I am delighted to be here in the heart of my constituency this afternoon to welcome you to the regional meeting of the Global Irish Network in the truly wonderful setting of The Heritage Hotel in Killenard. The theme of today’s discussion is ‘Connecting Laois to do Better Business’
I would like to particularly welcome the members of the Global Irish Network who have travelled to be with us today and I believe their contributions over the coming hours will be very much appreciated by you all.
This is the fourth Global Irish Economic Forum to be held. In fact, it is the first time that a regional meeting has taken place outside a major urban area and I am delighted that a regional Forum meeting is taking place in my native county Laois.
In the planning stages for this year’s Forum, I was keen to ensure that there was a strong focus on the regional rural economy element and I’m delighted that we were able to achieve this by having this event here today.
At the outset I would like to recognise and acknowledge the work of Laois County Council in preparing for the event this afternoon and I know you will agree that they have put together excellent panels for our discussion. I would like to take this opportunity to formally extend a welcome to John Mulholland CEO of Laois County Council who was newly appointed to the role in September -I commend John and his staff for their commitment to this event.
I am particularly delighted that the Council has utilised the presence of members of the Global Irish Network to organise a mentoring session with young entrepreneurs after our panel discussions. I have no doubt that our guests here today will have some excellent words of wisdom to pass on to young entrepreneurs. Only a number of weeks ago, the Laois regional rounds of the Irelands Best Young Entrepreneur took place in this Hotel and I would encourage and I know that some of the participants of this event are present here today.
Our discussions here today are an excellent preparation for the wider discussions which will take place in Dublin Castle over the coming two days on sustaining and developing our economic recovery.
We want to build on the success of previous Forums, which have helped to lift Ireland from the darkest days of economic crisis to a brighter future with a growing, dynamic economy delivering thousands of jobs at home here in Ireland. This is particularly important here in Laois.
Laois suffered badly during the economic downturn. Our county was heavily dependent on construction works and over 4,000 people lost their jobs in this sector during the downturn. As a government our job is to secure and spread recovery. I am very conscious that many people in Laois have suffered over the past number of years but I am heartened to see a 10.5% drop in unemployment in Laois during the period March 11-August 15. In addition there are 14,300 more people working in the Midlands.
I firmly believe that this afternoon’s discussions should help businesses in County Laois. It is important that we work together to build a strong network and collaborate with each other. The Global Economic is a useful vehicle to do this and I sincerely hope that people here will actively engage in the forum to get the best from it.
This year’s event has evolved in focus and format to accommodate Ireland’s changed economic climate. It will centre on opportunities within high potential sectors, including financial services, research and innovation, and international education. It will also focus on fostering entrepreneurship and supporting existing business to scale-up, increase exports and increase jobs at home.
We are very fortunate here in Ireland to have such an engaged diaspora who are prepared to sacrifice their time and to travel at their own expense to Ireland to give of their valuable advice. The unique profile and reach of Ireland’s diaspora is the envy of many Governments, and has proved an invaluable resource in promoting Ireland’s economy both at home and abroad.
More than 300 individuals that make up our Global Irish Network have found success in their adopted countries, and shown a welcome willingness to share their expertise and contribute to the goal of achieving a sustainable Irish economic recovery.
An active, engaged and committed diaspora helps to ensure that Ireland can reach its aim of replacing all the jobs lost in the recession by 2018 and make a tangible and lasting positive impact on the lives of the people of Ireland.
In parallel with our meeting here today there are similar meetings taking place in Derry, Galway and Limerick. These regional meetings offer a more complete focus on the positive developments in Ireland’s economic story. They complement the Government’s focus on spreading the economic recovery to the regions as outlined in Action Plan for Jobs for the Midlands- which has not recovered from the economic collapse at the same speed as other parts of Ireland. By creating job opportunities at home we can continue to build an Ireland that remains attractive to our youth, helping to stem the flow of our young people overseas.
One of the reasons we chose Laois is that this county represents much of Ireland outside the main urban centres, where along with business, agriculture makes up a large part of the economic activity. Farming is part of the lifeblood of the rural economy here in Laois where an estimated 122,000 hectares of land are farmed. Farming remains a most important element in County Laois and contributes significantly to the local economy and to the rural community.
In Ireland the agri food sector supports over 160,000 jobs and the majority of small local communities. In the last number of years, the Agri sector has been one of the key components in the recovery of the Irish economy.
The theme of the first panel discussion today will be ‘Local Roots, Global Reach’ and in this we have taken inspiration from the Food Wise 2025 Strategy which was launched by the Minister for Agriculture in July of this year. This Strategy seeks to increase the value of agri-food exports by 85% over the next decade to reach €19 billion. It also hopes to deliver a further 23,000 jobs in the agri food sector by 2025.
Rural diversification and entrepreneurial development is key to the sustained development of rural communities and the implementation of the Food Wise Strategy will have an incredibly positive impact on rural communities, not only in County Laois but right across the country.
The Strategy examines smarter and greener ways to deliver sustainable growth so that it can contribute to our ongoing recovery. There is considerable potential for the midlands area to benefit hugely from emerging global opportunities in the agri-food sector, especially in Asia and Africa, and I hope our discussions here today will harness the collective wisdom of our panelists to consider innovative and entrepreneurial ways to drive the agri-food sector here.
In conclusion I would like to thank you all for taking time out of your schedules to be here with us today and for your participation at this event. I am grateful in advance for the expertise, energy and commitment that you will undoubtedly bring to the discussions ahead. I urge you all to use this forum, share your views and ideas and actively engage in the discussions ahead.
We need to spread the message that Laois is open for business and I hope you will all join with us to help deliver on a vision for Laois, the midlands and Ireland in the years ahead.