I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for the invitation to speak here today. Over the years, I have spoken in quite a few parliaments in other countries - indeed, I spoke in 15 German parliaments during our Presidency of the Council of the European Union - but it is a particular honour for me today to speak for the first time in our own. I have sat here beside Ministers quite a bit over the years, and in the back row at earlier stages of my career, but it is a particular privilege to speak personally at the Oireachtas. I regard it as a particular honour.
I have worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for 35 years. In that time I have served in seven different cities, including New Delhi, Vienna, Brussels in an EU capacity, Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin, and now London. One of the big changes I have witnessed during my career has been the increasingly public role our embassies and diplomats play and the increasing emphasis on economic and public diplomacy. Today, this has become a leading priority, which would not have been the case when I started on this road in the late 1970s. Personally, I see nothing more important than doing everything in my power in London - and Berlin, when I was there - to contribute to Ireland's economic recovery. Everything else will flow from economic recovery.
In my experience, each posting brings its own distinctive challenges and opportunities. I would like to say a few words, almost by way of contrast and comparison, about the first two ambassadorial postings I had the honour to occupy on Ireland's behalf before turning to my current assignment in London. Those appointments were in Kuala Lumpur and Berlin, respectively. I will spend most of my presentation discussing my experience in London. In Kuala Lumpur, our embassy shared an office with Enterprise Ireland, which meant that I had very close co-operation with its representatives. Wherever I have been over the years, I have had valued co-operation with the State agencies. Happily, we have all four State agencies in London. In Germany it was a bit more difficult because, while we worked very closely with the State agencies, they were located in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, reflecting the more devolved nature of the Federal Republic of Germany. In Malaysia, a significant part of my work involved educational promotion. Our universities were prized by Malaysian students, thousands of whom were studying here. Our universities benefited greatly from the revenue generated by hosting Malaysian students, especially in the medical faculties. I recall, as its tenth anniversary is coming up in six months' time, that I was also involved in our consular response to the Asian tsunami in 2004. When our citizens are in need, everything else has to be dropped and that becomes our sole priority. I remember the day in December 2004 when I heard about the tsunami. The following day I was on a plane to Phuket and did not come back for three weeks. It is an illustration of how today Irish people are very likely to be involved or in need of assistance when something happens anywhere in the world.
Germany was a very different proposition. When I went there in October 2009, the economic clouds were darkening over our country. Frankly, there was a need to defend Ireland's reputation, because Germany is a major market for Ireland. It is our fourth largest export market and the second largest source of inward investment into Ireland. It is also a major source of tourists. German tourists are very valuable to our tourism industry. Clearly, the threat to our reputation arising from the financial crisis was a serious one. It had the potential to spill out, undermining our export opportunities and discourage German companies from investing in Ireland. I decided at that time to produce my own newsletter. For two years at the height of the crisis I produced a newsletter entitled "Ireland's Road to Economic Recovery", which I sent out to an increasing number of German officials, journalists and politicians. A senior member of the board of the Bundesbank once told me he appreciated getting my newsletter every couple of weeks and said he read it every time. I felt it was well worth doing, because one cannot rely on the media. German media only covered the big stories from Ireland, generally the more negative ones. They were not being nasty; it was just the way it was. I was trying, through the newsletter, to highlight positive developments in the Irish situation that would not otherwise be known to my contacts in Germany. I also started using social media and now have my own official Twitter account. I do not tweet my personal views on anything, but simply use the account to tweet about what I am doing as ambassador in London.
I availed of opportunities that arose during our 2013 Presidency to undertake 64 separate speaking engagements in Germany. During that six-month period, I visited all but two of Germany's regional parliaments, as well as speaking at the Bundestag to one of its committees. I am glad to be able to do today's presentation in English, for which I thank the joint committee. At that time, half of what I said had to do with Ireland rather than the Presidency. Of course I gave the key messages about our Presidency, but the idea was that, while the Presidency got us in the door, I could use the opportunity to convey key points on Ireland's situation.
The embassy in London has a different character from any other mission in which I have served. That is because our relations with the UK are deeper, more diverse and more intensive than those with any other country in the world.
The best illustration of this is to be found in our economic ties. The key figure is 40%. Up to 40% of the exports of Irish-owned companies go to our neighbouring island; 40% of all visitors to Ireland come from Britain; 40% of our food and beverage exports, worth €4 billion last year, cross the Irish Sea. Moreover, Irish people are to be found in every walk of life in Britain. Up to 500,000 people living in Britain were born in Ireland, and many of those people have deep connections with the country. At a recent event in one of the Irish centres in London, I met a 93-year-old woman who went to Britain to work as a nurse in 1937, still hale and hearty and still as Irish as the day she left Ireland. This community in Britain is a microcosm of Ireland with every aspect of Irishness in it.
The embassy works very closely with Irish job promotion agencies in promoting Ireland's economic interests. We frequently host events at the embassy on behalf of the agencies. Several weeks ago, I hosted a dinner on behalf of Enterprise Ireland in support of Irish companies providing products and services to the aviation sector. This was attended by representatives of Irish companies and their UK-based clients. Our guest speaker that evening was the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe Costello. During the past year, it has been a pleasure to host the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the majority of Ministers. Such visits are vital promotional opportunities for Ireland because they give us access to other levels of the British system. Each year, we host a dinner for senior executives from IDA Ireland's target companies and a business breakfast around St. Patrick's Day. In the food sector, we host an annual Bord Bia reception for 400 guests from Irish food and drinks companies and their British contacts. Last autumn, in conjunction with Tourism Ireland, we organised a meeting of enablers of The Gathering. Last year, the number of visitors from Britain increased by 6%, largely due to the impact of The Gathering, which encouraged people to visit Ireland for the first time.
