Ireland’s recent economic history is characterized by what is now the cliché of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Fuelled by EU membership and effective investment promotion policies, the Irish economy has been transformed over a period of two decades from a European backwater into the fastest-growing economy in the EU.
Hitherto Ireland had not been industrialized to the same degree as the rest of Europe, and only recently has agriculture been overtaken as the largest single contributor to the national product. It remains a key sector, and the Government is seeking to consolidate its role within the economy by modernization and expansion of food-processing industries. Beef and dairy dominate the sector, but there is also large-scale production of potatoes, barley and wheat. Ireland’s recent industrial development has been achieved by a deliberate policy of promoting export-led and advanced technology businesses, partly by offering attractive packages for foreign investors. Textiles, chemicals and electronics have performed particularly strongly. Most of Ireland’s economic development in the 1990s, however, was in the service sector. Banking and finance have grown to the extent that Dublin now supports a sizeable international financial center, while tourism has become a substantial foreign exchange earner.
The statistics of Ireland’s remarkable development are average GDP growth between 7 and 10 per cent since the mid-1990s, while inflation and unemployment were kept consistently below 5 per cent. However, there has been a slowdown of late with GDP growth in 2004 being 1.4 per cent. The Irish are famously enthusiastic about Europe and there is little of the skepticism so prevalent in Britain. Ireland joined EMU with the majority of EU members in the first wave at the beginning of 1999, despite some concern about the consequences of Britain’s non-membership. Trade with the UK, which provides 30 per cent of total imports and takes 20 per cent of Ireland’s exports, remains important but the proportion is declining gradually as other EU countries assume greater significance.