When Ireland and Romania established diplomatic relations at Embassy level twenty five years ago, few could have guessed that a quarter of a century later we would be connected to each other by a myriad of political and economic ties, including as members of the European Union.
In 1990, there were almost no Romanian people living in Ireland. Today, there are somewhere between forty and fifty thousand and they make an enormously rich contribution to Irish society and to the growing friendship between our two countries. We in Ireland appreciate their contribution very warmly.
From the Revolution in Romania onwards, many Irish people travelled to Romania to work with children in residential institutions and Irish NGOs, in turn, set up organisations in Romania to support this work. Today, some of these organisations still work in towns and villages in Romania but, increasingly, they do so in close partnership with local authorities.
I have met many of them and people in villages and small towns often identify Ireland with the friends they have met in these care institutions: they see them as friends. It is a changed world since those early years of Romanian democracy but I am certain that the work done in, especially, those early years by Irish NGOs and volunteers did a lot to strengthen ties between our two countries. The Comber Foundation, for example, began working in Romania in 1991 and initially their volunteers travelled from Ireland to Romania and worked to alleviate the suffering of children in orphanages in Giurgiu and Teleorman.
Since 2007, volunteer teachers and students from the Donahies Community School in Dublin have hosted, in Giurgiu, a summer camp for the residents of Comber homes. There are many other examples of day to day friendship : each year, Irish builders come for a week to work with “Habitat” here in Romania.
Transylvania folk have long ago forgiven Irish writer Bram Stoker for immortalising Vlad Ţepeş into Count Dracula and, in so doing, launching a timeless Hollywood brand. Nowadays, there are countless day to day cultural links between Ireland and Romania, including at universities and schools. The standard of Irish literatures courses in Romanian universities is extraordinarily high and the academic research carried out by lecturers here has gained international renown.
Shawn Davey’s “Voices from the Merry Cemetery” opera has won wide acclaim. I went with my friend Peter Hurley to the famous cemetery in Maramureş a few months ago where all this began, including the many festivals Peter has organised.
So, from very little happening in day to day Irish – Romanian cultural ties twenty five years ago, nowadays, there is an enormous richness. This year, for example, we will have a travelling exhibition on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats visiting several Romanian cities to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth.
A few months ago I visited the house near Botoşani where Mihai Eminescu was born. His luminous poetry has many parallels to W.B. Yeats and I hope scholars will in time look to closer ties between Romanian and Irish institutions celebrating the lives of two of the world’s great poets.
Saint Patrick’s Day is an iconic day for Irish people, and friends of Ireland, around the world. The Irish Romanian Network, an organisation founded a few years ago in Bucharest, has done much to strengthen Ireland’s image in Romania and, under the leadership of John Long and many others, has worked tirelessly over the years to organise Irish events.
Inevitably, much of Ireland’s political friendship with Romania has been formed through our shared membership in the European Union. Ireland admires very much the progress Romania has made since its accession to the EU, a level of progress shown in countless, economic and political ties now linking Romania and the rest of Europe. Of course, there are still challenges but the achievements have been remarkable and Ireland is proud to have played a role in supporting Romania, especially in the early transition years to EU membership.
When Olivia Manning – she took pride in an Irish family background on her mother’s side – wrote “The Balkan Trilogy”, she could surely never have thought of Romania playing its full part in a Europe of twenty eight member states stretching across the ancient Continent. The world she described was a dark and murky one. But history is not a straight line and Ireland and Romania were both formed from complex historical forces that have led us to where we are today, close friends in the family of European countries belonging to the European Union. These links are shown in the growing number of political visits between our two countries: last year, for example, Speaker Zgonea visited the Irish Parliament, while Seán Barrett, Speaker of the Dáil Éireann (the Lower House in Parliament) will visit Bucharest this summer.
Romania and Ireland have experienced serious economic challenges in recent years but the two economies are now showing some of the highest rates of growth among EU member states: the Irish economy grew by 5% in 2014 and growth of 4% is expected in 2015, the highest growth rates in the EU in both years. In fact, according to a survey by Bloomberg (February 2015), Ireland is likely to be one of the 20 fastest-growing economies in the world this year.
Our two nations have enjoyed strong growth in trade levels over the recent years. This is certain to continue and so is the increasing level of Irish investment in the Romanian market, especially in construction, real estate, IT&C and wholesale and retail trade. The newly established Ireland Romania Business Association will play an important role in facilitating day to day trade and investment contact: it will help turn opportunities into reality.
But it will be up to Irish and Romanian investors themselves to take the lead and they will do so coming from a background of growing economic engagement between the two countries. Ireland has always welcomed foreign companies and has remarkable success in attracting inward investment: Ireland’s Development Agency estimates that foreign companies employ locally 270,000 people, pay out €17 billion a year in wages, generate exports worth €122 billion and contribute €2.8 billion in corporation tax. Romania’s potential and the economic opportunities in the country are increasingly attracting Irish companies, with publically listed heavy-weights like Kingspan and CRH strengthening their operations in the construction sector and a range of SMEs and entrepreneurs working side by side with Romanian partners to turn agriculture into a sustainable business for the next generations.
It would have been unimaginable only a few years ago to have so many connections of practical cooperation between our two countries, with growing levels of tourism and an increasing number of business visitors in each direction. Now, it is a reality and our friendship will, in the coming years, rest, above all, on these ties between our people.