Opening speech of the Conference “Does Latvia follow Ireland’s path migration of workforce”

25. janvāris, 2006


Dermot Ahern

Prezentācija konferencē "Vai Latvija iet Īrijas pēdās: darbaspēka migrācija" 2006. gada 20. janvārī

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very pleased to join my colleague, Foreign Minister Pabriks, at today’s conference.

The Foreign Minister and I see each other regularly at the monthly meetings of EU Foreign Ministers. However, I value this opportunity to travel to Riga on my first official visit to Latvia as Foreign Minister. Minister Pabriks and I met this morning for an extended discussion of the common challenges that face Ireland and Latvia as members of the European Union. Our partnership within the European Union represents of cornerstone of Irish-Latvian relations.

Working together as Europeans is the best way in which we can advance the goals we share and promote the wellbeing of our peoples. In the wake of last month’s successful European Council, there is an opportunity for us to combine our energies and put new momentum into EU affairs.

I also value the chance to learn about Latvia’s recent experience of emigration and the undoubted challenges this brings. Historically, emigration has been a central theme in the Irish experience. It has touched virtually every family in Ireland. A trickle of emigration in the 18th century became a flood in the 19th. Indeed, Irish people continued to leave our shores until as recently as 1991.

I will not dwell on the sadness and distress that individual families suffered because of emigration. Most of our emigrants left through economic necessity, and the vast majority prospered in their adopted countries. The money these emigrants sent home over the years sustained families in Ireland through less fortunate times.

The thriving Irish communities overseas supported Ireland’s struggle for independence and, particularly in the USA, were influential in generating international understanding for Ireland’s cause. I know that emigrant Latvians similarly played their part in keeping alive the ideal of an independent Latvia during difficult times for this country and its people.

I want to focus on our experience of the two most recent waves of Irish emigration, or rather migration, which touches on issues at the core of today’s Conference. It is easy for Irish people to understand the apprehension that may be felt here that those who have left will be lost to your nation forever. This has not been our experience.

Many of those who left Ireland in the 1950s and the 1980s, when our emigration rates peaked, returned when our economic fortunes at home improved.

The 1950s was a particularly trying time for Ireland, when large numbers of young Irish people departed in search of employment overseas. Indeed, it was the sense of despair brought about by emigration that caused us to review our economic policies and open up our economy to trade and foreign investment from the late 1950s onwards.

By contrast, the 1960s was a time of hope for Ireland. The economy expanded, as tariff barriers fell around the world. Ireland joined the European Economic Community, now the European Union, in 1973. Membership of the Union has been hugely beneficial for us in a variety of practical ways. As EU members, we gained access to a vast market for our goods. We became a bridgehead into that market for US and other overseas companies and we attracted a large share of the foreign direct investment that flowed across the Atlantic.

As the world economic climate took a turn for the worse in the 1970s and 1980s, we had to take measures in Ireland to correct our public finances. This was a period of painful adjustment for us. Emigration returned to haunt us and the sight of so many of our young people leaving the country prompted another shift in public policy.

Against this difficult background, the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy helped sustain rural communities and staunch the flight from the land. Cohesion funding helped improve Ireland’s infrastructure and fostered the creation of a competitive economy. The European Social Fund helped equip many of our young people with new skills which were central to our rapid economic advancement.

Meanwhile, the Government embarked on a series of national agreements with employers and trade unions to set increases in pay in return for adjustments to income tax and other social provisions, including – more recently – a national minimum wage.

This social partnership, set in a European and global context has served Ireland well and remains a key plank of our strategy for the future. It has been a vital element in underpinning our rising economic prosperity.

As a result of the gains made by the Irish economy during the 1990s, by the beginning of this century we discovered that the demand for labour in Ireland was outstripping domestic supply. We changed our tax code to encourage more married women to return to the workforce and began to attract workers from outside of Ireland in significant numbers for the first time in our history.

On 1 May 2004, we opened our labour markets to all ten Member States who joined the EU, including Latvia. We were one of only three countries to do so. It was a source of pride to Ireland that we held the EU Presidency when this momentous enlargement took place and the European family, divided for decades by the Cold War, came together again under the banner of the European Union.

