Ireland reverses the story of ages and puts an end to its diaspora
JUST four years ago, only about 19 Irish companies were operating in Australia. Now there are more like 50 — and many of them are companies involved in high-tech areas such as software.
As Micheal Martin, Ireland's visiting Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment noted, the change is testimony to the growing trade and investment ties between the two countries.
It is also indicative of Ireland's economic dynamism. Economically, the country is at an historical peak.
The population is 4.1 million, the highest in 130 years. Emigration has stopped; expatriates are returning, and Ireland takes in about 80,000 migrants a year, including many from the former communist countries of eastern Europe, like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Average growth in gross domestic product from 2000-04 was 6.1 per cent, the highest in the 30-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
European Union funds had helped foster this growth, but Mr Martin, 45, speaking in Melbourne, said Irish Government policy over the past three decades had been crucial.
"The Government has adopted a macro position, assessing what the drivers of the Irish economy over the next decade would be," he said. "It has created an environment for business, for foreign direct investment, that has had a transforming impact on Irish business and enterprise. The Irish mindset has changed."
Key drivers have been an emphasis on education, research and development, technological innovation, and openness in international trade. The Government has set the broad parameters and left the "nitty-gritty" work to market forces.
In the final two years of secondary education, there is an emphasis on vocational training for those who want it. A chain of regional institutes of technology turns out engineers with strong practical skills suited to industry. There are no university fees, although there are some charges.
"The teacher was always celebrated in the Irish parish. Those who went through the tough times in the 1940s and '50s were determined to give their kids a good education," said Mr Martin, himself a former teacher with a Master of Arts in political history.
Under its National Development Plan, Ireland will spend €36 billion ($A58 billion) to upgrade the country's infrastructure over the next 10 years.
"There are lots of opportunities for Australian companies in this big expenditure," Mr Martin said. For example, engineering group Sinclair Knight Merz is playing a big role in a light rail project in Dublin.
Ireland reciprocates by buying from Australia. Mr Martin pointed out that Australian wine is the No. 1 seller in Ireland with 34 per cent of the market, ahead of Chile and France.
The Irish Government prides itself on its pragmatism. It has the lowest personal and corporate tax rates in the OECD, with the latter only 12.5 per cent.
The emphasis on education has paid off. Ireland excels at pharmaceuticals, IT and medical technologies, and has become a mini-manufacturing powerhouse in these areas. Its share of high-technology exports (41 per cent) is the highest in Europe.
"We are one of the top three producers of software in the world. There are 800 software companies in Ireland," Mr Martin said.
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