Deputy Pat Breen: The country is a very different place today compared to three years ago when the Government took office. We are no longer beholden to the troika and have successfully exited the bailout. We are back borrowing on the markets again and the economy has been returned to growth. However, there is no doubt that we still face a huge challenge, but substantial progress has been made.
One of the biggest achievements has been the work done to fix the finances and restore our international reputation. The naming of Ireland as the best country in the world in which to do business by the US financial magazine, Forbes, is a ringing endorsement of the economic policies pursued by the Government. As a small island nation with a limited domestic market, openness to trade and investment is central to Ireland’s economic strategy.
The programme for Government placed the focus very much on trade promotion in assigning the portfolio to the Department of Foreign Affairs but also in the leadership and commitment of the Taoiseach and various Ministers to the programme of trade missions. Linking with the global Irish network and taking a more focused approach to the activities which take place on St. Patrick’s Day have allowed us to promote our message about Ireland and our interests abroad. Since coming into office, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have been at pains to point to the meaningful contribution of the Diaspora to our economic recovery. It was very important for Ireland at one of the most challenging times ever faced that we had a network which would provide an effective mechanism to engage with Irish people abroad. Establishing the global Irish network was critical in getting the message out about the work we were doing to transform the economy. It was important in defending our 12.5% corporation tax rate and ensuring our position was understood internationally. It was also important in encouraging foreign direct investment and promoting The Gathering, one of the country’s greatest tourism initiatives which delivered 250,000 people to the country last year.
Our network of embassies abroad has been critical in maximising our overseas trade potential. This is an issue I have pursued through the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and I am pleased that the Government has responded by reopening the Vatican embassy and opening embassies and consulates in the emerging economies, including China, Hong Kong, Jakarta and Thailand, as well as expanding our network in South America and the United States, including Austin. The expansion of the embassy network will help the Government to continue to attract foreign direct investment and drive export-led economic recovery. I would like to see the Government continue to prioritise trade missions this year, as they are achieving significant returns. Irish food and drinks industry exports were valued at €10 billion last year and the value of our beef exports continues to grow. Agricultural exports are playing a huge role in our economic recovery due, in no small measure, to the reopening of markets, in particular Japan and Lebanon. Irish exporters are hopeful the US and Chinese markets will be opened in the near future.
While Ireland’s economic outlook is a lot brighter than it was three years ago, we all know the impact of the recession is still being felt by many families and businesses as they continue to struggle. The main challenge is to ease the burden on these families and businesses and create jobs. When we took office, 7,000 private sector jobs a month were being lost, but we are now creating 5,000 jobs a month.
[Deputy Pat Breen: ] While our unemployment rate has stabilised, the long-term unemployed are finding it very difficult to get work. Quite a number of new jobs are being advertised but most are located in the main urban centres such as Dublin and Cork. The fact that our economy was so reliant on the property bubble has resulted in the number of persons employed in the construction sector falling from a peak of 380,000 during the boom to 150,000 today. Significant numbers of construction workers have emigrated and there is very little construction activity going on. In that context, I am pleased that the Taoiseach said recently that the Government would bring forward specific measures this year to support job creation in the construction industry. However, we must never go back to the level of reliance on the construction industry that we saw in the past. We must look at new ways of supporting job creation in this country.
I would like to see a renewed focus on delivering FDI projects for the mid-west region, which has a very positive business environment, given the presence of more than 100 overseas companies there. We have a well-educated workforce and top-class infrastructure, and this renewed focus would be important for job creation and providing people with the opportunity to live and work in the region. As I mentioned earlier, the success of our international promotion of The Gathering, the retention of the 9% VAT rate for the hospitality sector and the abolition of the air travel tax have all made a contribution to a revival of our tourism industry. Building on this, we have the Wild Atlantic Way, which has the potential to bring many more people to this country, and I commend the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on this initiative.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are the lifeblood of local communities as they have the capacity to create one, two or three jobs in local areas, which is very important. In many rural areas, particularly in my own county of Clare, small businesses are very reliant on tourism. However, the growth of such small businesses is hampered by the fact that many cannot get access to credit. This morning, three businesses in my own town of Ennis closed, including a long-established shoe shop and a very high-profile pub. I would like to see legislation fast-tracked to deal with below-cost selling, which would help to level the playing field for publicans. Significant progress has been made to date in supporting SMEs in the context of lending, including the seed and venture capital schemes and the credit guarantee scheme. I propose that the Government focuses on identifying more supports that could be put into place for small businesses.
Shannon Airport has played a very important role in the revival of the mid-west region. The turnaround at the airport has been dramatic. Last year was a very positive year for the airport, when it broke even for the first time in five years and its passenger figures grew. The fact that the airport is now standing on its own and is allowed to manage its own affairs is clearly paying off. There are expansion plans for the airport as we move forward. I recently launched the Aer Lingus daily service to Boston, and a daily service to New York is due to commence shortly. These services are extremely important for the region, particularly in the context of industrial development. The airlines have responded positively to the abolition of the travel tax, with Aer Lingus, Ryanair and United Airlines all expanding their services here. The Minister’s decision to introduce an accelerated capital allowance for the construction of hangars at the airport is very welcome. Plans are under way to build a new hangar, and I suspect that this is just the beginning of the resurgence of aviation-related industry in the region, which is extremely important. I understand that the State airports Bill is due to come before the House shortly.
That legislation is very important in the context of copperfastening what is happening at Shannon Airport, and I look forward to contributing to the debate on it.
The last three years have been important for the future development of our economy. Our unemployment rate has fallen from a high of 15.1% to just under 12% today. If that continues, we will be in a prime position by 2020 to have full employment, or 4% unemployment. There is no doubt that the last three years have been very difficult for people, but we have gone a long way towards restoring our finances. This year the focus is very much on job creation. We must work relentlessly to ensure we create more jobs in the SME sector. I urge the Opposition to contribute to this and to bring constructive proposals to the Government.