Check Against Delivery
It is a great pleasure to be with you this evening.
For the first time in two years we are able to gather together to honour and celebrate the creators, the innovators and the leaders who make our community so vibrant and successful.
Tonight, gives us an opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved, and also how our biggest challenges can be addressed in the months and years ahead.
And there is simply no doubt that this is a defining moment in the history of our country and the wider community of nations to which we belong.
The challenges are great – but our history shows that we can and will overcome them.
And if we ever needed an example of how much we can achieve together there is no clearer example than the past two years.
I know that we all share a sense of relief that we have come through a period never before experienced in recent times. The pandemic was the most profound public health emergency in over a century. It touched on every aspect of our society.
Two years ago, we had no vaccine, no treatment and we were caught in the fastest-moving and deepest worldwide recession ever recorded.
This put pressure on every part of society and every part of government. It required the full mobilisation of the resources of the State and a willingness to constantly respond to new information and new threats.
We have many lessons to learn from our pandemic response, but the evidence is overwhelming that Ireland came through the worst of the pandemic as one of the best in the world in terms of controlling its impact and utilising the vaccines.
At the core of this you find community spirit, a responsive state and strong international partnerships.
People rallied around each other, looking out for the most vulnerable and accepting the responsibility which we have towards each other.
And I think we also saw that Ireland has a strong and effective public service.
Key challenges were responded to rapidly in order to limit the health and economic impact of the pandemic.
In total, over €20 billion was provided to support businesses and workers. These interventions saved many businesses, livelihoods, and jobs.
And I want to acknowledge the incredible work of so many companies and business leaders in finding new ways to keep as much employment intact as possible and to find innovative ways through the pandemic recession.
In our health system, professionals and support staff at every level made a remarkable contribution to limiting the damage of the virus when it did spread.
When vaccines became available, Ireland’s programme delivered at a world-leading rate – with over 96% of Irish adults being vaccinated.
That’s not something which happened by chance – it required hard-earned trust in science, in medical professionals and in the core operations of the State.
Something which we need to acknowledge more is how important our strong international links were – especially our position as a positive member of the European Union.
In our response to the pandemic I think three pillars – community spirt, determined national action and strong international links were central – and it is in them that we will overcome the challenges which we continue to face.
While Ireland is rebounding incredibly strongly from the recession, the international economic situation is very serious. Inflationary pressures are hitting living standards and both businesses and homeowner are feeling the impact of higher interest rates.
We can’t expect to be huge beneficiaries of international trade and also be immune to pressures in the international economy. But there is a lot we can do to reduce the scale of the impact.
We have already taken steps to help ease the impact of rising prices through grants for energy costs, temporary reductions in excise duties and VAT on fuel, and targeted supports for the most vulnerable.
We have also taken a number of measures to support the sectors most impacted, including hauliers and farmers - it amounts to over €2 billion to help households, families and businesses.
We’ll keep responding, but any politician who promises the public that they will make the impact of rising import prices disappear just isn’t being honest.
We will get through this tough period and the most important thing we can do is to keep our focus on the core structural challenges we have to overcome in order to protect social and economic progress.
Making sure that people can afford a decent home to rent or buy is profoundly important and is an absolute priority.
There is a big list of issues which have come together to cause this long-term problem, but the single most important one is that we have significantly more people in our country and housing supply simply hasn’t kept up. In the early 1990s we had a population of just over 3½ million – today there are over 5 million.
It’s an issue which quite rightly dominates a lot of political debate – but I think we might progress things more if we all understood that the systematic opposing of all types of housing proposals is directly undermining the ability to build urgently needed houses.
Housing for All, launched last year, is a serious, urgent and structural plan to get houses built. It’s the largest ever housing investment programme and it has started a new era in housing policy.
There are detailed social and affordable housing targets for every county.
We have put the Land Development Agency on a statutory basis and given it a pipeline of State land, including key sites here in Cork.
Cost Rental and Affordable Purchase schemes are starting to come on stream and will ramp-up over the next year – including through Project Tosaigh run by the LDA.
The new Croí Cónaithe Cities Funds will address the viability problem in apartment building.
