Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s trade-focused charm offensive on the US continued last week, as he attended a series of events over three days in both Boston and New York aimed at “reasserting Ireland’s place in the world,” as he put it when he visited the JFK School of Government at Harvard University on Thursday evening.
The latest trip came hot on the heels of his visit to New York just the week before, where he addressed a major investment conference hosted by former president Bill Clinton. This time around he returned to New York before traveling to Boston for his first visit to the city as Taoiseach.
Arriving in Manhattan Wednesday Mr. Kenny spoke to press at New York City Hall and held briefings with Bank Mellon representatives and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The visit also included a trip to New Jersey’s Merck Sharp and Dohme pharmaceutical plant, and the launch of Tourism Ireland’s “Jump into Ireland” campaign at the New York Athletic Club.
His mile-a-minute Boston schedule took in the launch of Irish security company Netwatch’s US division; the aforementioned keynote speech at Harvard on the theme of the Irish economy; an Irish Network Boston reception; a dinner with key American Ireland Fund supporters at the Four Seasons Hotel; a business breakfast Friday hosted by the Irish American Partnership; a lunch at the JFK Presidential Library hosted by Enterprise Ireland; and a meeting with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick at the State House.
Speaking at Harvard, Mr. Kenny dipped liberally into the history books to emphasize what he feels is Ireland’s rightful place at the heart of a strong Europe, asking the audience to remember “the sixth-century Irish monks who brought a semi-Barbarian Europe out of the Dark Ages,” during a time when “Ireland colonized the souls of Europe.”
In Ireland, bitter debate over a proposed new European fiscal treaty continues, with the Government agreeing on a proposed text some weeks back, but the opposition saying the treaty should be put before the people.
The Irish Attorney General is set to decide shortly whether the treaty should go to a vote, but Mr. Kenny derided opposition efforts to turn the debate in “a referendum on austerity,” which he said it was not, but rather a plan to implement greater “safeguards” and “firewalls” within the European financial system.
“You don’t say willy-nilly that ‘we’re going to have a referendum on this, a referendum on that’,” he said in response to a question from the audience on the matter.
He said his Government was determined to “restore Ireland’s place as a respected member of the international community” after what he called “a bleak midwinter for our country and our pride.”
The trip saw the Taoiseach play strongly on the Irish economy’s strong recent export statistics, saying that as a small open economy, this is what will fuel any Irish recovery. He called 2011 “a stand-out year for Foreign Direct Investment” in Ireland, saying the IDA had achieved a record 148 international projects for Ireland, leading to 13,000 new jobs, a 20% increase on the previous year.
The trip also saw him expand on the Government’s newly-announced Action Plan for Jobs, which has set itself the extremely ambitious goal of adding 200,000 new jobs to the Irish market by 2020.
Sitting down with The Irish Emigrant on Friday morning, Mr. Kenny said the aim was to rebuild Ireland’s reputation after its economic implosion, using a plan centered on the three “Ts”: Technology, Talent and Track record.
“We inherited an unprecedented situation,” he said. “The bailout from the Troika [the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund] meant that we had to face down an enormous challenge economically, rebuild the reputation of the country and set out a level of trust with people.
“What we want to do is get back to where we were in the late 1990s, when Ireland was cost-competitive, had a very strong export manufacturing output, and was still attracting a lot of internal investment from abroad. We [still] have all of those characteristics, just to tie them together."
“The fundamental challenge we have is our public finances – we’re spending 18 billion euro more than we’re taking in. That means you have to downsize the cost of running the government, downsize the public sector, and provide your services more efficiently with less people.