I join Deputies Noonan and Howlin in extending my sympathy and that of the Government to the wife, Maura, and family of the late Eamonn Kelly. Mr. Kelly was an outstanding Irishman who entertained us all. I was not aware of the comments by John B. Keane quoted by Deputy Noonan but they are apt.
The global economic slowdown had been under way prior to the events of 11 September, although clearly these compounded its effects, and Ireland had already lost approximately 4,000 jobs in the high-tech sector this year. To put that in context, globally 500,000 jobs were lost in the sector and 200,000 of these losses came in the United States. During the summer period in particular a number of announcements were made with regard to job losses.
The industrial development division of my Department has an early warning system in place. It is constantly in contact with the relevant State agencies – Shannon Development, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland – which are in direct contact with their clients. Relatively speaking, we have in place as good an early warning system as possible. I am conscious that, on foot of commercial, stock exchange and other considerations, companies make decisions rapidly. These are not always communicated to us and, for understandable reasons, they cannot be. I do not have responsibility for the food or tourism sectors. In the aftermath of 11 September, tourism in particular will take a heavy hit in the short term.
I wish to reassure the House by stating that unemployment remains low at 3.6%. The number of applications for job permits is still running at approximately 200 per week. We have had a very liberal regime in place in relation to work permit applications where 95% to 99% of these were granted. Obviously we must be vigilant in light of the possibility that unemployment might rise and we must adopt a somewhat more conservative approach to granting work permit applications. We must be sure companies cannot find workers from the indigenous population before employing foreign nationals, because our first priority is to employ our own people. There are 60,000 foreign nationals working in Ireland. More than half of these are from outside the EEA and require work permits or working visas, while the remainder are from within the EEA. It is clear that a safety valve exists in this regard.
It is clear that the high-tech sector is undergoing its most difficult period in 40 years. A number of different factors have arisen in recent months which have caused this, but it will remain a strong sector in Ireland where it employs more than 100,000 people. It is clear this is an industry for the future and not one that will collapse. Ireland will be a key player in this sector and that is why it is important that we remain competitive and deal with the issues which affect the competitiveness of our economy. The Government is vigilant in that matter.