Thursday 3rd May 2012
Les Dîners Celtiques
Below is the speech prepared by guest of honour Senator Fergal Quinn
I am delighted to be here this evening at the Network Irlande dinner. It is great to be here, not least as my daughters are married to Frenchmen.
I would like to touch on the subject of Ireland and Brittany being drivers of development for Western Europe. I would also like to outline some of the ways Ireland is getting back on track in terms of its economy.
It is easy to forget that Ireland and Brittany are two Celtic nations with a long history of business and trade. It is amazing to consider the Celts constructed of a road network across the European continent even before the Romans.
Recent studies have shown that the Celts were more advanced than the Romans in some scientific and economic aspects such as Pre-Roman Celtic calendars were much more accurate than the Roman one. In fact, it is amazing to consider they were possibly more accurate than the Gregorian calendar in use nowadays.
In fact, Ireland’s economic boom became known as the ‘Celtic’ Tiger!
Current Situation in Ireland
The economic and financial crisis has spread all over Europe. It has particularly affected certain areas like Ireland.
In Ireland, we continue to face problems like high unemployment and depressed property prices.
As a retailer, I have been working on two different TV series in Ireland which aim to help small business and a particular town, Drogheda. The work took me all over Ireland and allowed me to listen to the challenges that are being met by businesses on a day-to-day basis.
We are all facing a major challenge in Ireland but many of us understand that the way out of our economic situation is in our own hands. One of the main messages that we tried to put across and actually demonstrated in my TV series: Retail Therapy and Local Heroes is that businesses can succeed and are succeeding during the recession. We have started projects like larger businesses mentoring smaller companies, helping SMEs get online and promoting Drogheda as a fantastic tourist and investment location. For instance, there have been several successful trade missions to Silicon Valley. Indeed, out of the TV programme, The Drogheda Enterprise Centre will be established and hopes to attract hi-tech start up companies to the region in order to create very sustainable jobs. That particular centre will provide 30 incubator spaces for businesses, and bring around 120 new jobs to the town. That is a real concrete example of people who are not simply asking the government to provide them with a job but taking their own initiative and standing on their own two feet. I also think it is often forgotten that people are establishing businesses during a recession, as they do during boom times.
At home in Ireland, we really need to get some of our old confidence back. I hope that those watching those TV programmes, whether they be retailers or whomever, would say ‘hey, that’s an idea. I never thought of that’. One of the main messages in the TV programmes that we tried to put across and actually demonstrated is that businesses can succeed and are succeeding during the recession. While the media latches on to the negative aspects of the economy, there are many positive stories happening around the country.
The fact that the Irish economy is now creating as many jobs as it is losing is a welcome sign that the recovery in the export-led sectors is gradually feeding through into the domestic economy. This is the first time this has happened since 2007. In one week in April, the Irish Development Authority (IDA) announced the creation of 1,000 new multinational jobs.
We are all facing a major challenge but we know that people understand that the way out of our economic situation is in our own hands.
Positive News for Ireland
One of the big success stories in Ireland is our exports that are really fuelling our recovery. Quoting the Taoiseach this March (Prime Minister):
"The economy returned to growth in 2011 for the first time in four years, with exports of goods and services reaching new highs."
Exports are really thriving. For instance, food and drink exports increased by 12% last year and reached close to €9 billion, which is a new record.
Ireland is also making the necessary adjustments to recover. Unlike some other countries, we are in fact taking the tough medicine.
While some people say we should not pay back our debts, I am reminded of a comment from my father when I started in business in 1960. He told me a person’s good name is very important and that I should always pay my debts so as not to get a bad name for unpaid debts. That is why I believe Ireland has taken the right steps, in spite of a costly impact on our economy and all the austerity. It is far better that we realise that our good name is more important than the alternative. I can see the number of people in Europe and around the world who are gaining respect for Ireland in spite of the significant cost to its people. I support the austerity movement and that we are paying our debts, although we are being criticised very severely for it.
We are becoming much more competitive as costs have come down. New research from Eurostat published last week shows that Ireland is the only country in the eurozone where the cost of hiring workers has fallen since the start of the crash.
According to the World Bank's newly published global economy standings - which ranks 183 countries on the basis of how easy it is to conduct business, Ireland is the 10th best in the world.
Costs have come down so investing in Ireland has become very attractive. The financial crisis drove down commercial property rents as well as labour costs and sparked new government initiatives to attract investment. US companies leased or bought about nine times more space in Dublin last year than they did in 2007. According to Bill Clinton, commercial property in Ireland is “a steal”.
