your own members, but to the wider small business community,particularly to young people who want to start up their own business.

We have an estimated 160,000 businesses in Ireland, of which 98% are small businesses. Our best estimates suggest that creation of new enterprises in Ireland is proportionately as good as the European average. The real challenge facing us is to nurture these new enterprises, and reduce the number of enterprises which fail. It is widely recognised that the provision of soft supports - in terms of monitoring and information - has a very important impact on survival rates, for business start-ups.

This type of support helps to bridge the knowledge and skills gap faced by many small business start-ups, and guides them through the difficult early years. The focus of 'Enterprise Ireland' on information and advice is very appropriate.

We have to achieve a much greater focus on business in Ireland, if we are to continue to enjoy the growth in prosperity and employment, which we are currently experiencing.

For the past number of years, Ireland has enjoyed a period of sustained growth and prosperity. We have had high GNP growth, averaging approximately 5.5% in the years 1987 to 1997, and about 7% in the past three years. This is three times the average growth rate we achieved between 1977 and 1987, and compares to average OECD growth in the past decade of about 2.6%.

This growth has translated into an increase in employment of nearly 20% over the period 1986 to 1996, and an increase of 12% in just the past three years alone. Improvements in our living standards are visible throughout the country. There is still, of course, a great deal more to do in the whole area of employment, particularly youth employment and long-term unemployment.

I am encouraged to see that there is support for this, coming from the business community. Government will play its role, not only by supporting events such as this, but also through positive actions, to promote business and employment. Probably the most effective action the Government can take is to improve the general business environment, in which our small businesses operate. Prudence in managing the public finances, will help keep interest rates low, while fulfilment of Partnership 2000 commitments will improve the fiscal environment.

Partnership 2000and the Social Partnership process are vital to our economy's well being. Pay moderation and industrial peace have provided a climate for growth, and produced the resources which will allow real progress to be made, in tackling social exclusion. The SFA played an important part in the negotiations which produced Partnership 2000. They continue to represent the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises, in the monitoring and implementation of the Partnership, and I would particularly like to commend the leadership of the Association for their work in that regard.

Our programme for Government - An Action Programme for the Millennium - sets out key priorities for the development of enterprise over the coming years. We recognise that in the past, insufficient attention was given to their needs.

Those needs include:-

  • Keeping the concerns, and particular difficulties, of the small business and services sectors, at the very top of the political agenda;

  • The utilisation of the tax system, including capital taxes, to encourage more businesses;

  • Progressive changes in the corporation tax regime, to secure the delivery of a single low tax rate, by the year 2010;

  • Ensuring a client-centred approach where the Government interfaces with business;

  • Streamlining structures and programmes, to help deliver tighter competitiveness, more jobs and increased exports;

  • Improving seed and development capital schemes for start-up businesses, and young companies with growth potential; and finally,

  • Upgrading early-warning systems, to identify emerging difficulties in companies.

In advance of our first Budget, the Government has already moved to improve the fiscal and financial environment for small business. The option of paying VAT on a cash receipts basis, has been extended significantly. In addition, a further venture capital fund has been brought on stream, to assist smaller companies with limited venture capital opportunities. These early achievements can be taken as a statement of intent for the future years of this Government.

While I was Minister for Finance, we established the Task Force on Small Business. Subsequently, a Small Business and Services Division has been established in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to implement the Task Force recommendations. The Department acts as a single policy focus, for the development of small businesses and services, and it has served to greatly improve the operating environment for such enterprises. A number of State bodies including, in particular Forbairt, FÁS and the County Enterprise Boards also play a valuable role in promoting and assisting small business development.

This Government is committed to the development of a vibrant and competitive small business sector, and to continuous improvement in the business environment, for existing and start-up enterprises. The Government supports the development of a truly lively business culture, so that starting one's own business can be a first career choice, for a much greater number of people entering the work force.

"Enterprise Ireland" will help achieve this aim, and I congratulate all those involved in the detailed organisation of this prestigious event. My special congratulations to the generous sponsors AIB Bank and Eircell for supporting this major undertaking. They deserve our appreciation. I wish you a very successful three days. Well done.

3 October 1997