Irish PM says bailout exit restores national pride

Sunday, 15 Dec 2013 | 4:35 PM ET

* PM thanks people for sacrifices during national address

* Says national debt to fall by a quarter in seven years

DUBLIN, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Ireland's exit from its EU-IMF bailout has restored national pride and set the stage for a swift recovery, Prime Minister Enda Kenny said in a televised address on Sunday to mark the end of three years of economic policy dictated from abroad.

The first euro zone country to leave a bailout, Ireland's exit has been hailed by EU leaders as a sign the worst of the continent's debt crisis is over. Kenny forecast growth could allow the national debt to be cut by a quarter in seven years.

"Our lives won't change overnight. But it does send out a powerful signal internationally, that Ireland is fighting back," Kenny said. "Your patience and resilience have restored our national pride."

Three years after a property crash forced the government to go cap in hand to international lenders to avert bankruptcy, Ireland officially leaves its 85 billion euro ($117 billion) bailout programme at midnight on Sunday.

Unemployment has fallen below 13 percent, from a 15.1 percent peak in 2012, and property prices have started to rebound prompting the government to forecast gross domestic product growth will grow 2 percent next year.

Concerns remain, however, with a sharp divide between capital and countryside, a heavy reliance on exports and stubbornly high levels of mortgage arrears.

"I know that, for many of you, the recent improvements in the economic situation are not yet being felt in your daily lives," Kenny said.

"But it is now clear that your sacrifices are making a real difference ... Our economy is starting to recover."

The government expects to return total employment to 2 million of a population of 4.6 million from 1.9 million today, Kenny said. Debt as a proportion of economic output will fall by a quarter from an expected peak of 124 percent this year, he added.

While 90 percent of the required spending cuts and tax hikes had already been made, there will be no dramatic policy changes as the country aims to cut its deficit from around 7 percent this year to 3 percent by 2015, Kenny said.

"Now is not the time to change our course or direction," Kenny said. "The progress that we have made must not be put at risk."

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)