I think one of the major points a lot of people have overlooked is the fact that Ireland is currently experiencing the fastest increase in population in the EU. It is amazing to consider that Eurostat projects that by 2060, Ireland's population will have increased by nearly 50%, reaching the 6.5 million mark – again the biggest increase in the EU.
We now have the highest population in Ireland for 150 years. With the growth, the simple fact is that we are going to need more new businesses to provide for the bigger population.
Businesses must be ready to come out the other side when the recovery, That must go along with the government helping to bring down costs and setting positive conditions to create jobs.
Agriculture in Ireland and Brittany
In terms of growth, Ireland and Brittany should play to their strengths. That is, they should use their natural competitive advantage in areas like the marine and agriculture sectors.
Politicians in Ireland talk of creating clusters of high-technology and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Such plans have encountered problems elsewhere. Even in Brittany, the French government’s attempt to transform Brittany from one of its more marginal regions into a hive of high-tech activity ran into difficulty as it is very difficult to transplant such activities into a particular area. I think we need to do the things we do best – such as agriculture.
Like Ireland, agriculture continues to play a fundamental role in Brittany, being France's leading agricultural region. It represents around one tenth of France’s national production. It is amazing to consider that 18 Breton fishing ports produce almost half of France’s fish and seafood.
The agri-food sector is also doing extremely well in Ireland at the moment. Food is Ireland's No.1 export. Five years ago, the agricultural sector was seen as the "sunset industry" of Ireland but now all the indicators show it is thriving. For instance, exports of beef are already exceeding targets, with increasing affluence in places such as Asia driving increased demand.
Food production holds huge opportunities for growth in Ireland and indeed Brittany. For Ireland, dairy holds the most potential. In 2015, the European milk quota system, which has capped the amount of milk European farmers have been permitted to produce since 1984 will be abolished and will allow the sector to grow further.
It is amazing to consider that Ireland is the No 1 exporter of baby formula in the world. One in seven children in the world now drink such products that are manufactured in Ireland. The French company, Danone has recently invested €50m in their Macroom, Co. Cork infant formula plant and its sales is in the baby nutrition business are growing by close to 10% per year.
Wind Energy / Marine Sector in Ireland and Brittany
Given Ireland and Brittany’s strategic location by the sea, we should be utilising this much more.
I am very excited by the new developments in Brittany in terms of offshore energy especially given that France, which doesn’t yet have any offshore wind power.
Last month (April), the French government announced its decision to award a consortium exclusive rights to develop a 500 MW offshore wind project in the area of Saint-Brieuc, off the coast of Brittany. The project is expected to generate some 2,000 jobs and play a key role in developing an offshore wind industry in France. It is also interesting to note that an Irish company, OPENHYDRO which is a tidal turbine manufacturer, is mainly focused on this project off the Brittany coast.
In Ireland, we are not paying enough attention to the marine potential. Ireland has the largest maritime area to land mass in the EU , yet it derives only 1% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from the maritime sector. Comparative figures are UK 5%, Denmark 11%, and Norway 20%.
Language in Business
Like the Irish language, Breton has enjoyed something of a renaissance. The language is now promoted as part of Brittany's culture, with bilingual street signs and schools offering a Breton language and education. Professor Philippe Marliere, who lectures French and European politics at University College London says:
“It is a complete change of mentality. Before it was seen as completely backward; now it is seen as something that will enrich your personality, or your children's personalities."
I think we must consider how we can utilize our Celtic language better. When I started in business many years ago we automatically and without thinking about it put simple words such as “fáilte” (welcome), “isteach” (in) and “amach” (out) on our shop doors. The response we got from customers was such that we began to look for other ways to use Irish. We began to print simple words on our supermarket check-out receipts as Gaeilge, such as im (butter), arán (bread) and so on. We used simple words that did not confuse people. If we had used something more difficult they might have thought we were trying to confuse them. The response we got was such that I believe there is a wealth of goodwill out there. Irish businesses very often do not identify with it. Those that do, get a response on that basis. We began to use Irish more, to the extent of saying to our employees that we wanted to be seen as people who were supportive of the Irish language and that we would support them if they were willing to put a sign on their checkout saying, “Tá Gaeilge agam”, “Je parle français” or whatever it might happen to be. There is a response from customers who value the Irish language. If Irish businesses can seek that response in whatever way they can, they will find a response that is worthy.
