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Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr. Enda Kenny T.D. at the CBI Annual Dinner on Ramada Plaza Hotel, Belfast Thursday 26th March, 2015


Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before I begin I would like to thank Colin Walsh, Chair of CBI, Northern Ireland and Nigel Smyth, Director for their kind invitation to speak here tonight.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to address you.

When my colleague, Minister Noonan last addressed a CBI lunch in Belfast in September 2013, we were in the process of preparing for another tough Budget. The focus back then was on learning the hard economic lessons of our recent past, tackling the legacy issues that we all faced, and trading our way to recovery.

Now, over one and a half years later I can say with confidence that the economic recovery has taken hold.
The Irish Economy
Ireland was the fastest-growing economy in the EU last year, and the European Commission forecasts the same again this year. Data released just two weeks ago shows GDP growth of 4.8% in 2014 - our strongest annual growth since 2007.

Notably, growth is seen across all economic sectors. Export growth at 12.6% was the strongest since 2001. Investment is up by over 11%. Positive trends in our tourism statistics, in retail sales, in consumer sentiment, all point to renewed confidence in both the business sector and amongst the general public.

Government borrowing is falling rapidly, from a peak of €22 billion in 2011 to around €5 billion this year – and we are on track to reduce the deficit to well below 3% of GDP this year.

Of course, struggling families in Ireland have little concern for GDP growth rates, bond yields, or Government deficits. What matters are jobs and their impact on people’s lives and family finances. There is also steady progress to report on this front.

Unemployment has come down now to just over 10% from over 15%.
Since the Government launched its Action Plan for Jobs in early 2012, Irish businesses have added almost 90,000 jobs to the economy– just 10,000 short of the target the Government set itself for 2016. Encouragingly, we are seeing significant reductions in the number of long-term unemployed and young people unemployed.

These positive developments have not happened by chance.

They are the result of the sacrifices made by the people of Ireland, and they are down to the policy decisions taken by my Government. We introduced twin strategies to support job creation across the economy, and to help those unemployed up skill and return to the workforce.

Through our annual Action Plans for Jobs, we have implemented hundreds of measures to support businesses grow and create employment. We have also targeted sectors of the economy with significant growth potential, and that were badly affected by the recession.

For example, last year we published a comprehensive strategy for the construction sector to bring the sector back to sustainable levels, and to provide the housing and infrastructure our country needs.
Just a few weeks ago I launched a new International Financial Services strategy to target future growth in that sector.

We also had the launch last month of the first set of financial products to be offered by our new Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland. This is making available an initial €400 million of funding to SMEs, and is just the latest in a long series of innovations we have introduced to support businesses access the finance they need for growth.

Also, earlier this week, we announced the first investment by our new Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, or ISIF, with a cornerstone investment of €50m as part of an overall €330m IPO by a new biotech investment company, Malin, which listed on the ESM of the Irish Stock Exchange on Wednesday.

Later in 2015, we will have an Export Financing Strategy leading to new financial products specifically targeted at the needs of exporting companies.

Under the Action Plan for Jobs process we have also developed a framework for the preparation of Regional Enterprise Strategies.

We want to ensure that the recovery is experienced right across the country, and that communities and businesses play a key role in their regional economic development. At the same time our complementary Pathways to Work strategy has transformed the way the State engages with and supports jobseekers. We have put in place enhanced training, education and skills provision to ensure that everyone can participate in the recovery.

We have stressed throughout our term that recovery has to be sustainable. There can be no return to boom and bust. That is why next month, in a Spring Economic Statement, we will set out the pathway to be followed in the years ahead to secure the recovery and to deliver sustainable, full employment by 2018.

This is a highly ambitious goal. To achieve this, we will need to help businesses add at least 40,000 new jobs this year; and to add the same again in 2016, 2017 and 2018 at which point we will have replaced every job lost during the recession with new, more sustainable jobs.

It can only be achieved by a Government that makes the right choices. One that protects the strong foundations that have been laid. One that ensures that the hard won recovery is sustained and endures.
North-South Collaboration
Turning to relationships on this island. The Good Friday Agreement opened up opportunities for us North and South, East and West to get to know one another in new ways. Ireland and Northern Ireland now work closely together in areas of common interest that are beneficial to both parts of the island. My Government’s commitment to North-South and all island cooperation remains a priority.

