Hard to justify St Paddy's junkets
Ministers were sporting the shamrock as far away as Vietnam and New Zealand last week. What a waste, says Louise McBride
Published 21/03/2010 | 05:00
FROM Paris to Milan, New York to Toronto, and Sydney to Vietnam, our ministers enjoyed their fair share of globe-trotting on St Patrick's Day. While the United States and Britain -- among the countries visited -- are big trade partners of ours, the value of ministerial trips to other countries seems questionable.
Harney in NZ
Health Minister Mary Harney was so convinced that her two-week trip to New Zealand would generate jobs and trade for Ireland that she refused to cut her journey short despite the recent X-ray scandal in Tallaght Hospital.
Harney's itinerary included a St Patrick's Day festival banquet at the five-star Langham Hotel in Auckland and a visit to the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch -- where the minister and her companions may have taken the opportunity to feed New Zealand penguins or learn the valuable art of snow-making. The minister was accompanied by her husband, Brian Geoghegan, on the trip as well as her special adviser, private secretary and the deputy chief medical officer at her department.
Although Harney's trip -- the longest of the ministerial overseas trips for St Patrick's Day -- also took in meetings with companies based in Auckland that "already had links to Ireland" or had the "potential" to do so, the strength of these trade links seems a bit dubious.
Last year, most of the goods exported from Ireland to countries outside the European Union went to the United States, Switzerland and Japan, according to the Irish Exporters Association (IEA). Yet Harney -- and other government ministers -- were nowhere near Switzerland last Wednesday.
The level of Irish exports to New Zealand doesn't even warrant a separate listing for the country in the IEA's end of year review or in the Department of Finance's latest budgetary and economic statistics. And none of the 2,876 Irish jobs created by IDA-supported companies last year -- or of the 583 IDA-supported jobs created so far this year -- came from New Zealand companies.
Kelleher Down Under
The value of Irish goods exported to Australia is a drop in the ocean compared to other countries.
About €16.6bn of Irish exports went to the US in the first 11 months of last year -- 25 times the value of goods exported to Australia, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office. China and Switzerland are also miles ahead of Australia -- getting three times as much Irish exports as the sun-scorched continent. Furthermore, only 12 of the 2,876 Irish jobs created by IDA-supported companies last year came from Oz. That however didn't keep the Minister for Trade and Commerce, Billy Kelleher, from his 12-day trip to Australia, where he visited the hippie town of Freemantle in Western Australia, saw the Sydney Opera House bathed in green light on St Patrick's Day and is set to enjoy a walk to Sydney's Hyde Park today.
Ho Chi Minh Lenihan
You have to wonder what warrants the six-day trip of Conor Lenihan, the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, to Vietnam.
Although the signing of a double taxation agreement between Ireland and Vietnam in 2008 was expected to boost trade between these countries, the Asian country hardly pops up on the radar when it comes to Irish exports or jobs. Neither is it one of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries that the IDA is trying to attract investment from. Lenihan no doubt had important business ahead of him last week, however, including a photo opportunity with the Viet Celt Gaelic football team in Hanoi and the unveiling of a plaque in Ho Chi Minh City with Glandore Systems, an Irish software company with a development centre there.
India, Russia, China
Although Brazil is among the BRIC countries being targeted by the IDA, none of our ministers thought it fit to jet off to the home of the anaconda for Paddy's Day. However, India, Russia and China were not left out of the ministerial visits.
Let's hope the Communications Minister, Eamon Ryan, was able to work his charm when meeting business contacts on his five-day trip to India, which included a visit to the site of the Commonwealth Games, and lunch at a Tourism Ireland golf promotion event. Only €144m of Irish exports made their way to India in the first 11 months of last year -- which makes India one of our smallest export markets outside the EU. Furthermore, a lot of Irish jobs have been lost to India in recent years.
Dick Roche, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs visited Moscow in Russia -- a notoriously hard country to spark up trade with. "Russia remains a comparatively unknown market for many Irish companies, and while many Irish firms successfully trade with Russia, the level of Irish market engagement to date does not compare with the activities of our partner countries in the EU," said Paula O'Dwyer, senior executive of trade and international relations with the employer's group, IBEC. The highlights of Roche's trip included a meeting with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister -- hardly enough to meet the Russian challenge.