As Europe and US grapple with crises Ireland turns eastwards for support


FOOD, SOFTWARE and cleantech offer great opportunities for Ireland in the still simmering economies of Asia, delegates were told at the fifth annual gathering of the Irish diaspora in the region, which this year gathered in the South Korean capital, Seoul.

The focus on leveraging the diaspora has long focused on the United States and Europe, but the recent economic downturn in both those blocs means eyes are turning eastward for support.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Éamon Gilmore spoke of how the one word coming out of the Global Irish Economic Forum in Ireland was “Asia” and pledged Government support for Irish firms in the region.

“We have to continually refocus our business model . . . leverage the diaspora, the networks overseas,” he said in a keynote address to the gathering.

Mr Gilmore encouraged Asian firms to look at Ireland as their gateway to Europe. “We will have a greater ministerial presence in Asia and we will increase the number of visits. We intend to have a much greater political presence in Asia,” he said, adding that he came away from the forum “invigorated and inspired”.

The forum is held to coincide with the Asian GAA Games which, sponsored by Fexco, took place in the nearby city of Suwon, and attract hundreds of Irish people each year.

Among the overseas Irish gathered in Seoul was Michael Ruane from Co Galway, who seven months ago moved to Ulan Bator to work for the Australian miner Leighton as a civil engineer in a team that includes several young Irish workers.

“It’s a frontier city. I was in the US, and unemployed before that, and there are now three Irish guys from NUI Galway working in Ulan Bator,” said Ruane, who recommends the experience of working in the resource-rich country, which is expected to become one of the world’s richest countries when the exploration projects come on stream. His team, the Mongol Khans, are also looking for players.

Ambassadors from around the region, including Joe Hayes from Singapore, John Neary from Japan, Kenneth Thompson from India, Ambassador to China Declan Kelleher and Shanghai consul Austin Gormley, and Damien Cole from Vietnam, briefed the delegates about their individual countries.

It was striking to see the sheer geographical scale of the market involved, from giants like India, China and Indonesia to fast-growing smaller states such as Vietnam and Singapore.

The heads of mission focused on the opportunities offered and also said they were there to help Irish companies looking to expand in the region.

Enterprise Ireland’s Asia-Pacific executive director Alan Dixon said the food industry, education and international traded services offered great opportunities in Asia. Software and cleantech life sciences were also growing, as were aviation and aerospace.

“One third of Enterprise Ireland’s offices are in the Asia-Pacific region, and there is growth of 12 per cent versus an overall 10 per cent in markets worldwide,” he said. China dominates and continues to expand.

South Korea was held up as an example of how Asian countries were opening up to overseas investment, as evidenced by the free trade agreement between the EU and Korea.

Heili Kim, a lawyer at the Kim Chang firm, which specialises in food and agriculture business, described the free trade agreement as “an incredible achievement” which offered incredible opportunities for Irish companies.

“We have seen a rise in the number of European countries who are looking at their business structures in Korea. Foreign companies are critically evaluating the market potential in Korea,” said Ms Kim.

The new rules also offered opportunities for Ireland in terms of inward investment. “We are also seeing Korean companies aggressively approaching foreign investment. Korean companies have traditionally dominated export market, they are now looking at diversifying,” Ms Kim said.