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Irish ambassador speaks on national development

WANG XIAOZHEN | 2018-11-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Eoin O’Leary, ambassador of Ireland to the People’s Republic of China, grew up in Cork, Ireland’s second largest city. He held the position of director general of the European and International Affairs Division in the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister’s Office) from 2000 to 2007. Previously, he was ambassador of Ireland to the Russian Federation. Concurrently, he was ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. He was most recently the director general of the European Neighbourhood and Policy Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and he was appointed ambassador of Ireland to the People’s Republic of China in September 2017.  Photo: Wang Xiaozhen/CSST


Ireland, an emerald island located on the east coast of the Atlantic, a country of hospitable people, passionate parties, great drinks, brilliant literature and art . . . Mentioning it, one might call to mind a line from “When You Are Old” or Waiting for Godot, hum a song from Westlife or U2, think of a scene from Game of Thrones or Riverdance . . . There’s always more to learn about Ireland. Recently, a CSST reporter interviewed the ambassador of Ireland to the People’s Republic of China Eoin O’Leary. He led us to explore deeply into this land of treasures in terms of economic development and its relations with China.


CSST: Although the world economy is still not well recovered, we can see that Ireland experienced very strong economic growth in recent years. What has empowered that growth?


O’Leary: In the 1990s and 2000s, Ireland went through a Celtic Tiger period when its economy grew extremely rapidly from 1994 to 2007. At the end of that growth, there was a property price bubble which burst as a result of the global downturn. The government had to rescue the banks with the assistance of Europe at a time when the economy suffered a severe contraction.
From 2008 onwards Ireland took extremely difficult measures very quickly. For instance, it cut spending very aggressively and nationalized the banks. But Ireland didn’t depart from the core elements of the economic policy it’s had since the 1950s, an openness to trade, investment in social and physical infrastructure, particularly education, and a commitment to the EU and the Eurozone single currency area. These three elements, combined with very strong government actions, saw us bounce back very quickly.

Those three elements of Irish economic policy have not changed. We have an enterprise-friendly government system and a transparent and reasonable corporation tax. We have invested massively in education and are open to immigration. Fifteen percent of our population was born outside the country. In particular we opened up to the New Europe in 2004,  in which we gave free movement of workers to the new ten  European Union countries. This has allowed us to upskill and to develop our workforce. Ireland is also very attractive to foreign direct investment. These are the core elements which have helped us recover so quickly.


CSST: Ireland joined the European Union together with Britain in the 1970s. What is Ireland’s attitude towards EU or the European integration progress?


O’Leary: Ireland is very supportive of European integration. There was an opinion poll in Ireland some months back asking people even if there’s a hard Brexit, which will damage the Irish economy afterwards, would you support Ireland leaving the EU. More than 90 percent said, “No.”

Unlike the British experience, Irish people see the EU as a positive force. For Ireland, the EU has been a liberation. Before we joined the EU, or before we opened up to the world, we were very dependent on Britain economically. In the early 1960s, 90 percent of our exports went to the U.K. This year the number is about 15 percent. The EU has allowed us to diversify our economy and given us access to the enormous single European market. It also gave us a seat at the table when the laws and decisions are being made. So if you are a small country like Ireland, it is a much better place to be in making the decisions and regulations than to be outside and just have to take these regulations when they are adopted. We get tremendous influence from being a member of the EU.

We are also a member of the eurozone and have become an integrated part of the European economy. Over the years, there were a small number of Eurosceptics who wanted an “Irexit,” but they have no political support.


CSST: The next year will mark the 40th anniversary of China-Ireland relations. During these decades, the bilateral relations have undergone continuous development in various respects. Would you please introduce any highlights of the cooperation between the two countries?


O’Leary: Ireland has always been supportive and helpful where we could support China. After we were admitted to the UN in 1955, our Foreign Minister Frank Aiken was one of the first Western foreign ministers to raise the issue of seating the People’s Republic of China in the UN.

In the 1950s, we set up a free trade zone in Shannon. When China began to open up in 1978, one of the models that were considered for Shenzhen was the free trade zone in Shannon. On the Chinese side, the Shannon model was particularly useful.