A prime example of how we can co-operate and collaborate more closely is the joint bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. I really believe that working together to bring the Rugby World Cup to Ireland can bring North-South co-operation to a whole new level. Ministers in both jurisdictions are working closely together to ensure that the strongest possible bid is submitted.

And of course, we saw first-hand in Murrayfield last week what working together, North and South on this island can achieve!

Building a Shared Future
I want to see a modern, forward-looking and prosperous Northern Ireland. As business people, you know that in the times that we live we cannot afford to be insular.
This is the reality of the world economy today. We are all interdependent, one way or another. More dynamic economies, north and south, mean more exports, more trade, more investment, ultimately to the benefit of all on the island.

Last year Ministers from Dublin, Westminster and Stormont embarked to Singapore on the first international joint trade mission to pursue trade and investment opportunities.

Collaboration must become the new reality in respect of jobs, economic growth and working together to increase prosperity for all the people of this island.

An island of 10 million people by 2050 referred to in the CBI/IBEC All-island investment project, presents a challenge for all of us. But if we are to turn this challenge into real opportunities we need to work together, in planning and investing in the infrastructure necessary for the medium to longer term.

Transport, health, education, telecommunications, and energy are obvious areas for collaboration, productive investment and for helping to ensure that an island economy maintains a relentless focus on competitiveness.

All-island Investment Project
That is why I very much welcome the recent launch of the All-island Investment Project – a joint initiative by IBEC and the CBI Northern Ireland Joint Business Council whose primary aim is to show where business can create more job opportunities and enhance living standards by investing in island wide infrastructure upgrades and global business initiatives – Investments that have the potential in both the short and longer term to deliver the benefits of growth, additional demand, job and wealth creation.

Supporting the work of the All-island Investment Project is an opportunity for business to promote sustained prosperity for this island and in the process facilitate job creation, social inclusion and the embedding of peace.

The Joint Business Council has done a lot of good work in the past and its latest Initiative is timely and welcome.

Developing the private sector to create the number of new jobs Northern Ireland needs is a considerable challenge.

CBI Northern Ireland members benefitting from recovery in the Republic as well as in Britain will contribute to reaching this goal.
The Joint Business Council Project’s focus on scoping possible investment needs and opportunities for an island of 10m by mid century is ambitious.

Especially as the population growth that is already occurring on both sides of the border needs sustained prosperity, delivering sufficient quality jobs.

So I wish the All Island Investment Project well in its important work and look forward to both Governments considering what it proposes.

British-Irish Relations
Looking beyond our own shores, the Good Friday Agreement has also enabled the development of ever closer relations across these islands, perhaps best symbolised by the highly successful reciprocal State visits of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and President Higgins to the United Kingdom last April.

In March 2012 Prime Minister Cameron and I signed a Joint Statement which sought to take our relationship further by setting out a vision of what closer cooperation might look like over the next ten years.
It also mapped out a unique, structured process of engagement, activity and outcomes between our two Governments, including annual review summits by both of us and underpinned by a programme of engagement by our most senior civil servants.

Beyond producing practical outcomes that can benefit both jurisdictions this work also helps to build trust and understanding.

Business and trading relationships between the UK and Ireland now amount to over €1 billion a week. Much of this business is done within the framework of common membership of the European Union single market, the underlying principles for which Britain and Ireland are champions.

UK-EU Relations
That is why I’d like now to turn to the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The UK’s place within the EU has been the subject of intense discussion over recent years. No matter what newspaper you open or which news programme you watch, there has been no escaping this debate.
The terms and future of British membership – the pros, the cons, the ifs, and the buts – have all been under the microscope.

But despite the intensive nature of that debate, I feel – watching at a slight remove – that certain key themes are sometimes neglected. And the one that springs to mind the most is the impact of the EU on Northern Ireland.

That’s because, in my view, the EU has been a significant force for good for people here. Its role therefore deserves recognition. And by corollary, the implications of a British exit from the EU for Northern Ireland should not be forgotten.

So why or how has EU membership been a positive for Northern Ireland? Well, I think in many ways, but I want to focus briefly on just two of them.

First – the peace process. From the very beginning, joint British and Irish membership of the Union facilitated constructive contact and engagement when it came to Northern Ireland. It represented both a forum for contact across a range of public policy issues and a separate arena to address problems as they arose.

But it was more than simply a neutral venue for talks and discussions. The EU has been a framework for cooperation – whether between North and South or between unionists and nationalists – and has helped foster peace and reconciliation. It has provided an uncontested setting in which both traditions here have found expression; a wider union of which we are all members. I don’t think we should underestimate the stability and security this continues to bring.