And we know that trained personnel are urgently needed, so a new Construction Technology Centre is being established, apprenticeships are increasing and we are working to recruit more skilled staff from overseas.
But planning remains a real problem. Planners are often side lined as enormous effort is put into finding legal technicalities to make sure that houses get built ‘anywhere but here’.
Yes, there is always a balance to be struck, but the harsh reality is that the time, expense and outcome of current procedures has real social and economic impacts. That’s why an overhaul of our planning legislation will be completed this year and a new Environmental and Planning Court is being established.
Progress is underway, though we are realistic in terms of the impact that international events are having by damaging supply chains, increasing costs and extra demand for housing.
Housing is an enormous challenge, but the resources are in place and reforms are following. Every part of our country has a role to play.
All regions are seeing a rise in population but this is going to be felt here in Cork more than in most places. Over the coming 20 years, the population of our city and suburbs may grow by 50%. Cork, already an international and multicultural city will become even more vibrant. A city which hosts globally important businesses and protects the many traditions which make it so unique.
In the revised National Development Plan, we are investing €165 billion before 2030 to deliver growth that is regionally balanced, with strong cities that will act as drivers of growth for their wider region.
Central to that ambition, is the future of Cork and its surrounding region.
Cork Airport’s future has been strengthened, not just a regional airport, with the successful completion of the recent runway project, but also has greater potential to have much wider international connectivity.
Other projects are being funded with secured investment, including the City Flood Relief Scheme, investments at the Port, the Events Centre and the development of a heritage quarter in Mitchelstown.
I believe passionately that we have to invest in all of our communities so that none are left behind. That’s why we have announced urban regeneration plans, which provide over €400 million for transformative projects in the Docklands, the Grand Parade Quarter, in Mallow Town Centre, and in the Passage West - Ringaskiddy - Carrigaline Harbour Cluster.
And growing communities need a more accessible, reliable and faster public transport system – the spine of which is now being put in place with BusConnects Cork which is creating 12 new transport corridors.
With this comes investment and delivery on the Cork Area Commuter Rail Programme. In addition, there has been a major-step up in walking, cycling, and greenways investment.
Central to our ambition to promote regionally balanced growth is learning and innovation – in this regard Cork is at the forefront.
Throughout my career in public life, education has been one of my passions.
I believe that every major advance our country has achieved in the last sixty years has rested on a foundation of opening access to education and investing in the skills and innovation of the Irish people. And so too, our progress in the future will rest on the investments we make today in our people.
In the last year the Munster Technological University has been created. It will complement the prodigious reputations of both UCC and the Tyndall National Institute, driving the economic development of not just Cork, but the broader south-west.
We’ll continue to invest in creating the products and industries of the future.
In the last week I met with Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan/Chase when he visited Ireland for a major investment in Global Shares in Clonakilty.
He was struck by how a firm which began nearly twenty years ago on the Irish South coast could grow, attract new people and end up with nearly $200 billion under management. Just as remarkable to him was how a genuine partnership between innovators, education institutions, researchers and government showed its impact time and again.
That’s a partnership which I am determined to renew and strengthen. In established and new sectors alike, Ireland’s cutting edge, Cork’s cutting edge, can only be protected if we take nothing for granted and understand that investment in people, skills and ideas is essential.
Energy & Climate Action
We also have to understand that climate change isn’t some abstract challenge – it is more urgent by the day. It is a generational challenge which requires an approach of - do everything and more.
The question for us all is whether we will also see the huge opportunities open to us from becoming a cleaner and sustainable economy.
It’s a brilliant development that Cork has been selected by the European Commission for the highly-competitive Climate-Neutral Smart Cities Mission.
Through this Mission, Cork will be supported in accelerating green and digital innovation, implementing solutions to reduce its environmental footprint, and acting as an inspiration for other cities and towns to follow.
A lot of the debate on tackling climate change focuses on the costs but ignores the enormous benefits.
Climate action can create new jobs and develop new industries.
Climate action will mean warmer homes, cleaner water, cleaner air, and a country where people are more connected to each other and more connected to our natural environment.
