Thank you Ceann Comhairle.
Throughout our history, Ireland has faced many challenges, we have endured famine, invasion, occupation and economic struggle; and this history of hardship is well recognised. However, the challenge before us today, is of a different nature to the challenges of the past. We are fighting an invisible enemy and relying of every man, woman and child on the island to contribute to this battle, by sacrificing many aspects of normal life. The challenge of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic will require the State to act in ways it has never acted before, we have risen to this situation, however, this struggle will continue for some time.
The economic fallout from the virus will likely long outlast the impacts of the virus itself. As we are all acutely aware, Ireland’s business community has been hit hard over the past number of months and this scene has been replicated across the world. The global economy now faces the challenge of a generation, the spectre of a second wave of the virus in the autumn and winter has sowed scepticism and caution within the business community and international markets.
It is in this light, that we can recognise the need for clear and effective domestic legislation to support our businesses and our people through this economically turbulent time. There are thousands of families across Ireland today, that woke up this morning, filled with worry as their livelihoods have been severely curtailed over the past number of months. We will have to wait, and still may never know, the full extent that this period has had on the mental health and wellbeing of so many people in our country.
For most, these sacrifices of jobs and livelihoods, were made with grace and dignity and understanding. Understanding, that these sacrifices were made to protect the lives of the vulnerable in our community and to protect people they may never meet. Together, we flattened the curve and are doing our best to keep the situation under control. However, as our society and economy have begun to reopen, the risks to the future financial viability of many businesses in Ireland are becoming exposed and pose a real threat to our long-term economic health.
Small and Medium Enterprises play one of the most significant roles in the Irish economy. Employing approximately one million people, driving new innovation and advancing our contribution to every field of endeavour, their impact on the success of this country cannot be overstated. I am therefore pleased that since the earliest phases of the pandemic, supports for SMEs were made available and continue to be adapted to reflect the economic reality of this crisis. This Bill will see the implementation and development of the largest Credit Guarantee in the history of the State, accurately reflecting the magnitude of the issues that are now in front of us. Such measures, along with important changes to the Company Law Act and grant schemes being made available, will provide SMEs with a stable environment in which they can navigate their way through this crisis.
The availability of, and access to, stable lines of credit, may prove to be a significant factor in the survival of countless businesses, reaching into every sector of our economy and touching every village in Ireland. While it may not be possible to protect every business and every job, we can limit our exposure to the worst ramifications of a global economic downturn. By acting now and implementing the necessary changes, in order to give small and medium enterprises breathing space, we can weather this storm and emerge from this crisis in a position of stability that will allow us to regain our growth and take advantage of new opportunities.
Ireland has for many years, been an attractive destination for Foreign Direct Investment, indeed, this source of revenue and jobs has undoubtedly contributed to the transformation of our economy and our island. However, in a global environment of uncertainty, we are given pause to rightly consider the long-term health of Ireland’s economy. Ensuring that we have a strong foundation of SMEs combined with an attractive and open system that supports new companies being launch and expanded in Ireland can secure continued growth into the future.
The Covid-19 pandemic has demanded changes within our society, not all of these changes will be reversed. The nature of work, so-long debated over recent years, has been shown to be more adaptable than many might have thought. Working from home and improved work-life balances have been shown to be possible and to be a viable arrangement for many businesses. Helping SMEs adapt to these and other changes, help the whole of society and can even ease certain costs SMEs and employees endure.
Developing a flexible and innovative economy and business environment, can provide Ireland with a competitive edge over other nations when we, as an international community, overcome the impacts of Covid. Creating innovation hubs, increasing programmes to enhance SME owner’s financial education, drafting effective National SME Policies and action plans, as well as supporting a significant increase in the digitalisation, which SMEs have clearly shown appetite for, based on applications for the Trading Online Voucher Scheme, will deliver real change to our SME sector. I believe that a renewed approach towards SMEs can benefit all of society, helping to in effect, stabilise the present, but plan for the future and for better days.
Ireland has the potential to make significant gains in the years ahead, no longer bound by geographic or industrial might, Ireland finds itself competing in a global economy, driven by progress in innovation, the digital economy, medical advancements and environmentally friendly technology. These sectors will see an ever-increasing number of jobs and revenue streams in the decades ahead. Through are young and educated workforce, we have the ability to provide the right environment for businesses and start-ups to release the full potential of our people. Helping to drive a new era of financial and economic success for our country.
None of this will be easily gained nor will it be possible to achieve in the absence of a vibrant and healthy SME sector. Diversifying our approach and ensuring that SMEs and entrepreneurs have the supports they need to thrive will be to the long-term benefit of everyone. Lifting our society to new heights and emerging from this time of struggle, with a positive story to tell future generations.
The decisions this house makes in the coming weeks and months will shape the economic future of the country for years to come. I believe that it is imperative that we send a message to existing SMEs and young entrepreneurs, that this Government supports you. That this Government supports you in every step of your company’s journey, from its beginning, through an approachable system that fosters company growth, to ongoing support through business development grants to credit support should your business experience difficult times. Providing certainty to our business community will result in Ireland enjoying better years ahead.