This year Ireland is celebrating 30 years since joining the European Union. Since accession the Irish economy has become one of the most dynamic, not just in Europe, but in the world. What better time then to meet the Irish Ambassador to Poland, Her Excellency, Ms. Thelma M. Doran. In this exclusive interview, she explains that the EU has had many positive benefits for Irish society, and not just in the economic sector.
WOE. Just some personal information about you, Madam Ambassador, to begin with if you don't mind. How long have you been in Poland? What other countries have you served in?
Irish Ambassador, Ms Thelma M. Doran. I have been in Poland since September 2001. Prior to that, I spent almost six years as Ambassador to Austria and as Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna. At the same time I was non-resident Ambassador to two EU candidate countries, the Slovak Republic and the Republic of Slovenia. This was a particularly challenging time for me professionally, as it covered the periods of both the Irish EU Presidency in 1996 and the Austrian EU Presidency in 1998. Before moving to Austria, I was Ambassador to the People's Republic of China in Beijing, as well as non-resident Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Republic of the Philippines
This year, Ireland is celebrating 30 years in the EU. During that time the nation has experienced the most profound changes of any country after entry. GDP growth has been spectacular and the economy has seen some massive changes. What do you think the most significant changes have been?
A few figures may help to illustrate how dramatic has been the change in our circumstances since Ireland's accession to the EU on 1 January 1973. In 1972, Ireland stood at 60 % of the EU average in terms of GDP per capita. The equivalent today is 122 %. Over 1.7 million people have jobs today, as opposed to 1 million just before entry. In 1972 the total value of foreign direct investment was €16 million. The figure for the year 2000 stood at some €22.5 billion.
Possibly the single most important factor in our economic development within the EU has been the tariff-free access membership provided to the market of what was then about 280 million people (now over 360 million). This enabled us to seek new customers for our agricultural products and those of our expanding industrial sector. It also played a key role in helping us to attract increased foreign direct investment, especially in the high tech sector, pharmaceuticals and international services, and to encourage indigenous enterprise. An important consequence was that it broke our heavy dependence on the neighbouring British market. Indeed, prior to 1973, about 66% of our exports went to the UK. Given our geographical position, the British market is, naturally, still our largest one. But today it takes only about 22% of our exports, with 40% going to other EU countries. Exposure to the larger EU market also forced us to take steps to diversify our products, as well as to become more competitive. In 2001 Ireland ranked as the 11th most competitive economy in the world.
How has entry into the EU changed life for the average man and woman in the street in Ireland?
There is no doubt that the economic and social changes have been very significant. Irish men and women now have Euro notes and coins in their pockets, something they share with some 250 million fellow Europeans. Unemployment has been reduced from a level of almost 20% of the workforce to less than 5% today. The persistent need during more than 150 years for Irish people to emigrate to seek work has finally been removed within the past few years. Indeed, many former Irish emigrants have returned with their families to work in Ireland since the early 1990s, together with peoples from other countries, thus expanding the skills base and cultural diversity of the country. According to the results of the most recent census of population, Ireland is the only EU Member State to show a population increase in the last decade.
Social policy is another area in which Ireland has greatly benefited from EU membership, particularly with regard to addressing gender issues. The EU Commission has been a driving force in pursuing the equality agenda and in fighting discrimination in all fields. This has had a very positive impact in expanding opportunities for women in all sectors of society and employment.
If you had to give some advice to the Polish nation after they join the EU in 2004, what would it be? How to make the best of this historic opportunity?
I would be most reluctant to offer any advice on this issue. Like the other EU accession countries, the Polish people must decide themselves what is in their own best interests.
However, we have always been happy to share, with Poland, information about Ireland's experience of membership in those areas, which might be of assistance. For example, since the early 1990s, we have operated a training programme in Ireland with a strong EU focus for graduates of the Polish National School of Public Administration. Polish officials have also attended training courses and familiarisation programmes in Ireland, and Irish officials have been involved in PHARE projects and other pre-accession training programmes in Poland. We will continue to work with our Polish friends along these lines for as long as they consider it useful.
The agricultural community in Poland is the most fearful of the changes that might occur to their lifestyle after accession. What would you say to them to calm their nerves?
EU membership has had a very positive impact on the Irish agricultural sector. It provided financial transfers amounting to almost €32 billion in the period from 1973 to 2001. At the same time, it provided an opportunity for the sector to modernise and restructure and to become more competitive. When we acceded to the EU in 1973, agriculture was our single most important industry and employer. It represented about 50% of our net export. Today agriculture is no longer so important in the perspective of our economy as a whole, but it is still quite substantial in comparison with other EU Member States, creating over 5% of our GDP, 7% of our exports and over 9% of employment. In practical terms the changes that have occurred have resulted in a considerable improvement in the family incomes of farmers and have transformed their living standards. In addition, rural development funds and programmes have increased the options available to farmers and rural communities, encouraging diversification into other areas, such as agro-tourism and local agro-industry.
I feel that it is relevant to point out that Polish farmers and rural communities will have similar opportunities to avail of EU assistance to develop their potential more fully and to adapt to the changing international environment.
Ireland's education system is widely regarded as one of the best in the EU. What are you doing right in this area?
Education has always been considered as one of the fundamental contributory factors to Ireland's current economic success. Since the 1960s, the State has made a significant investment in education, including technical and technological education, and there has been a steady commitment by successive governments to maintain high standards in education and training. The value that we place on education is demonstrated by the fact that we invest 5.5% of GDP in education, compared with an OECD average of 4.9%. This has permitted access to third level education for increasing numbers of students, and has led to Ireland having the second highest proportion of 25-34 year-olds with higher education qualifications in Europe. As a result we have a highly educated and flexible labour force, which has been an important factor in attracting and retaining mobile foreign investment.
What finally made the Irish voter say "Yes" to Poland's, and the other nations', accession to the EU? And why were there some initial doubts in this area?
At the outset I would like to stress that both sides of the debate in the two Irish referenda on the Nice Treaty were adamant that they supported enlargement to include Poland and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. The Irish public has consistently indicated in opinion polls that it is pro-enlargement.
A number of different factors appeared to cause many people to vote "No" in the first referendum. These issues included a widespread confusion about the Nice Treaty and the future of the EU itself, as well as a perceived "democratic deficit" between the people of Europe and the EU institutions. There were also concerns about the implications of the Treaty for Irish neutrality.
In the period between the two referenda, a great effort was made by the Government and main parliamentary parties, to increase the level and quality of information and to clarify the issues. Action was also taken to address public concerns about the "democratic deficit", by strengthening parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation. There was also increased focus on the crucial importance of the Treaty for enlargement to proceed, as well as on the political and economic significance of EU membership for Ireland.
We in Ireland are very pleased that accession will take place on 1 May 2004 during the Irish EU Presidency. I look forward to still being here in Warsaw as Irish Ambassador at the time so that I may have the personal pleasure of welcoming our Polish friends into the European Union.