Irish trade minister: ‘UK referendum is a worry for Ireland’

Sean Sherlock, Ireland’s Minister of State for Trade Promotion and North South cooperation, discussed the risk of Brexit with La Tribune at the Paris Air Show. EURACTIV France reports.

You are in Paris to visit the Irish stand at Paris Air Show, at Le Bourget. Is aerospace an important sector for Ireland?

Extremely important. Our country is looking to develop into new sectors. I believe that the sectors of aviation, aeronautics and space present real opportunities, particularly for sub-contractors. And the obvious place to support these initiatives is the Paris Air Show. This is an important meeting, as the government and our ambassadors hope to assist the efforts of our SMEs in building business relations.

When we think of the competitive advantages of Ireland, the first thing that comes to mind is its very low levels of corporate tax. Do you want to develop other advantages?

Ireland is an island. In order to survive, we need to do business, and innovation is an important factor in business. Our greatest competitive advantage is the Irish people themselves, and their great ability to adapt. Corporate tax is an important factor, but the ability to grasp new opportunities, to be globally competitive, is equally important. That’s why the Irish government is looking into new markets. As an island, we need to trade, and we cannot stop at a few sectors. We have to act across numerous sectors and we have to be flexible.

What are the strong points of the Irish export market today?

The food industry has been a strong performer over the last 12 months. We have also been particularly strong in the financial, I.T and medical devices sectors. But we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. That is why I am here at Le Bourget.

Ireland will publish growth figures of 4% this year thanks to its exports, but there is still a great deal of dissatisfaction. Isn’t it time to “rebalance” the Irish economy in favour of households?

Exports have to be the main driver of Irish economic growth. It is not possible to achieve such growth on the back of domestic demand. Certain domestic sectors are important. Tourism, for example, is a key sector. But we can only support economic growth by taking new opportunities. That’s why we are making efforts to promote trade around the world: here in Paris, or in Estonia, in China, Japan, the United Kingdom… We are working everywhere with all our agencies to support Irish businesses.

Do you think that Ireland could serve as a model for other European countries?

I can only speak for Ireland and I would never prescribe what other countries should do. But from experience I know that when you are in a coalition government in times of crisis, you have to take extremely difficult decisions on budget consolidation and public spending cuts. But we always acted in the knowledge that we had to re-establish Ireland’s independence as a sovereign nation and come out of the crisis with a stronger economy. And we have always tried to maintain a “social threshold”, by maintaining social protection and restoring the minimum wage. Every country has ways of gaining flexibility in its programmes of adjustment, so it can at least continue to protect the most vulnerable.

You are a member of the Labour Party, which is currently performing very poorly in the polls. Do you regret your participation in this government?

The country’s best interests have to come first. Re-establishing the country’s economy and now maintaining social stability is in the country’s best interests. As a politician, you cannot place the interests of your party above those of your country. Otherwise you are in politics for the wrong reasons. Our citizens have made sacrifices, but we had to ensure the sustainability of our economy and our society. I am not happy with the polls, but I want to leave the country in a healthier state than it was in in 2011. It’s our responsibility and that is why I am in Paris. To support Irish companies, and by extension, Irish workers and Irish jobs.

One of the major challenges for Ireland next year will be the British referendum on EU membership. Are you afraid of Brexit?

Anglo-Irish relations have never been so strong. We are at an all-time high point in this regard. I strongly believe that the United Kingdom’s relations with the European Union are vital, in geo-political terms, but also for all European citizens. We will continue to work with our British partners to develop our bilateral relations, but it would be best if we could continue to work together as Europeans.

You are also in charge of relations with Northern Ireland. Do you think that Brexit would harm the peace process in this region?

The border between North and South no longer exists in economic terms. Our relations with the United Kingdom are cemented by strong economic ties. But this referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU could affect a whole series of issues, and that is a worry.

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