It’s a pleasure to be here to open the fourth annual European Financial Forum in the historic surroundings of Dublin Castle. A Norman castle built on Viking defences, this became the centre of British power in Ireland, and for the last century has been a symbol of Irish independence. In recent years, we gathered here to learn the result of the referendum on marriage equality, inaugurate our President, and welcome the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II and other heads of State to Ireland.
In many ways these buildings tell the story of Ireland over a thousand years.
So there could be no better venue to hear about Ireland today, and our ambitions and plans for the future.
I want to acknowledge all the work that has gone into planning today’s event led by Minister D’Arcy and supported by our enterprise agencies, the Financial Times, and many others.
I believe in the coming decades, the structure of the global economy will undergo profound transformation. The impact of new technologies and decarbonisation will radically reshape industries and jobs. New innovations offer significant opportunities for Governments to transform the lives of citizens and for businesses, to reshape their product and services.
But there are also risks:
· The danger of getting left behind;
· Workers whose jobs become obsolete;
· Challenges of cyber security and online safety; and
· How to regulate in an increasingly complicated and interdependent world.
At the moment, some people think the solution is to retreat. To row back on globalisation. To reintroduce barriers to trade.
That is not the approach of the Irish Government.
Ireland is open to investment, to capital, to trade, to talent and to creativity.
Our philosophy is to be a leader when it comes to emerging economic, social and technological developments.
At a time when attitudes to globalisation, free trade and multilateralism are hardening in much of the world, Ireland is holding firm to liberal political and economic values and policies.
At a time when others are uncertain about their place in the world Ireland is secure about ours:
· a member of the EU, and a founding member of the euro and the Single Market;
· a member of the United Nations who believes in multilateralism as the best way of dealing with global challenges; and
· a country that believes in free trade and free enterprise.
· a country that welcomes migrants who strengthen our economy, staff our public services and enrich our culture.
Over the next six years we plan to double Ireland’s global footprint.
So, for example this year alone we are opening new diplomatic missions in Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Mumbai, Bogotá, Cardiff, Santiago de Chile and Amman, and we will do more to promote Irish culture and values around the world. We are boosting the budgets of our enterprise, food and tourism promotional agencies.
So what do we offer?
· Our people.
Our population is Europe’s youngest, with 40% under 29 years of age. Our labour force is among the world’s best educated, encouraged to think and to create.
· Our competitiveness.
We have one of the most open, and internationally traded economies in the world with an attractive business environment underpinned by a low and simple 12.5% corporate tax rate supported by all three major political parties.
· Our connectivity.
Ireland has a diaspora of 70 million people that can be found all across the globe. Our workforce is the third most international in Europe; and our air connections to Europe and America.
· Our position at the heart of Europe.
Our place is at the heart of the common European home we have helped to build and that is where we’ll stay.
We have strong underlying economic fundamentals - with continued employment growth, and unemployment falling to around 5%.
A cornerstone of our economic policy has been prudent management of the public finances and reducing our national debt.
Last year, we ran a Budget surplus for the first time since 2007. We plan to do this again this year provided Brexit does not blow us off course.
And, we are also planning for the future. Project Ireland 2040, our national development plan and spatial strategy, is now being implemented. It provides €116 billion over ten years, for investment in our public infrastructure – housing, transport, broadband, education and healthcare.
Today, we already have 430 international financial services firms and we are ambitious for more.
We take pride in the impressive growth of our international financial services sector over the last 30 years. Back then it was 60 staff in Dublin, now it is almost 44,000 people spread around the country.
So this is a national ambition.
We are 1,000 people away from the ambitious target we set in our IFS2020 Strategy for people working in the international financial services sector and we will meet it ahead of schedule. We have succeeded in creating the right kind of environment to help our indigenous financial services companies grow and expand while at the same time attracting high quality FDI.
As we all know, Brexit presents a significant challenge to Ireland and the EU.
The challenge for us, is to work to limit and mitigate its impacts. There is no such thing as a positive Brexit, in my opinion.
As things stand, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March, six weeks from now, with or without an agreement.
I believe we will strike a deal.
However, we will continue our preparations for all outcomes, including no-deal.
Of course, we do not want this to happen, nevertheless we have been preparing for some considerable time, with dedicated actions in our last three budgets.
Our enterprise agencies continue to work with a wide range of companies, helping them to plan for Brexit.
For example, we introduced a new longer-term loan scheme of up to €300m, at competitive rates, to aid strategic capital investments by businesses for a post-Brexit environment.
Ireland will be ready for Brexit and we are buffered, too, by the solidarity of our EU partners.
We value the backing we have received from political and business leaders all over Europe who recognise the importance of protecting the Irish Peace Process and the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
We are firmly of the view that the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and protect the Good Friday Agreement is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, agreed between the EU and the British Government.
While Brexit is undoubtedly negative for Ireland, we have benefitted from some opportunities in the financial services sector.
In December for instance, I spoke at the official opening of Barclays new European operations here in Ireland. A move that will see them double their work force in Dublin.
Announcements to establish and expand operations have also been made by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Bank of China and Toronto Dominion.
Whatever happens, we will continue to offer a unique gateway into the European Union and its Single Market – English speaking, pro-enterprise, politically stable.
As you all know, the world of international financial services is one of the most competitive and rapidly changing global industries.
In the next decades; AI, robotics and digitalisation will change our world as much as the internet and mobile phone did. We need to be ready to benefit from the new jobs and new wealth that will be created.
So the Irish Government is preparing now for tomorrow’s economy.
We are developing new ideas to drive productivity, innovation, and ensure we have the skills and talent for the economy of the future. We want to ensure Ireland can thrive in a world of technological transformation and decarbonisation.
I know these are areas of considerable interest to all of you and later you will be discussing issues such as sustainable finance, blockchain, Fintech and AI.
I hope you find this year’s EFF stimulating, enjoyable and thought provoking. And I hope you find a little bit of time to enjoy Dublin and visit our beautiful country.