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Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, T.D., American Chamber of Commerce Thanksgiving Lunch


Acting Ambassador, Minister, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I’d like to thank James and Mark for inviting me here today.

And I would like to pay a special tribute to Anne Anderson, who is receiving your Lifetime Achievement Award.

Anne has made a major contribution to public service and to Ireland's international relations. Her career has been a history of firsts. During her distinguished 45 year diplomatic career, Anne served as Ambassador to France, to the United Nations, and in 2001 she became the first woman from a European country to hold the position of Permanent Representative to the EU at Brussels. And of course, most recently, she served in Washington as our first female Ambassador to the United States.
Today’s honour is richly deserved and I wish Anne and Frank all the best for the future.

I am delighted to be here with you all to celebrate Thanksgiving. There are many wonderful stories from the seventeenth century about the first Thanksgivings across the colonies and perhaps, not surprisingly, there are some strong Irish connections. During a food shortage at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 supplies came from an Irish ship, the ‘Lion’, and they helped keep the colonists alive. In 1676, during another major crisis, the people were saved by a shipment of food from Ireland and this is still celebrated today as ‘The Irish Donation’. 171 years later, during the Great Irish Famine, in remembrance of this, Massachusetts sent considerable aid to Ireland. The bonds between our countries were forged in times of famine, and strengthened by years of shared experiences, shared hopes, and of course our shared people.

Ireland-US Relationship
Ireland has been a bridge to Europe for American companies for over 70 years. Over 550 American companies support 140,000 jobs in Ireland today.
In turn, Irish companies employ close to 100,000 Americans in more than 430 firms and in all fifty states.
Viewed across both goods and services, our overall trade flows are remarkably balanced.
Last year, the United States was Ireland’s largest market for goods exports, and the United States remains Ireland’s largest trading partner in services, with the US running a significant trade surplus. Trade, jobs and investment go both ways. And free trade and free markets make all countries better off.
The American Chamber has played an important role in reinforcing these strong relations between Ireland and the US, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet your Board last Thursday.
We had a very good discussion on the most pressing issues, including talent and skills, infrastructure and housing, as well as the opportunities offered by new technologies like AI, digitalisation and automation.
Given that the Chamber and the Government share so many of the same objectives, I am confident that we will be able to continue to work together.

We now have 2 million people in employment and are heading towards full employment.
Our recent budget is the first balanced budget in over a decade. We achieved this milestone while also reducing income tax, creating more space for capital spending, and bringing investment in education and health to its highest ever levels.

Tax Regime
In order to attract and retain top talent, I know we must have a personal income tax regime that rewards work and innovation and supports opportunity.
For this reason, Budget 2018 has made a first step in raising the point of entry to the higher rate of income tax for all earners. It is my intention to continue to increase this entry point in all future Budgets.
We also introduced a new Key Employee Engagement Programme – or KEEP – a share-based remuneration scheme for SME companies to assist them in recruiting and retaining staff.
On corporation tax, Ireland remains committed to policy certainty and to our 12.5% rate. It’s not going to go up and it’s not going to go down. And what Ireland offers, more so than any other country, is certainty and consistency around that policy. And we are also continuing to support international tax reform through our full participation in the OECD BEPS process. Ireland is not a tax haven, nor do we want to become one, nor do we want to look like one. That would not be in the long-term best interests of our country.

As a Government, we recognise that we need to invest more in infrastructure. We will increase capital investment in a sustained and carefully managed way. Central to this is the new 10 year National Development Plan which will be published shortly.
We want to ensure that investment in housing, education, and in roads and public transport, is timed and targeted appropriately into the future. And the same is true for healthcare, broadband, and investment in sport and culture.
By 2021 capital spending will have doubled to almost €7.8 billion. This will see public investment in Ireland moving to among the highest levels in the EU.

Undoubtedly a major challenge facing us is the current severe housing shortage. This is in part a competitiveness issue and the Government recognises that it is becoming a constraint in attracting and retaining talent, particularly in Dublin.
It is not normal to have people who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
Unfortunately this cannot be solved overnight. Houses take time to design, go through planning, and build. And the population is rising, with new households being formed every day.
However the pipeline of new housing is strong – and can be seen in planning permission applications, commencements and construction activity.

Innovation and R&D
Another area which is crucial to our FDI offering is innovation and R & D. During my recent visit to the US West Coast I was really struck by the unprecedented pace of change in the companies I visited. It strengthened my resolve that Ireland must be early adopters of these new technologies, of automation and of artificial intelligence.
Ireland is now ranked 10th globally for the overall quality of its scientific research, an increase of 26 places in only 13 years.
In September I was pleased to launch four new SFI research centres involving investment of €74 million.
And we are also committed to investing in education and in adapting our education system to meet future skills needs.
The Minister for Education and Skills will very shortly launch a National STEM Education Policy Statement and a National Languages Strategy which will embed these critical skills into all levels of education.

I leave the biggest challenge for last: Brexit. As you know, the sixth round of EU-UK negotiations concluded in the past fortnight.
There is clearly a lot of work still to be done before the European Council meets again in December.
The crucial decision on whether there has been ‘sufficient progress’ on all three exit issues - citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish specific issues will be taken together by the EU 27 in December.
In my conversations with European presidents and prime ministers I have received considerable support for the challenges we face.
Protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process is a red line. There can be no return to a hard border on our island. We want to build bridges, not borders on the island of Ireland. Having spent the last twenty years removing borders and bringing people together we are not willing to accept a step backwards.
We want to ensure that the free movement of people, goods and services on this island is protected. This country continues to believe that the optimal solution would be for the UK to remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market.
If the UK continues to rule out this option, the alternative solutions that it offers must be concrete and workable.
We do not underestimate the challenges ahead but we are hopeful that progress can be made. But we cannot and will not take a leap in the dark.

Today in Ireland we are working to build a Republic of Opportunity, one where everybody in this country has an equal chance to be the best person they can be, where our growing prosperity is to be shared in all parts of the country, and where there are second chances for all those who need them.
On Thanksgiving we should remember that Ireland has much to give thanks to the United States for – including its help in creating the conditions for peace and prosperity on this island. For centuries there has been a reciprocal relationship of affection, understanding and support between our peoples. At its best, the United States offers a vision of a society where it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, if you work hard you can still achieve your dreams. It is a message of liberty and freedom that has inspired people around the world, and which is shared by us in Ireland.
It is something we should all be thankful for – and something we should celebrate on this Thanksgiving Day.