Those are the two connections I suppose that predate our diplomatic relations. We set up an embassy here in Beijing and established diplomatic relations with China in 1979. Over the 40 years, it has been an ever deepening relationship. We’ve had visits by Irish presidents and prime ministers to China and visits by Chinese presidents and prime ministers to Ireland. It has been a wonderfully rich and deepening environment of cooperation.

In early 2004, we realized the Beijing embassy itself wouldn’t be able to serve the whole of China, so we established a consulate in Shanghai, which immediately established a very strong relationship there and in neighboring provinces. Cork decided to twin with Shanghai and there is quite a lot of exchanges between Cork and Shanghai at the municipal level.

The two-way trade between China and Ireland now is extremely strong: It is likely to be 16 billion euros this year combining trade in goods and services. We are one of the few countries to have a surplus with China. In terms of agricultural trade recently, the announcement earlier this year of access to the Chinese market for Irish beef is very welcome indeed.

The biggest concentration of the people to people connection has been in the area of education. We have two Confucius Institutes in Ireland, one in UCD and the other in UCC. There are about 4,000 Chinese students studying in Ireland at present both in language training and in our third level institutes. Also, we have over 50 partnerships between Chinese and Irish universities.

Of course we want to further build up our tourism connection. This year we will have two direct flights. We hope to see a lot of Chinese tourists coming to Ireland. A British-Irish Visa Scheme (BIVS) has also been established, which involves the mutual recognition by Ireland and the United Kingdom of each other’s short-term single and multiple-entry visas. I would encourage Irish people to come to China and benefit from the six day visa exemption in Beijing and Shanghai to experience the wonders of Chinese culture.


CSST: Late last year, the Irish government’s Strategy for Foreign Languages in Education 2017–2026 was launched. The introduction of the Chinese language as an option for the Leaving Certificate is a major part of the Strategy.


O’Leary: From 2020, Chinese will be a Leaving Cert subject. There had already been some work on the transition year Chinese. In the Irish secondary education system, there is first the junior cycle consisting of three years and then a transition year before getting into the senior cycle. Students don’t study in the transition year. Instead they do co-projects, courses, and gain work experience and then go back into intensive study for the “Gaokao.” Now it will be possible for Irish students to study Chinese as an examination subject. Each year we have more and more Irish students coming to China. More of them know Chinese. We also have Irish scholars in Chinese institutes like Yenching Academy.


CSST: What further potential can be released in our future cooperation? How does Ireland perceive China’s “Belt and Road” initiative (B&R)? How can this initiative promote our bilateral relations?


O’Leary: We are a very strong supporter of the B&R. We think it’s a very good idea. We would see ourselves as to some extent the Western end of the European leg of the B&R. We see the B&R as part of a matrix of cooperation between Ireland and China and China and the EU. As such it fits in with our ongoing efforts to build strong bilateral relations with China. Our future cooperation probably lies more in the soft skills and infrastructure areas of the initiative. There is far more we can do, for example, in terms of air links and education links. We have a very good offering for Chinese students. If you complete an undergraduate course you can get a one-year work visa. If you complete a masters, you get a two-year work visa.

On the agriculture side, there’s still a lot of scope to bring in more plants, more beef, more dairy. And we could be very strong cooperators in areas like peacekeeping. China is now becoming a major peacekeeping nation in the UN, and Ireland has a very long peacekeeping tradition. We have had a peacekeeper on the ground somewhere in the world every day since 1958, for example in the Congo, Cyprus, Lebanon, Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali and Sudan. We expect to build up the relationship with China on that level.


CSST: Over your tenure, what are the goals you want to achieve, or can you tell us about your expectations for your tenure, in regard to promoting bilateral understanding?


O’Leary: My predecessor Ambassador Paul Kavanagh did a lot of work to push forward the relationship. I hope to leave China with our friendship deeper, our economic interaction more than doubled, and our people to people links very strong. That’s the key goal. The goals for this year include getting beef access—we’ve done that—and direct flights—we’ve done that. And I will think up some new goals for next year.


(edited by MA YUHONG)