Enda Kenny had never made a state visit to Canada in his six years as Ireland's Prime Minister. But the shifting global trade winds finally blew the Irish Republic's leader to our shores.
Mr. Kenny made the trip last week to talk with his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, as well as business leaders, about the bilateral potential offered by the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the landmark trade deal signed last fall between Canada and the European Union, the huge 28-country economic union of which Ireland is a member. It marked the first time in 12 years that an Irish prime minister had made a state visit to Canada; but with the advent of CETA as well as Britain's intention to leave the EU (the so-called Brexit), Mr. Kenny crossed the pond to make the case for the two countries, with historical roots and a shared language, to deepen their relationship.
On Friday, he sat down in Toronto with a small group of Globe and Mail senior editors and reporters to chat about trade, Brexit, Ireland's economic challenges and housing bubbles – a hot issue in Canada and one that Ireland is all too familiar with, following the collapse of its own housing market nearly a decade ago. Here are the highlights of that conversation.
On Ireland's housing boom, bust and lingering echoes
"I think we've learned lessons in the last number of years. Obviously, we can never go back to what happened before, with a reliance on taxes coming from the construction sector to run the country."
"Before the recession, Ireland was building 90,000 houses a year. We had an influx of about 130,000-140,000 labourers from different European countries, who were quite entitled to travel within the European Union; that's allowed. When people weren't able to get mortgages, not able to repay when the tightness came, the construction sector collapsed. We went from 90,000 houses a year to 9,000 houses a year. And 100,000 people left."
"It means now that Ireland faces a real challenge here in trying to catch up. We have real opportunity for investment, but [investors] are looking for quality housing, they're looking for infrastructure in terms of water and energy and communications and road systems. … Looking at Ireland in 2030-2040, there's a million extra people, you've got to build a half a million extra houses, you need schools and hospital extensions and other facilities. It means that you have to retrain people in new methods of building, [and] you have to encourage people to come back. … We've put an unprecedented level of interest into dealing with house supply, because supply is key to demand here. And we are behind in terms of supply, because of that total collapse."
"We strongly support the CETA arrangement; 99-per-cent abolition of tariffs is a brilliant opportunity both ways, both for Canada to invest into Europe, and to invest through Ireland into Europe. Fifty per cent of Canada's foreign direct investment goes to Britain; you'll be the only [other] English-speaking country [in CETA] when Britain has left [the EU]. We see that opportunity there, and we intend to follow it through. I discussed it with Prime Minister Trudeau [on Thursday].
"There's massive potential here. Canada is very much like ourselves."
On Ireland's challenges as an export-dependent economy
"As an island, we have to export what we produce. Therefore, it's got to measure up in terms of credibility, quality and integrity of product. We have serious challenges arising from Brexit, particularly in the agrifood and drink sector … When we consider that, we've diversified over the past number of years, from being almost totally dependent upon the British market, to expanding into the [EU] single market and what that allows us to do. [We have] a hundred trade missions planned for this year."
On the opportunities to cash in on Brexit
"It's very disappointing that this has happened, but now we've got to deal with it.
"Financial houses are not going to hang around [London]. They're going to make decisions to move sections or sectors of their business, and they're not going to wait for politicians talking interminably about who does what, or where this should go, or whatever it is. I see announcements from financial houses, they're going to move sectors, and they're going to choose locations. We're going to compete for those locations, against Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Paris or even New York. But financial houses say to me, 'What do we want? We want access to the single market, we want access to European money, we want access to an English-speaking country, and we want access to talent.' We have all that. So we are going to get business out of Brexit."
On Irish roots in the Trump administration
"This is a different administration, clearly. But it's in situ and we've got to work with it, and will work with it. For instance, Vice-President [Mike] Pence, Speaker [Paul] Ryan, Mick Mulvaney, John Kelly, members of [Trump's] economic council, have a deep understanding of Ireland. We intend to use those connections from the European point of view, as well as saying, 'Here are the reasons you should do effective trading connections with a place like Europe.' … We see ourselves being able to help Canada here, to assist Canada in our connections with the U.S. administration, and also to help European business."
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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