December 22, 2014
Ireland has lots to celebrate on Saint Patrick’s
Ambassador James McIntyre tells the Herald his country is back on the path toward growth
While Saint Patrick’s Day is always an occasion to celebrate Irish identity (and while there has always been an Ireland in Argentina with the largest diaspora outside the English-speaking world), some years are better than others for general news — Irish Ambassador James McIntyre is happy to say that there are also other things to celebrate today.
Firstly, Irish recovery is a reality, he begins. The year 2013 which started with the Irish presidency of the European Union in its first half ended with Ireland becoming the first euro zone country to exit an EU/IMF assistance programme (last December). McIntyre reeled off various statistics to underline the turnaround. Unemployment is down from 15 to 12 percent (if 1,600 jobs a week were lost during the crisis, 1,200 are now being created weekly). Exports are now well ahead of pre-crisis 2007 levels (with the agri-food sector the star, now around 11 percent of Gross Domestic Product and increasing exports by 40 percent since 2009 to reach some 10 billion euros last year). Financial market funding has returned to normal with the interest rates for bonds at historic lows. Still a long way to go but firmly on the right path.
In fact, McIntyre argues, the crisis has actually helped Ireland in some ways by making it a leaner, meaner competitor — Ireland has always been an open economy but the disciplines dictated by the crisis have lowered the cost base, making wages more competitive and jobs easier to create while business (especially small and medium-sized) has become more innovative
The sacrifices made have thus produced results and put Ireland back on the growth path, always the aim of the cutbacks (which were careful to spare the needy) — growth is vital in order to handle the vast banking debt assumed by the state. Austerity hurt, McIntyre admits, but it is also understood in Ireland because by far the greater damage came from the property bubble bursting.
As a result, today’s Ireland is the best country in the world to do business (according to Forbes magazine) with the most flexible workforce ranking third in skills. Scientific research has also worked its way into the world’s Top 20 (top five in some areas).
McIntyre is also optimistic about economic ties with Argentina, although more cautiously so. Argentina does not currently enjoy the best image in international investor circles, he says guardedly, but that does not alter the fact that there are opportunities here which are being tapped even now, including by Irish businessmen. Furthermore, the government’s more recent policies are seen as positive and the Irish envoy hopes for more such progress in the future. Yet even before these recent changes, trade was expanding — Irish exports here grew seven percent last year.
The human face of relations between Ireland and Argentina is a more gratifying story. McIntyre chose to start with rugby since it was on the top of the news with the Six Nations tournament ending so triumphantly for Ireland last weekend (McIntyre was already optimistic in advance that Ireland’s huge points advantage would prove decisive, as indeed it did). In June the Ireland team will be coming (as Six Nations champions and hopefully with retiring great Brian O’Driscoll) to play the Pumas in Chaco and Tucumán, thus repeating their highly successful 2007 tour — McIntyre has recently been huddling with Puma (and Leinster) veteran Felipe Contemponi in preparation.
This year has already seen a ministerial visit right at the very start — Frances Fitzgerald, the first ever full Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, was here in January. During the visit the Minister had a lengthy meeting with her Argentine counterpart Alicia Kirchner on areas of mutual interest and had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Argentine-Irish community, including visits to the Fahy and Hurling Clubs. Her visit followed that of President Michael Higgins in late 2012.
But McIntyre would like to see such visits returned many times more by Argentines going to Ireland, following in the footsteps of the eight million overseas tourists drawn to Ireland last year, mainly by “The Gathering” — and not just members of the Argentine-Irish community. Attractions abound but the Connaught native would like to highlight the Wild Atlantic Way, some 2,500 kilometres of captivatingly rugged coastline all the way down from Donegal to Cork. Nor are sporting links limited to rugby — thus Ireland has the world’s highest number of golf links per capita. A Hurling Club hurling team recently participated in a Galway tournament.
However, Ireland does not just welcome the tourists (who sustain around a quarter million jobs) — international students are encouraged to benefit from educational excellence in a safe, English-speaking environment. Ireland offers a combination of traditional scholarship and culture with research at the cutting-edge of industry.
This year is special as the bicentenary of the battle of Montevideo (1814), the great victory of Admiral William Brown, the only Argentine independence hero born abroad (in fact, not only in McIntyre’s country but also his county, Mayo). The celebrations will stretch throughout the year and have already taken the Irish envoy to Mar del Plata. Between Montevideo and the presidential inaugurations in Paraguay and Chile, McIntyre has been quite the regional ambassador in the past year — his Embassy also covers Bolivia.
So today while Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny will be in the White House with United States President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden (both with Irish blood), Saint Patrick’s will be celebrated all around the world — including in Argentina, where there will be a “Greening of the Planetarium” for the occasion, as well as music, dance and all the usual ways of marking this big day.