Higgins moves to reassure Chilean hosts on efforts to address euro crisis


PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins began a three-country tour of South America yesterday in Santiago, Chile, with a visit to the crypt of Bernardo O’Higgins, the son of a Sligo emigrant who led Chile’s struggle for independence from Spain.

After laying a wreath, with his wife Sabina, before a statue of the “Liberator”, the President then called at the Moneda Palace for a meeting with his Chilean counterpart Sebastián Piñera.

In statements to the media after their talks, President Higgins said his visit “reflects the bonds of family and friendship between Chile and Ireland” and “offers the valuable opportunity to explore how Ireland and Chile can develop further that relationship”.

Displaying the fruits of four weeks spent this summer on a language course in Spain, the President confidently delivered part of his remarks to the media in Spanish.

Mr Piñera said the visit presented “a great opportunity to strengthen the links between our two countries” which he described as both having “diversified economies open to the world”. He said Chile had much to learn from Ireland, especially in areas such as education and innovation.

President Higgins, who will also be visiting Brazil and Argentina, is accompanied by Joe Costello, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Projecting an Ireland keen to do business with Latin America’s leading markets, previously overlooked in favour of traditional trade partners, will be a key theme of the 10-day tour.

The President acknowledged the concern in South America about the situation in the euro zone, but reassured his host that the region’s ministers and institutions were working urgently to address the problem and had celebrated Ireland’s return to growth last year. “It is a modest level of growth, but for the first time since 2007, the graph is moving in the right direction,” he said.

The EU is Chile’s biggest trade partner and the country runs a trade surplus with Ireland, which is the seventh-biggest consumer of Chilean wine in the world.

Earlier yesterday Mr Costello hosted a breakfast meeting for Irish companies doing business in Chile, along with their local partners. He acknowledged the scale of the economic crisis back home but told his audience the Government “expected to exit the [troika] programme much quicker” than anticipated and said Ireland was now anxious to explore business opportunities with Chile.

Attending the meeting, José Ignacio Escobar, general manager of the Chilean operations of Irish renewable energy company Mainstream, said he believed Ireland was “just beginning to realise how important Chile can be as a business partner”.

Mainstream, the biggest Irish investor in Chile, has plans to spend €2 billion in the country installing 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy.

Ireland was “missing chances” to sell its expertise in software education into Chile, according to another attendee, José Antonio Giménez, dean of the odontology faculty at Santiago’s Los Andes University. His university recently concluded a deal with Irish firm Two-Ten Health to use its dental training software. Mr Giménez said he believed the President’s visit “will help greatly” in developing business links.