Speech at a Business Ireland Networking Event
Hyatt Hotel, Johannesburg, South Africa, 14th November 2014
A chairde na hÉireann agus na hAfraice Theas,
Dear Friends of Ireland and South Africa,
I am delighted to have the opportunity this evening to meet with the Irish business community and their South African partners here in Johannesburg.
I would like to thank Ambassador MacGabhann for organising this reception and for his kind words of introduction. I would also like to thank the Johannesburg Chapter of Business Ireland-Southern Africa (BISA), in particular its Chairman, William Crosse, and Enterprise Ireland’s Regional Manager, Fred Klinkenberg, and his team for their contribution to the organisation of this event.
South Africa has by far the largest Irish community on this continent, with some 30,000 citizens currently resident here. I am looking forward to meeting many of them during this visit, here in Johannesburg, in Pretoria, and next week in Cape Town.
Our diaspora is one of Ireland’s greatest resources: through the contribution our people make to the nations they migrate to; through the bonds they forge with the peoples of those countries, our migrants have allowed Ireland to have global connections far beyond our size.
In addition to the political and cultural links our Irish communities abroad have built on our behalf, they also make an important contribution to furthering Ireland’s economic links to host countries.
It is very encouraging, therefore, that the Irish business community in South Africa and the Irish Embassy have worked closely together to establish Business Ireland-Southern Africa (BISA), whose aim is to foster relationships and networking opportunities between Irish people already resident in Southern Africa and Irish businesses coming to the market for the first time.
Although only founded in 2012, BISA already has Chapters in Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as in Harare, Zimbabwe, and it is expected that further Chapters will be established both in South Africa and elsewhere in the region over the coming years. I am delighted to be here this evening to recognise these achievements and acknowledge the contribution you are making to deepening Ireland’s relationship with this country and with Africa.
I am also delighted that Tom Hayes, the Minister of State for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is with us this evening. The Minister has been very active over the past few days with a very busy programme of trade-related engagements, including a visit to the AfricaCom telecommunications conference and exhibition in Cape Town.
The telecoms sector has great potential to transform the way business is conducted here in Africa, but new communications technologies also offer such promising possibilities for the empowerment of communities in the poorer and more remote parts of the continent.
Ireland has faced challenging economic times over recent years but we have now made progress on our way to economic recovery. The dynamism of Irish Small and Medium Size Enterprises, as well as export growth have been major drivers of our economic progress.
As our domestic economy is strengthening, unemployment is falling, down from a peak of 15.1% in 2012 to 11.1% in September 2014. An additional 61,000 jobs were created in Ireland in 2013 and net job creation from inward investment in Ireland was the highest for more than a decade. This year, Ireland is forecast to have a primary budget surplus.
This remarkable turnaround is a testament to the resilience of the Irish people. At the same time, serious challenges remain. Unemployment is still unacceptably high, particularly youth unemployment. In fact, this challenge of providing opportunities for our young people is the most urgent economic issue facing governments across Europe and also here in South Africa.
It is increasingly clear that if we are to provide these opportunities and achieve sustainable and equitable growth, then we must interrogate and move away from those economic models which precipitated the recent global financial failure.
We must develop new models, where politics, commerce and ecology combine to produce sustainable and ethical growth in the real economy. Growth that can bring stability as well as prosperity to our people.
In that process, business and international trade will have a key role to play; and Irish businesses are now increasingly looking towards South Africa, and the Sub-Saharan region in general, with its vibrant economy driven in large part by a commitment to open international trade, as an increasingly important market for Ireland.
South Africa is, in fact, one of our 27 priority markets and, in 2013, was Ireland’s 38thlargest trading partner. Trade between Ireland and Africa is expected to reach €24 billion by the year 2020 and it is important that we continue to work towards developing strong and equal trade and investment partnerships between our two nations.
Critical to this will, of course, be the Irish Government’s Africa Strategy which is at the heart of Ireland’s bilateral engagement with Africa and recognises the need to develop stronger political and economic links with this continent.
The strong existing links between Ireland and South Africa have put Irish businesses in a prime position to contribute to and benefit from an exciting economic transformation. In turn, partnerships with Irish companies offer South African companies a valuable opportunity to enter into the European market.
Ireland’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA) is active in this region, advising and facilitating investors who are interested in investing our country. They have assisted many South African enterprises, including Investec and Aspen Pharmaceuticals, to establish their European operations in Ireland.
South Africa is also an important market in its own right for Irish companies and, in partnership with South African companies, there are also significant and mutually beneficial opportunities for jointly targeting the greater Southern African market of some 185 million people. Enterprise Ireland has also had many successes in recent years and the value of exports to the region is currently €550 million, growing by 20% per annum in recent years, and this trend is expected to continue.
In addition to attracting inward investment and promoting exports, technical assistance is another important potential area of positive economic cooperation. I am especially delighted, then, to see that representatives of ESB International are also here this evening, who are working with the South African government to provide technical assistance in the development and improvement of energy infrastructure in this country.
I believe that there are great opportunities for Ireland to share our expertise with South Africa in those areas where we excel: areas such as agri-business, for example, where Teagasc, Bord Bia and other agencies can play an active role.
During my visit to Ethiopia and Malawi over the past two weeks, I witnessed the success of Irish technical assistance in food production technologies. I also emphasised how I share with the Irish Government a great feeling of optimism about Africa and the role Africa will play in this century. With its young vibrant population, I am confident that Africa will bring forward, and is already bringing forward, new ideas about development and sustainability which will be of benefit to all of humanity.
May I commend all of you here today, then, as members and friends of Business Ireland South Africa on the progress you have been making in ensuring that Ireland will play a role in what Thabo Mbeki predicted will be “Africa’s Century”.
I would like to thank you for the warm welcome I have received here today and throughout my visit to South Africa, which, I hope, will contribute to the ongoing development of mutually rewarding relationships between our two countries. I would like to express my gratitude and thanks to you, the officers and committee members of the BISA chapters, and I wish you well in your future endeavours.
The bonds of friendship between our two countries are deep and our relationship is one that looks forward to a bright future, rather than looking backwards towards the past. For that reason, I would like to leave a final word of good wishes to our South African friends for their match against England at Twickenham tomorrow. And discretion provides that I will refrain from recalling the details of our 29 points to 15 victory over the Springboks in Dublin last Saturday.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.