Ireland’s policy on free movement was shaped by the needs of our labour market, but was also reinforced by our nation’s memory of emigration. In addition, we were keen to demonstrate solidarity with peoples who were new to the EU and had experienced many decades of hardship imposed by geopolitical factors.

In the last ten years, as the Irish economy took off, we have seen net migration into Ireland of more than half a million people. Our population now exceeds 4 million for the first time in well over 100 years. It has increased by one third in 30 years!

Ireland now plays host to significant numbers of people from the new Member States, notably Latvia, Poland and Lithuania. Other immigrants come to Ireland from other parts of the world. Yet the largest single category of arrivals during this period has been those Irish returning home sometimes after living overseas for many years.

These returning Irish now number more 200,000 according to our official estimates and comprise over 40% of the total arrivals. Our returnees have brought with them skills, experience and economic and human capital which they have been able to put to good use in their native land now that our economy is growing rapidly.

Latvian workers in Ireland enjoy full employment rights on a par with Irish workers, and the national minimum wage applies to workers from overseas just as it applies to Irish workers. The Irish Government is determined to ensure that all workers in Ireland, regardless of their national origins, will continue to enjoy the same high employment standards that have become the norm in Ireland.

Talks on a new National Partnership agreement are expected to get underway in Ireland shortly, and the protection of employment rights will figure prominently in discussions between the Government, employer representatives, unions, farming organisations and civil society.

One point that has to be stressed is the need for emigrants to be properly prepared for living and working outside their own country. While the vast majority who left Ireland in past times made good lives for themselves in their adopted homelands, there were others who suffered great difficulties and found themselves adrift and marginalised. Those who left Ireland in the 1980s tended to make a strong mark wherever they settled. This was because, compared with earlier generations of emigrants, they were in the main highly educated and thus well-equipped to contribute to their host societies.

In our experience, adequate preparation was very important in determining whether a move to another country was a success or not. Mr. Brian McCormick of Fás, Ireland’s Training and Employment Authority, will discuss this in greater depth later this morning.

The lessons from Ireland’s experience are simple. People generally leave their homeland only when obliged to do so as a result of economic necessity. As soon as economic circumstances at home permit, large numbers of those who have left will return. When they do so, they bring back with them significant experience and acquired skills which will benefit the whole community. I would predict that Latvia will gain a similar dividend from their returning emigrants in the years ahead.

In closing, I would like to thank Minister Pabriks for inviting me to address you today. I hope that the kind of discussion you are conducting here today will help prepare Latvia for dealing with the challenges of EU membership. I trust that you will find the Irish experience of more than 30 years of EU membership to be both inspiring and instructive.

While no two sets of national circumstances are fully alike, and each country must plot its own path towards economic and social advancement, Ireland’s record has, I think, encouraging omens for others. Ours is the story of a small country with a troubled history which has availed of the opportunities provided by EU membership to transform our economy.

In the process, a country known for its emigrants, has in recent times become a magnet for people from many countries. Happily, as I said earlier, many of those young Irish people who emigrated during the 1980s have since returned to Ireland, attracted by the job prospects available at home.

We are pleased to host the many Latvians who can find jobs in our expanding economy for as long as they want to stay with us. The Latvians who now live in Ireland will create a very real Irish-Latvian connection which, I am sure, will serve us both well for the future.

Ireland has, I believe, responded well to the novel experience of playing host to significant numbers of people from other countries. It takes time for societies like ours to get used to new circumstances. It is the responsibility of Government to manage this situation so as to ensure that there is sustained benefit for everyone involved. There will inevitably be some problems for us in accommodating so many incoming workers from our European neighbours but, because of the buoyancy of our labour market, this process has been remarkably smooth since May 2004.

We fully expect that most of those who have come to Ireland in recent years will, in time, want to return to their homelands. This freedom of movement of people is exactly how it should be within the European Union. It will help to bind together the Union and its peoples.

Thank you for your attention.

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