Second – the economy. You don’t need to be an economist to know that people here have benefitted significantly from EU membership. For a start, EU structural and agricultural funding has been critically important in fuelling growth and employment. It has helped to both cement the foundation and knit the infrastructural skeleton of the economy here. Membership of the common market has been an obvious boon to Northern Irish exporters and businesses. It has brought jobs and investment and put more money in peoples’ pockets. We shouldn’t forget too that it’s a major factor in attracting foreign companies to our shores.

Being part of the EU’s commercial and economic framework has mitigated our island’s relative geographic remoteness. Although we are on the periphery, we are seamlessly part of the European economy.
This is all the more important because of the globalised world we live in. Economies like those in the Republic, or in Northern Ireland, can’t afford to go it alone. Economic heft and strength – especially when it comes to negotiating trade deals and creating a vast home market – is to be found in unity, not isolation. That’s why disengaging from the EU would therefore be – in my view – a retrograde economic step for Northern Ireland.

I hope that the majority of the business community here agrees with me when it comes to the importance of EU membership for the Northern Irish economy. And so, I ask that you not be shy in making your voices heard. That’s because, when it comes to a fundamental debate such as this, citizens respect the voice of enterprise. They know that your view will be formed with jobs and growth in mind. You therefore have real influence and standing and I hope that you wield it wisely.

I know though, of course, that there are some deep reservations within the UK about the EU. My Government is only too aware that there are concerns, felt deeply by many in the UK, including in Northern Ireland, about the direction and focus of the Union.

We know too – as do many other Member States – that some of these will need to be addressed if we are to create an environment in which the UK feels comfortable within the Union.

The Irish Government shares many of these concerns and we also want them addressed. And we look forward to working with the British Government – where we can – to make that happen.

The ‘workings of the EU’ may not be perfect. It has its faults and its limitations. It frustrates all of us at one time or another. But the positive impact it has had on Northern Ireland, our economies, and the British-Irish relationship has been nothing less than transformative. Let’s work together on reforming the EU and let the EU then continue working for us, as it always has done.

Ladies and Gentlemen, before I move on, let me say one final thing about the UK and the EU. The implications of a British exit from the EU for Northern Ireland would be the most profound issue that the North would have to deal with in the coming years.

Stormont House Agreement
The latest political agreement in the form of the Stormont House Agreement represents months of intensive engagement from all players, and I think that all involved can be justifiably proud of the result.

Tough choices and tough decisions had to be taken. But this is by no means unique to Northern Ireland or to its Executive. The recent economic crisis has required tough decisions to be taken around the globe, across the European Union, in Britain and in Ireland.

The Stormont House Agreement now sets a roadmap for the Northern Executive to put its finances on a sustainable footing for the future and to move forward with the necessary rebalancing of its economy to promote growth and jobs.

Last week, I was in the USA for meetings with President Obama and Vice President Biden over Saint Patrick’s Day. Their message was clear – the US administration continues to fully support peace, reconciliation and economic renewal in Northern Ireland, and expects the North’s political leaders to do everything in their power to the same end, including in our collective work of making the Stormont House Agreement a reality.
Implementing the Agreement will be challenging, and will require concerted efforts from all involved. Developments in recent weeks saw the first significant challenge, on the issue of welfare reform. The people of Northern Ireland deserve comprehensive solutions to the challenges before them, and it is the task of political leaders to provide this regardless of unforeseen difficulties.

I know that the Northern Ireland Party Leaders have been meeting regularly on this issue and have demonstrated the will and energy needed to find a resolution.

My Government will continue to play its part. We will continue to work with the Northern Executive and engage in close political cooperation. We will work for ever closer and practical economic cooperation to accelerate growth and secure the creation of sustainable jobs on this island. We will also continue our close engagement with the British Government.

On both parts of this island we need to continuously look outwards, to pay more attention to events beyond our shores, both to the challenges and the very real opportunities. We must collectively be aware of, and be able to respond to, external developments and challenges beyond our direct control.
So many changes in technology, the economy and society itself, are taking place on this island, in Britain, across Europe and the World.

If we have learned anything it is that the world will not wait for those that are focused on the past. We need to look to the future, its challenges and opportunities together.

This is the real challenge for us all. Cooperation and collaboration are not just desirable – they are essential – in the reality of the world of today.