My experience is that these embassy events are very effective. The response from Irish companies is always positive. I get many thank-you messages from people who have derived genuine benefit from being at the embassy and being able to host some of their key clients there. My wife and I greet all of our guests at the top of the stairs. We are struck by how many people tell us they have never before been at an embassy and how pleased they are to have been invited. It is a great advantage in London that we have colleagues on secondment from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who work closely with me on economic promotion. All of us, including colleagues from State agencies, see ourselves as part of Team Ireland in Britain. We meet four times a year to plan and ensure we get the best out of our promotional efforts in Britain.
The embassy also has a passport office, consular service and visa operation, all of which provide important services which are beneficial to our country and people. We engage with the large and diverse Irish community in Britain, who are, I believe, a valuable resource for Ireland. More importantly, they are part of our wider family. It is amazing to meet third-generation Irish people who play Irish music at the highest possible level. Next week, I will be giving out fáinnes to people learning Irish in various parts of London.
Our community work has broadly two elements. The first is the engagement with our community through the many welfare organisations that serve the needs of vulnerable Irish people throughout Britain. More than 100 such organisations working with the Irish elderly, vulnerable groups and Travellers received funding from the emigrant support programme last year of £5.3 million. I pay frequent visits to them, such as lunch clubs which they organise. One often finds these meetings are the only social interaction for the people involved.
The second aspect of our community work is our contact with and support for the range of Irish business and professional networks in Britain. We estimate that there are around 20 such groups in London alone, including the Irish International Business Network, the London Irish Business Society, the Women's Irish Network and the London Irish Graduate Network. These networks are a valuable source of influence, as many of their members occupy influential positions in British society. For example, about 40 members of the Government's Global Irish Network are based in Britain.
A third aspect of our work is public and cultural diplomacy. Over the years, I have realised that our culture is an important calling card for Ireland. For a country of our size, there is exceptional international interest in Irish music, dance, literature and the arts. Throughout my career I have tried to capitalise on this fact. The best example of the appeal of our culture came during the President’s historic state visit to Britain, when we put on a wonderful concert, Ceiliúradh, which demonstrated our cultural appeal to people outside of the country. We support a range of Irish cultural bodies in Britain. I have delivered several public lectures recently, including on Ulysses at the York Festival of Ideas, on Sean O'Casey at St. Mary's University, Twickenham, and on commemorations at the University of Liverpool. My recent speeches are available on our embassy website and I now produce a regular blog to maintain contact.
Last night, we held a function at the embassy marking the centenary of the Home Rule Act. Journalist Fergal Keane moderated a discussion involving Lord Bew, Professor Michael Laffan, the former Taoiseach John Bruton, and the British historian Professor Richard Toye. The event was opened by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. This attracted a good attendance and was filmed by the BBC for broadcast this coming Saturday at 9 p.m. on BBC Parliament, for those not watching the World Cup.
Anybody who misses it will have other opportunities to catch it as the channel plans to repeat it several times throughout the summer months. The programme makers put a very good effort into filming it last night, with five or more different cameras employed to capture proceedings in a fully professional way.
My final point concerns the embassy's role in connecting our two countries. This involves maintaining contact with a wide range of people within the British system, including Ministers, politicians, senior officials, opinion makers, journalists, business groups, trade unions and so on. We take full advantage of London's status as a global city to maintain contact with international media based there and spread the word about the Irish recovery and the opportunities for connecting in a positive way with Ireland. I attend the annual political party conferences and maintain dialogue with key contacts on Northern Ireland, the European Union and Ireland's economic recovery. Our aim is to ensure our position is understood in Britain and that we understand where they are coming from on issues that concern both our countries.
There were two particular highlights in the past year. One was St. Patrick's Day, which is a superb promotional opportunity for Ireland. Wherever I have been in the world, I have always tried to use the occasion as best I can to promote our country. It is a great opportunity for us to attract attention that might not otherwise be available to us. This year I had the honour, accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, of leading the St. Patrick's Day parade through the streets of London on a sunny Sunday in March. I could not help recalling the words of Percy French, "while the whole population of London looked on". That is certainly what it looked like, with crowds seven or eight people deep on the footpaths as we walked through some of the city's main streets on our way to Trafalgar Square. A concert took place in the square, paid for by the City of London, under Mayor Johnson, in order to recognise the contribution of the Irish to London life over the generations. Some 25,000 people attended this wonderful display of Irish culture and it was a great opportunity to promote our country.
However, the highlight not just of this year, but of my career, which stretches back 35 years, was the visit of President Higgins to Britain in April. The President did a fantastic job and hugely impressed everyone who met him. His speeches were extremely powerful and very well received. Indeed, I am still receiving positive comments from people who were present for some of those speeches or saw the coverage of them on television. The positive effect of the President's state visit should not be underestimated. It has taken relations between the two countries to a new plateau. It will be my privilege in the coming years to help to build that relationship further, taking advantage of the wonderful impact of the presidential visit and the general improvement in British-Irish relations that has taken place in the 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement.