SOCIETY Magazine spoke with the Ambassador of Ireland, H.E. Eoin O’Leary, about the Irish-Austrian relationship, the age of digitalization and the effects and challenges of Brexit.
Austria and Ireland have long-standing ties. What are the key areas in which the two countries are currently cooperating and on which areas would you, as Ambassador, like to work on?
Both countries have very long-standing relations indeed. Saint Virgil, who settled in Salzburg in the seventh century, was Irish, as well as St. Coloman, who was the patron saint of Austria for several hundred years. Furthermore, during the Habsburg Monarchy, a whole range of Irish military officers and officials came to Austria after fleeing Ireland during what was known as „The Flight of the Wild Geese“. Nowadays, we share many common policies. We are both militarily neutral for instance and we are both members of the European Union. Austria and Ireland have both benefitted greatly from the process of European Integration. In addition, both countries have pursued policies that encourage enterprise and innovation.
Regarding cooperation, I would like to see Irish food and drink and Irish business making further advances in the Austrian market. We have world class beef and dairy products and I look forward to introducing these to the Austrian consumer. I would also love to see more Austrian tourists visiting Ireland. Before the COVID-19 crisis, Ireland was receiving around ten million tourists every year. Ireland has much to offer to the Austrian tourist as it provides many things Austrians appreciate: from beautiful scenery, green spaces, hiking-paths and fine-dining to very niche and solid offerings in the areas of golf and fishing. The Wild Atlantic Way, which is a beautiful road stretching along the west coast from Cork to Donegal is a must see for all visitors. In the cultural area, we already have regular visits by Irish musicians who perform, train or work here. As Austria, but particularly Vienna, is the classical music capital of the world, I hope to see even more Irish acts coming here.
Furthermore, we encourage Irish and Austrian students to take advantage of the Erasmus program. Therefore, I would also like to see this relationship deepen between our two countries. Austrian literature students have a great interest in studying in Ireland as we have a very long literary tradition, which we are actively encouraging. Interestingly, we have the most Nobel Prize winners for literature per capita in the world and many famous authors like Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce were Irish.
Ireland is known to be a high-tech-hotspot with many international companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook etc. having operations there. What are the benefits of hosting these multinationals in Ireland?
In the late 1960s, Ireland had around 300.000 farmers in a workforce of just over one million people. Since then, we have transformed our society. Our membership of the European Union, consistent investment in education and creating an open global economy has ensured that we are now a leading player in many key industries.
Perhaps the key to our success has been that we created a business-friendly environment, where we attracted companies through very clear regulatory rules, our world class education system and a strong political commitment across all governments to encourage investment. In addition, our tax regime is clear and transparent. Ireland is now home to 20 of the 25 top financial services companies in the world, 17 of the top 20 twenty global banks, eight of the top ten aircraft leasing companies, eleven of the top 15 insurance companies, all of the top ten “born on the internet” companies and also all of the top ten pharmaceutical firms. We realise, that we cannot afford to stand still and are now investing heavily in the digital economy and ensuring that all sectors of society and all regions of the country have full digital access.
Do you feel like the shift towards successful digitalization has been accelerated during the pandemic?
I now spend around 70% of my working life in front of a screen. I am also accredited as Ambassador to the UN and practically all UN-meetings are taking place online since the pandemic started. The question is whether we will be able to maintain some of the positive aspects in terms of hybrid working, environment etc. even beyond the pandemic. Generally, Europe really needs to continue to invest in innovation, flexibility and new technologies, be it health technologies, automated driving or artificial intelligence. But of course digitalization also brings challenges: There will be dislocations in the job market, even though I don’t think there will be less work all in all.
A real challenge in this regard definitely is cybercrime. The developments there are threatening our society and that is why at the UNODC, we are trying to agree on a new convention on cybercrime.
Before coming to Vienna last year, you have been posted as Ambassador of Ireland to China and Mongolia. What was your experience like there?
I think that China is an amazing country, especially regarding economic development. In the 1980s, it was a very underdeveloped country while it is now the world’s second largest economy. With this transformation, they have taken a billion people out of absolute poverty. On top of that, they have invested massively in their physical and social infrastructure. China now has world-class railway systems and airports and is moving towards a cashless society. In addition, there are nine million students coming out of university every year. Nevertheless, like every country, they obviously have their challenges and we would like to see China integrate more into the world in terms of economic integration but also in terms of joining other countries tackling human rights issues.
Which impact does Brexit have on Ireland and how would you describe the significance of the EU for your country?
Ireland has been a major beneficiary of the process of European Integration. Our EU membership has helped Ireland and its people transform our society. We were disappointed therefore, when the British people voted to leave the EU. We have worked with the other EU Member States to minimise the impact of Brexit and are hopeful that the agreements reached between the UK and the EU can ensure that Britain and Europe can enjoy a strong bilateral relationship. We are committed to ensuring that the Peace Process, the common travel area between the UK and Ireland and Ireland’s own status and achievements within the European Union are protected.