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Speech at the Sunday Independent/BMW Business of the Year Award Dinner

 

I am delighted to be here again this evening to celebrate the Sunday Independent/BMW Business of the Year Award.  This has become an annual event for me, serving as a welcome reminder of the strength and the success that exists in Irish business and Irish life.  This years ceremony comes at the end of a very sad day, when we have recalled the suffering brought by mass terrorism last year to the shores of the United States.  And I think it is fitting tonight that we renew our sympathies to people who lost so much on that day while we look beyond our suffering to see how we in this country can meet the challenges of our changing times.

The Nominees

I would like to begin my remarks by congratulating each of tonights nominees on your success, both in winning a monthly award and in being so successful in your many professional ventures. 

This years nominees read like a whos who of Irish achievement - well done to U2; Today FM; Sean Mulryan; Barry OCallaghans Riverdeep; the FAI; the Central Bank; Dunnes Stores; Fyffes; Brown Bag Films; Airtricity; McInerney; and Michael Chadwicks Grafton Group Plc.  Each one of you tells your own story about how this country has changed for the better.  Your nominations are a well deserved public tribute to the high regard in which you are held, and the positive difference you are making.  You prove that innovation, ambition, openness and commitment to excellence are the hallmark of the Irish success story.  And above all, tonights nominees show that top class people, united by an ambition to do even better in the future, are driving this country forward.  It gives me great optimism when I see such commitment to building a better future alive and well each year at this important award ceremony.  

Economy

And it is important to stay confident because we all know that we live in uncertain times in terms of the world economy.  Last year, we witnessed the first slowdown in the economy, following sustained, very strong growth since 1994.  The threat of foot-and-mouth disease and the global downturn following the terrorist attacks in the US combined to present our economy with new pressures and challenges.  We are meeting them well because our economic success is built on strong foundations.  The economy remains strong and this is supported by independent analysis.  For example, the ESRI predicts that the Irish economy will be back to its potential growth trend  of close to 5% for real GDP and 3% for real GNP next year. 

Ireland & the EU

This is certainly encouraging as we look ahead.  And I would like to speak tonight about one factor which is crucial to keeping our economy strong - namely full membership of the European Union.

I am sure that all of us recognise that Irelands membership of the European Union has been a great success.  Many of us here have been lucky enough to see the country change for the better before our very eyes in the last thirty years.

Consider these statistics about the benefits of EU membership for trade, for investment and jobs.  I think they speak for themselves. 

Take Investment.  In 1972, we counted our low levels of foreign investment in millions.  In fact, when we joined the Common Market, a mere €16 million was coming into the economy from foreign investors.  Thirty years later,  and with full access to European markets, we now measure foreign investment in billions.  It stood at nearly €23 billion in 2000 and our economy has been transformed.

Trade levels have also exploded and trade has increased 90 fold since 1972.  Exports have driven our small, open economy forward.  We have moved from low skills and high unemployment to high skills and nearly full employment. 

700,000 new jobs have been created in the years of membership.  Mass emigration has ended and the population of this country has grown by over 1 million people.  Compared to 1972, investment in education, health and welfare services is far higher, and the services are far better too.

There has been a revolution in opportunity and in levels of education here.  Thirty years ago, only 4% of Irish students went to third level - now 26% do - one of the highest levels in Europe.  We have made great progress in equality for women, and the role of women in national life has been transformed.  Alongside the vital contribution of women working in the home, more women are also at work outside the home than ever before.  And we are seeing women come through in professional and in managerial grades as never before.   

Lifestyles are greatly changed as well.  When we joined the EU, about 60,000 new cars a year were bought in the whole country. Now sales are up nearly 300%, and yes - sales of the Sunday Independent still soar above the 300,000 mark!

And no doubt the columns of that great paper, and other national journals, are set to be full in the coming weeks with the referendum on the Nice Treaty.  The decision we will make is of vital national interest for ourselves and for our children.   

The choice we face is whether we Vote Yes for jobs, increased trade and investment in a strong economy, in a larger Europe or whether we put our future prosperity in danger by Voting No or by abstaining. 

I will be urging people to Vote and will be urging people to Vote Yes.  Ireland has to remain centrally involved in the Union for the sake of present and future jobs, present and future investment, and present and future influence in Europe. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I began my remarks by recalling our recent business success and the importance I see of building a strong Irish economy at the heart of the European Union.  I think that each one of tonights nominees proves that this country has both the will to win and the ability to stay ahead in a larger Europe.  I congratulate them on their success to date and wish them continued success in the future. 

As I conclude, can I also thank the Independent Group and Motor Import Ltd for supporting this awards scheme.  I think everyone here tonight will agree that they are very well matched as sponsors. Both are major players in Ireland.  Both are well known for setting high performance goals - and for meeting them too! 

While Vincent takes charge of a thriving newspaper business and record circulation, the Irish motor industry employs over 50,000 people and has known great sales success too in recent years. Although new car sales have fallen since the bumper year in 2000, I think the performance of the industry remains strong against the backdrop of a sluggish global economy.  Indeed, the turnover from new car sales is over €2.5 billion so far this year.  And I am confident that the resilience of the motor industry, which was so evident in the past, will enable it to continue to prosper in these changing times.  I trust that when the final sales and revenue figures for 2003 come in - they will put a smile back on all our faces! 

So, as we look forward to continued success on the economic and the political front in the months ahead, can I thank you for your attention and wish you an enjoyable evening! 

ENDS