IRELAND: 'We've always spent heavily on education'
Ireland’s ambassador to Washington, Noel Fahey, represents a country of 4.1 million people to a nation which has 30 million citizens who claim descent from his land. But with Ireland’s dramatic economic development over the last decade, immigration to the United States from there has almost dried up, and Ireland itself, with virtually full employment, is itself the destination for migrants seeking jobs in the booming economy.
Ambassador Fahey recently told DiplomaticTraffic.com about the close ties between his country and America, about his country’s focus on education and the success this has brought, as well as prospects for peace now that the IRA has shown itself serious in decommissioning its weapons.
The IRA decommissioning its weapons
“Both the text of the statement that they delivered and the extent of the decommissioning and putting of arms beyond use, lead us to believe in Dublin that the IRA [Irish Republican Army] have decided to retire from the scene and the Republican movement from now on is to assume a constitutional and political path. This is initially confirmed by the opinion of the International Monitoring Commission, which is a body that consists of British and Irish government representatives, a representative from Northern Ireland, the former speaker of the assembly, and a representative of the United States. Their initial reaction is that the IRA decommissioning seems to be reliable. They will be doing further studies over the next few months and they’ll make another report in January. So we would feel that A. It is a historic event, and B. That the IRA have genuinely given up their arms. We also expect them to stick to their promise to give up crime and paramilitary activity. And so far the indications are that they are sticking to that promise.
“It is a big development and it is very positive. There are still major issues to be sorted out, but that removes what has been for quite some time a major stumbling block towards bringing the parties together in the north.”
On the unification of Ireland
“Back in 1998 we had a referendum, both north and south, where the southern state abandoned its explicit constitutional claim to the whole island and replaced it with an aspiration to unity by consent. This sentiment was echoed in Northern Ireland. It has always been the policy of the government in Dublin that a united Ireland is an objective, an aspiration, but by consent. There is no question that the constitutionally elected government in Dublin has never wanted to force Northern Ireland into a united Ireland against the wishes of the majority. So if a united Ireland is to come about, it can only be by consent of the people in Northern Ireland.
“There are immediate issues to be settled which will distract people from that issue for a long time to come. There’s a need to get a devolved government going in Northern Ireland, and there’s a need to get the parties in Northern Ireland to work together. The decommissioning of IRA arms will go a very long way, I think, to meeting one of the major concerns of the majority of the population: the guns should be taken out of Irish politics. Hopefully the other paramilitary groups, who are not on ceasefire, and they are “mainly on the Unionist side, will follow suite. It is interesting that the Monitoring Commission’s report shows that there has been a greater degree of sectarian violence on the Loyalist side recently, than on the Republican side.”
Irish-Americans who supported the IRA
“First of all, it is probably not true to say that the majority of Irish-Americans ever supported violence. Some elements in the Irish-American community supported Republicanism, but equally those elements have supported the move by Sinn Fein towards constitutional nationalism, away from violence. There is no reason to believe that they won’t continue to do that. As far as we can judge, they seem to have bought into the idea of abandoning violence and seeking political means of achieving their objectives.”
Ireland’s stellar economic performance
“Generally, we have had a very good 10 years. The economy has done extremely well since the mid-1990s, with a growth rate sometimes as high as nearly 10 percent. Now it is running at an estimated 4 percent. We’ve gone from a situation where at the very beginning of the 90s we still had very, very high levels of unemployment (13 and 14 percent), to a situation of virtual full employment, and a situation where in fact we are having a very considerable influx of immigrant labor, which is an entirely new situation for Ireland.
“We have had a good run economically. We have had to address the question of whether we try to compete for manufacturing jobs or whether we broaden our portfolio. And really there is no great logic in trying to compete for pure manufacturing jobs, which are located entirely [in Ireland], from the point of view of cost. We can’t compete with India. We can’t compete with China. And it’s even difficult to compete with the new member states of the European Union in Eastern Europe. So what we’ve done is concentrate on sectors such as financial services, where we do have a comparative advantage, and the top end of manufacturing. For example, Wyeth [a research-based, global pharmaceutical and biotechnology company] … is building a huge manufacturing plant. It is a very large investment.
“We are aiming at employment that requires people with skills, and we are making a big investment in education, and we are also making a big investment in encouraging domestically-based R&D. We are having to do this because our cost base has changed. Even allowing for the tax concessions, it’s very difficult for us to compete cost-wise with Asia. So we are going, because we have to go, into the area of looking at knowledge-related jobs.
“We’ve always spent heavily on education, even in the worst of times, back in the 1980s. Spending for education has always been a major priority.”
Why Ireland succeeded to well
“There were a number of factors. One was we had a relatively young population that spoke English, obviously making it easier for an American company investing in Ireland. That we were members of the European Union helped. So did the fact that you saw a change in manufacturing in the 80s and 90s away from heavy industry to light industry, to knowledge-based industry, to the IT sector, where location, in terms of physically moving your goods, became less important. This had been a disadvantage but was now much less of a disadvantage. Also the investment in education paid off. Second level education has been free in Ireland for over 40 years. University education is very heavily subsidized and is virtually free as well.
“Post WWII, we decided that if people had to emigrate, and many had to, it was better if they could emigrate with skills and an education. So the investment in education, which has been heavy from the 60s onward, and was continued even during the very tough time of the 80s, did pay off.