We don’t have to speak Irish to use it as an effective marketing tool for a brand or product and stand out from competitors at home and abroad. A business can use the language to differentiate itself and gain a competitive advantage. In my company, Superquinn, we began to use the Irish language wherever we could. Some of our own-brand products were labelled in French, German and Spanish and we insisted that they be labelled as Gaeilge as well. It was interesting to see the little bit of Irish on the packaging of the products.
Language in Ireland and Brittany to promote Tourism
Ireland and Brittany can also play to their strengths by making more use of their unique language in terms of tourism. In Ireland, we can do much more on this.
In terms of the tourism sector, a native language can also mean that towns and cities can be ‘different’ than to what they have in, say, England, or America. In Ireland, the use of the Irish language enables us to do that. That does not mean that businesspeople have to speak Irish but to use it as an effective marketing tool in making your brands and products stand out from the competitors, at home and abroad. They can still use the language to differentiate themselves and hopefully gain that competitive advantage.
In the west of Ireland, Galway witnessed an increase in the use of bilingual signage in the city. Now, many businesses are incorporating the Irish language into various aspects of their visual business – signage, menus, stationery and other marketing communications. They are developing Galway’s unique Irish image and to gain bilingual status for the city. This is particularly important for businesses in the hospitality sector as the use of the Irish language helps them to deliver on the ‘unique experience’ and the ‘céad míle fáilte’ (or ‘hundred thousand welcomes’) our visitors wish to experience when they visit Galway so that when visitors leave Galway they will go away with a picture that says, “This is something different”. In fact, a recent report found the Irish language alone is worth in excess of €136 million annually to the economy of Galway city and county, and supports more than 5,000 jobs.
However, we are lagging behind in Ireland when it comes to speaking Irish. We have been saying for 80 or 90 years that there must be a better way to teach Irish. Two of our five children are married to French men and the French husbands always speak French to their children, whether they live in Ireland or France, and the mother always speaks Irish or English. It is easy to see that children can soak up a language at a very early age — two, three or four years of age.
Future for Ireland
I believe the future is very bright for Ireland. We have a much more competitive economy, based on a highly educated and young workforce. We have not lost many of the factors that made us a success in the first place - we did not lose them overnight.
Ireland’s leadership role with the EU presidency in 2013 will help to restore our reputation as a sound and reliable member of the international community after our well-publicised financial and economic problems.
Ireland is not yet on a life support machine. Bill Clinton has predicted that Ireland would emerge from its financial crash in less than five years. He said that the greatest threat to Irish recovery was a feeling of despondency and defeatism among Irish people. He said:
"I know a lot of people in Ireland are discouraged but the rest of the world thinks Ireland is pretty great."
This year, Clinton will host an economic summit to bring together multinational business leaders to talk about investment here. His message will be clear. If companies are locating subsidiaries overseas, Ireland should be on top of the list. A similar gathering organised by his foundation concentrating on the US market resulted in €9bn of investment and the creation of 150,000 jobs.
We must remember that economies are cyclical – prosperity will come back. I, myself have lived through several recessions – there will be good times and harder times. In terms of my view of how the country is faring as a whole, I believe that honesty is crucial to the country’s recovery. I believe that with the steps the government is now taking, people now know where they stand.
We are in a recession and business people must remember that we have no control over that. Business has taken a slump but I am very optimistic. I opened in a recession, so they don’t scare me hugely. When I think of when I started in 1960, I was 23. The economy was very poor at the time. In the 1970s we had expanded and things were very bad at that stage as well. When you look back into the 1980s, things were tough in those times too. I didn’t know what a recession was – all the time was a challenge for business!
In Ireland, we have far more people working than we had 20 years ago 1.8 million as opposed to around 1m people. We have been very successful. Just because the last four years have been very difficult, we shouldn’t talk ourselves into saying it has all been a failure. With the positive steps that they are now starting to take place, I believe we our sparking our recovery
We must keep our perspective and if the government takes the right measures, there is great hope for the future.
Ireland is ‘listening’ by reducing costs, aiming to become even more competitive and playing to its strengths in areas like agriculture.
There is a wonderful Irish saying which I think sums up what we all must do, including in Ireland and Brittany, in these turbulent times:
“Éist le fuaim na habhann agus gheobhaidh tú bradán”;- “listen to the sound of the river and you will catch a salmon."