For example, the Government has taken historic steps to begin seizing the extraordinary opportunities that offshore renewables have for this country.
Critical enabling steps have been taken with the new Maritime Area Planning Act in place.
A Taskforce under Eamon Ryan is accelerating delivery and ensuring that we grasp the enterprise and job opportunities arising.
The Port of Cork is well-placed to benefit from these opportunities and can become a national and international leader in the off-shore energy sector – a position which will be more stable and long-term than any oil discovery ever could be.
Halving our emissions by 2030 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050 is an historic challenge and an historic opportunity.
If Ireland could not just contribute to stopping catastrophic climate change, but also develop a reliable energy supply it would represent the first time in our modern history when we would have achieved energy independence.
Ukraine & Europe
This has been an issue for a long time, but it has been placed in the sharpest possible focus by the savage aggression of Russia against Ukraine and its people.
It is a profound moral, political and economic weakness that countries have to choose between standing against inhuman warfare and basic energy supplies.
And let no one be in any doubt, this is a war against the idea that the peoples of Europe should be able to live in free democracies.
Within the continent of Europe, the conflict literally could not be further from our doorsteps, but it actually touches fundamental issues for Ireland.
A century ago we achieved our independence from a powerful country which thought it had the right to govern others.
Fifty years later, on behalf of our country, Jack Lynch, a man who was proud to represent a city and country central to achieving independence, brought us into membership of the now European Union.
The EU has provided us with an international community within which we could not just grow and prosper, we could protect our core democratic values in a world where they were always under threat.
The EU has given us a voice and it has helped us to release the true potential of the Irish people.
Once Europe’s poorest and most peripheral country, we have developed and become world leaders in sectors ranging from food to software.
As members of the EU we have proven that free and fair trade can be the route to progress for even a country with few traditional resources.
Today the EU is under attack in all sorts of ways.
Its external opponents want to damage our shared commitment to supporting democratic values, and extremists of the right and left constantly attack and misrepresent it.
As we have seen so dramatically in our neighbour, when this aggressive Euroscepticism is allowed to flourish it can cause immense destruction.
The time has come for those of us in Ireland who value what the EU does to speak up, to challenge the anti-EU rhetoric of the extremes and to support a stronger and more active EU.
For basic moral, legal and humanitarian reasons we must stand with Ukraine – and we must also stand against those who are trying to undermine the European Union.
We must also be more active in protecting and building true peace and reconciliation on our island. We have missed far too many opportunities in the past. The full potential of the Good Friday Agreement has not been fulfilled and we have done too little to build the shared understanding and ongoing engagement on which reconciliation must be based.
That’s why I launched the Shared Island Initiative and why it is now moving into an exciting phase of delivering important research and funding projects which take the idea of a shared future to a new level.
The Shared Island approach involves:
- Raising the level of ambition for what we achieve through all-island partnerships;
- Delivering on cross-border investment commitments and developing a new generation of projects North and South; and,
- Fostering inclusive civic dialogue and a comprehensive programme of research to help build consensus around a shared future.
It’s a practical agenda focused on delivering progress for people and communities. It’s about moving from talk to action.
To give a small example, for many years people have been making casual political promises in relation to all-island services, but at no point did they do any research into what would be involved. That’s the case no more – and we have, for example, just undertaken the first work on comparability of a number of key public services North and South.
We won’t build a shared future with repeating the same speeches or looking for easy answers – we’ll do it by doing the much harder and unglamorous work of building understanding, investing and looking for sustainable solutions to deep challenges.
In the past two years and in the century since we secured our independence we have prevailed over many challenges.
The same spirit which helped us prevail before will help us to prevail again as we seek to develop strong and successful communities, grow world-leading businesses, tackle climate change and secure not just peace but also reconciliation on our island.
When we look after each other with a real community spirit.
When we are willing to take urgent and ambitious action at a national level.
When we work to strengthen shared action with other democratic countries.
When we do this, then there is no challenge we cannot meet as a country.
Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sibh go léir taitneamh as ceiliúradh na hoíche anocht, agus guím gach rath oraibh go léir don todhchaí.