“We try to make education market-geared. We are again looking at our universities to take account of changes in the last 10 years. We try to get both the education system and the administrative system to respond to the needs of investment, rather than force investment to respond to their needs. We’ve had to be pragmatic and we’ve had to take that approach. We really don’t have much choice. In the 80s we had unemployment of 17 and 18 percent and a debt to GDP ratio of 130 percent. There wasn’t much choice if we were to create employment but to be as flexible as possible.
“Also, we have tended to be light on regulation. Not as light as the United States, but by European standards. Our level of regulation tended to be more in the American direction than the Continental direction.”
A cultural sea-change
“The country has changed enormously in the last 50 years. The population now is 1/3 higher than it was 40 years ago. This is a very unusual development in Europe, where populations tend to be more or less static or are even falling. We have a very young population, which of course is another factor we need to address, also in terms of economic management. If you have a young population, that tends to have a cultural impact. Agriculture could not provide employment and people were not prepared to stay in agriculture anymore, because of poor levels of compensation. They wanted a different life.
“I wouldn’t say any more that there is a move out of rural Ireland into the cities. That’s been an important change in the last 10 years. Industry and employment have tended to come to the rural areas, and people are staying, but they are not working in farming anymore to anything like the extent they did. Farming is still an important part of the economy and if you take both farming and food industries still a high percentage of GNP, higher than most countries in Europe. If you compare Irish writing in the mid [20th] century with now, you will see a society that changed from being a largely rural society to a society that is predominantly urban. And that has its implications as well.”
American investment in Ireland
“We have a very good relationship with US corporations. We have practically all of the main pharmaceutical companies, most of the main IT companies. Microsoft is very well set up in Ireland, and very pleased with their Irish operation. Intel has a very, very big operation, just outside Dublin, which is working out very well indeed. Companies come, and companies establish and companies stay because they find there are advantages apart from cost.
“The United States is the biggest foreign investor in Ireland. We’ve had heavy American investment for two generations. The degree to which this is established and the depth of this economic relationship [is shown] by the level of inter-company transfers. Last year 5,000 Irish came to America for this, which is a big figure for Ireland, where 100,000 people work for US companies. The overall effect of American investment on the Irish business culture over the last two generations has been very profound. Wherever I go here I meet Irish people working for US companies. Irish subsidiaries are not just assembly plants but part of the global company [with Irish employees working in various company branches around the world].”
Irish investment in America
“We are also seeing Irish FDI going in the reverse direction. It depends how you measure it, but in its broadest extent there are about 60,000 jobs in the United States dependent upon Irish investment. A lot of our food companies have invested in the mid-west, which is understandable. Our largest public company is a cement and building materials company, Cement Roadstone, which has very substantial operations here, employing about 28,000 in this country. To all practical intents and purposes, their operations here are American operations. They tend to buy up companies regionally, leave the management in place, and integrate them. It’s been a very successful business model for them here."
Relations with the United States
“We have a good relationship. I don’t think we have any major issues between us. We may take a different emphasis in different parts of the world. The United States is a world power. Obviously it has a range of interests throughout the world and we might not always agree. Because we have an important agricultural sector we wouldn’t always be in agreement with the United States position in the WTO.
“We have been strongly in support of all the international cooperation that has taken place against terrorism, and I can’t think of any important issue on which we have a difference with the United States. Like most of the rest of Europe, we don’t have a presence in Iraq. It is important to remember that the United States has had United Nations cover for its presence in Iraq for more than two years. So we are required to give the United States support in dealing with the situation in Iraq, and we are doing that. A substantial number of US troops transit through one of our major airports. I think the Irish population generally shares the unease which is widely spread throughout Europe about Iraq, but then Iraq is not exactly an issue about which there is unanimity in the United States. It is in everyone’s interest that the constitutional vote has gone well. The prospects for a new government in Iraq in the light of the vote are looking good. That’s certainly to be welcomed. A peaceful outcome and a stable Iraq is in everybody’s interest, not just the United States’ interest.”
“In the last census, 30 million claimed Irish descent. We are of course delighted that so many people in America identify themselves with Ireland. Irish-Americans are proud of their connection to Ireland, which is a huge advantage for us. There still is emigration to America, but the numbers have dropped off dramatically. There are about 140,000 Irish-born residents in the United States. Most came over between 1946 and 1960. In Ireland there are 5.7 million on the whole island and 4.1 million in the south.”
Biography of Ambassador Noel Fahey
Noel Fahey was born in Roscommon in December 1946. He was educated at Roscommon CBS, University College Dublin and at the Institute of Public Administration.
He joined the Irish Foreign Service in April 1974 serving previously in the Departments of Finance and Posts and Telegraphs. His assignments overseas were in New Delhi (1976 to 1980) and in the Irish Representation to the EU in Brussels (1982 to 1986). In 1986 he returned to Dublin and served until 1997 in the European Union Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1991, he became Head of the Division.
While Head of the European Union Division he was involved in a series of major negotiations on the strengthening of the EU. These included the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam. He was also closely associated with the Irish Presidency of the EU in 1996.
In September 1998 he became Irish Ambassador in Germany. During that time the Embassy transferred to Berlin when it re-assumed its position as the capital of Germany.
He became Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States in September 2002.
Noel Fahey is married to Christine O’Rourke. They have three children - two daughters, Nuala and Niamh, and a son, Fergus.
His hobbies are reading, music and (not too strenuous) cycling.