Ireland’s trade minister Neale Richmond TD made a whistle-stop visit to Portugal last week coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day to foster closer partnerships between Portuguese and Irish companies involved in two areas of expertise in which both countries excel – renewable energy.
The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment (with special responsibility for Employment Affairs and Retail Business and the Department of Social Protection), Neale Richmond TD, also attended the 4th IPBN (Ireland-Portugal Business Network) Sustainability Conference, which was opened by Ireland’s Ambassador to Portugal, Ralph Victory.
The visit was part of Enterprise Ireland’s drive to highlight innovation, the scale of Irish businesses and their cooperation with Portuguese companies and bilateral trade relations and was one of 48 trade events across 17 countries to engage international partners.
Demand for Irish innovation is at an all-time high. In 2021, exports by companies supported by Enterprise Ireland increased by 12% to a record €27.29 billion. This is the highest ever level of growth for Enterprise Ireland-backed companies in export value, and strong increases were experienced across almost all sectors in 2022.
International collaboration is critically important for the increased cross-border access to innovation and productivity that arise through trade and investment. Ireland’s innovators are making a positive contribution to industries all over the world, and showcasing these achievements at trade events enables other regions to understand the opportunities of doing business with Ireland.
It was with that idea in mind that Neale Richmond was in Portugal on St. Patricks Day and the two preceding days where he met counterparts in the Portuguese Government, and met both Portuguese and Irish company representatives at the Sustainability Conference which took place at the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce premises in Lisbon on Friday, March 17.
“One of the key pillars of my visit here is to introduce and engage with Irish businesses that are operating in Portugal in the renewables space, but also to work with Portuguese stakeholders to see what we can bring back to Ireland as we really ramp up our offshore wind platforms on our Atlantic seaboard,” said Richmond.
“There are a huge number of similarities between the Portuguese and Irish economies and societies. the Irish economy has a substantial focus on Tech and Digital. We are a key hub for both of these areas, and we are very proud of that,” added the minister.
“It is not a recent thing; we’ve invested a lot of resources in skilling up the population in that direction”, pointing out that Ireland had never been a great industrial nation like other European countries.
“We have been engaging with Portuguese companies over the past two days (March 13/14), also with civic and government leaders, to make sure we can help Portugal on that path to digital transformation. This is not altruistic; there is money to be made for everyone.”
Cooperation in tech, renewables and farming sectors
The minister said there also needed to be an EU focus. “In our own government department, we have two guiding principles regarding digitisation as well as sustainability; and the two are very much interlocked.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for Irish companies working in the tech space, but also working to provide a digital element to technologies in other industries, and these could contribute a lot towards the Portuguese economy. There is a very clear cooperation to be had in renewables such as solar and wind, but equally in agri-food production (farm production and life sciences) where we have key expertise and share similarities”.
In turn, Neale Richmond recognises Portugal’s lead in other areas. “We want to harness that enthusiasm and momentum too for our domestic economy. We share a lot of ‘mutual winds’ and that is the central part of my trade mission.”
Neale Richmond stressed that Ireland had a very strong bi-lateral relationship with the Portuguese government going back 90 years: “Our trading relationship has increased over the past couple of years, which has become a far more important market for Ireland and vice-versa.”
Brexit had a huge part to play too in that, but beyond Brexit “we see Portugal as a very like-minded country; both Atlantic facing”.
Upskilling the workforce
The minister had a meeting with his Portuguese counterpart, and the key shared objective was the focus on skills which “will drive everything”. The way that the European economy and EU can continue to lead the way is if its Member States invest in skills.
“This means looking at how we can get people into the workplace, to encourage school and college leavers to take certain courses, but crucially how we can get people who are already in the workplace to continuously adapt skillsets and upskill through lifelong learning.”
Neal Richmond said that if the EU was going to compete with the US and China, it needed to be on a skills level. “It’s not going to be on capacity or low cost. The highest skilled workforce in the world will be in the European single market, of that I have no doubt, but that requires direct state intervention, as well as cooperation with the private sector.”
EU funding and resilience
As to cooperation on large-scale projects that could involve funds from the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) — the main pillar of the European recovery plan – and Next Generation EU funds, which are designed to provide financial aid to Member States in order to combat the economic and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and make the European economy more resistant to future shocks – Neale Richmond said that Ireland had received two very large tranches of EU funding: the first, the Brexit Adjustment Reserve; and second, the RRF package.
“In Ireland, it was designed for post-Covid recovery, but then we emerged from the crisis and straight into the energy, war on the continent and cost-of-living crises. The meetings that I’ve had with Portuguese counterparts and those at an EU level are to make sure that we have agility in that package,” he stressed.
“We are using it for some really good projects in terms of digitisation and infrastructure; the real sort of capital spend to allow the Irish economy to recover. We have to be agile to ensure that those spends are carbon neutral and feed into the Green Agenda. This is not only because we need to tackle the climate emergency, but also because we need to bring down the cost of energy as these are spilling, and we have become acutely exposed in the EU to global energy shocks.”
“If we look at Portugal and Ireland, our greatest synergies would be to use that RRF fund to invest in infrastructure and renewable energy sources and, for both countries, wind is something we’re not short on. That is where we see the most cooperation on a government-to-government level on coordinating policy, and on a business-to-business level.”
The EU ‘bazooka’, he said, had to be focused on the renewables area. There were a lot of jobs involved, economic opportunities to be had, and a huge commitment to the climate agenda, as well as long-term planning so that both Ireland and Portugal can protect energy resources. “We hope to direct our funds to that.”
Neale Richmond rounded off his interview with Essential Business by saying: “St Patrick’s Day provided a unique opportunity for Irish businesses to enhance and build on trading relationships with key markets, and boost collaboration overseas.
“Enterprise Ireland client companies are leading the way in various industries such as tech, consumer goods and the creative sector and this week allows us as a nation to showcase Ireland’s innovators and the positive contribution they are making across the world.
“As we marked these significant, mutually beneficial achievements of Irish companies last week, we also look toward to the future, as we continue to deepen relationships and expand bilateral trade growth.”
By CHRIS GRAEME