Ireland should seize chance to execute ideas learnt abroad, Berlin forum hears

Mon, Mar 19, 2012, 00:00

Irish businesspeople in Germany met at the weekend. They called clearly for a culture of innovation at home

IRELAND CAN revive its fortunes by embracing ideas from the Irish abroad and adopting a risk-taking culture at home, a St Patrick’s Day forum in Berlin has heard.

John Moran, secretary general at the Department of Finance, told the Irish Economic Forum Germany that the Government would remove barriers to “game-changing” reform proposals from emigrants in an effort to shake off Celtic Tiger-era complacency.

“Ireland became quite comfortable for long time, because there was lots of money flowing,” he said. Now it should once more embrace, rather than castigate, risk-taking – particularly in the public sector.

“The Civil Service in Ireland has been so heavily criticised – for everything – that the easiest option is not to actually be innovative. You don’t get criticised for not doing something in reality,” said Mr Moran.

“To rebuild confidence in the Civil Service, it’s important for people to know that if they do take risks that they won’t be taken out and shot for trying – in the media or elsewhere.”

Saturday’s event in Berlin, the brainchild of Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall, was the first such meeting of Ireland’s thriving business community in Germany.

Attendees included entrepreneurs and managers in blue-chip companies such as Bayer, Deutsche Bank and Bombardier. Familiar Irish companies were also present, from Kerrygold to Primark.

“In Germany, we are punching below our weight,” said Seán O’Driscoll, chief executive of Glen Dimplex. He said his company’s 22-year engagement in Germany had created a more diverse company – producing heating and high-tech cooling products – and a more rounded workforce.

“We Irish have de-Germanised them and got them to open up, while they are the finest engineers we have in our group,” he said.

Besides complementary economic interests – job-seekers in Ireland, empty positions in Germany – Ireland could learn from Germany how to get people back to work and push vocational as well as academic education to produce more engineers.

“We need to make engineers our national heroes. We need to make money out of making things, not financial engineering,” said Mr O’Driscoll.

Attendees said there was an urgent need to move beyond lip service to push foreign language learning from an early age.

Potential emigrants to English-speaking countries – no matter how far-flung – could be given job offers packaged along with language training. That would, attendees suggested, break a vicious circle of apathy and ignorance towards opportunities in Germany, Ireland’s largest European trading partner.

“Germans have an almost irrational love of Ireland but there is a problem on the other side,” said Robert Shorten, an Irish academic at Berlin’s Technical University.

“Irish universities are busy opening outreach centres in Beijing yet they do nothing to harness the positive feeling towards our country in Berlin and around Germany.”

Michael Stürmer, chief correspondent of Die Welt daily, confirmed an unshaken German confidence in Ireland’s prospects that combines idealism about the island with a nuanced understanding of the “very specific reasons” of the economic crisis.

Recent tensions in the debate between the two countries, he said, derived from a mutual failure to grasp each other’s fundamental national trauma: emigration in Ireland and German fear of inflation.

“For Ireland, being driven out rather than being able to live on the land is a collective instinct, much as we Germans believe that having solid money in our pockets is important for our self-respect,” he said.

The Saturday event attracted local media attention. Berlin’s Tagesspiegel daily noted the meeting “took place on the Irish national holiday under the motto ‘first work, then pleasure’”.