Workers from new EU members benefiting Ireland greatly, says Irish minister

Mary Coughlan

The special guest for St Patrick's Day celebrations which took place in Prague on Friday and over the weekend was Ireland's minister of agriculture and food, Mary Coughlan. She was labour minister when the European Union took in 10 new members in 2004; at that time Ireland was one of only three "old EU" countries to welcome workers from new EU states. I asked Mary Coughlan how Ireland viewed the experience of the last two years.

"Well I think it's been very beneficial. We made a decision as a government that we would not have any employment restrictions once accession took place on May 1, and I think we have benefited greatly from so many people travelling to Ireland and having opportunities. Some stay for a short period and go back to where they come from, others are moving into international corporations and industries.

"And I think overall anyone from the Czech Republic who has very much enjoyed the opportunity and we very much appreciate the valuable work that they do in the economy."

Do you understand the reluctance of some countries in the old EU so to speak, the EU 15, to open their labour markets?

"I think at the time there was decision made that over a certain period of time you would have an easement with employment law. One of the reasons it was easier for us is that we are a very stable economy, we have a growing economy of 5 percent again this year - we needed additional labour to come to our country.

"Many of our European colleagues who have employment difficulties, and I think that was the reason they were not in a position to open up as quickly as possible.

St Patrick's Day, photo: CTK
"That being said, no matter where you go - and we very much appreciate this, we always wanted to come home even though we all travelled abroad. For many I'm sure in the Czech Republic it's also going to be an opportunity to see, to learn, and hopefully they will have the opportunity to come back here and be very much part of this economy."

Finally, you're now the minister of agriculture and food. I would say Ireland is more renowned for its drink than its food - what particular foods are you promoting here?

"Today we're going to promote our Irish beef, we see it as an opportune time to come into the Czech Republic, and we're visiting a number of supermarkets. And we would hope to develop on that in other food types, in our lamb.

"You're quite right in saying the drinks industry is very important to us, and I do know it has been successful here. We'd like to balance the food and the drink. We have invested a lot of money this year in the promotion of beef particularly in the European Community, and we're going to afford the opportunity to the Czech people to get a taste of Ireland."