A bold vision is crucial for our economic reinvention

Wed, Feb 22, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:AFTER THE catastrophic way our economic ship has run aground, it is natural to focus on the immediate actions needed for survival. There is, for sure, a great deal to be done: getting credit flowing again, carving out new markets, reducing costs. Getting back to basics.

As a result of the demands of the immediate and the urgent, comment on the Irish economy tends to focus on what is happening today, tomorrow or possibly as far ahead as the next couple of weeks.

That is understandable. But in truth we need to start thinking about our economy not just in terms of the immediate, but also the strategic and compelling. As well as worrying about the state of our economy tomorrow we need to start asking who is planning and preparing for that economy in 20 years’ time? The expected answer should be Government. But too often that’s not the case. In recent times our electoral cycles put a premium on the short term. No one cared too much about the future while the construction miracle was still laying golden eggs for the government in the shape of large tax revenues. What little thought that was given to the future was packaged in plans that were high on vision but low on implementation.

The Action Plan for Jobs is different. As has been widely reported, it does not suggest a big-bang solution. It concentrates on implementation, milestones, timelines and accountability. All 15 departments of Government are involved as well as 36 agencies of the State. There is a commitment to publish quarterly monitoring reports from an implementation group chaired from the Department of the Taoiseach.

That shows the breadth of the commitment from Government to drive a pro-jobs agenda and displays a determination, and a mechanism, to deliver on the commitments. All this is driven by an understanding that we must get our vessel seaworthy again, quickly.

However, what has received less comment is its determination also to chart a route to a better destination, to shape an economy that can sustain progress for 10 years and beyond.

People are rightly sceptical that governments are well placed to foresee the future or pick winners. However, our history has taught us that having a bold vision is essential to reinvention. And key to ensuring, as Rahm Emanuel put it, that we “don’t waste a good crisis”.

As a people we have always recognised the inherent opportunity for change and improvement in times of challenge. We have met and overcome so many crises down through the generations it is almost second nature to us. The challenge of building a new State in 1922, the global catastrophe of the second World War, the scarring recession of the 1980s. It is because of that capacity for innovation that I am confident in our ability to re-emerge stronger from this current crisis.

Of most relevance today, is the response in the 1950s when Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker conceived and drove a plan for economic renewal that charted a long-term course for Ireland’s recovery and re-emergence on to the international stage as a dynamic country with enterprise at its heart. Politician and public servant working together to develop an environment where creativity and enterprise could flourish. This sort of partnership is essential if the type of change demanded is to be delivered upon.

While Lemass and Whitaker inherited a lifeless economy, the current Government inherited an economy that had just suffered a catastrophic decline of 12 per cent in three years. Unlike Lemass and Whitaker, we live in a country that has lost its economic sovereignty. But I am confident in our country’s capacity to respond to the crisis.

There are global challenges already creating the forces that will shape our economic future: climate change, ageing populations, technological shifts and emerging economies. The countries that succeed will be those who best adapt. We are well placed to succeed if we concentrate on areas where we can create and maintain a competitive edge. The Action Plan for Jobs starts to lay the foundations for that long-term edge. It builds on well-known strengths such as food, ICT, life sciences, financial services but also commits to backing new sectors such as cloud computing, digital content and the green economy. It refocuses our research investment on the niche areas that play to our strengths. It anticipates the environments that will be created from technological change and the shift away from fossil fuels.

While the business models necessary for small enterprises to succeed will change, we still must be able to produce things. Manufacturing must remain a core element. New skills are needed to add value in a changing economy. An environment must be created where practical people have the facility to turn good ideas into good jobs. Clusters must be built where it is easy to innovate and collaborate.

This is where Ireland can excel. We can create an economy that will never become as exposed as ours was allowed to become in the last 10 years. Education, enterprise and innovation are already among our strengths, but they must move to a new level to copperfasten our future. If we plan well now in our people’s talents we can have a very bright future. We’ve done it before and we can definitely recover from adversity again.

With the spirit, talent and determination of the people I see every day in businesses up and down the country, I know it will happen. Properly supported by all strands of Government, those businesses will drive a strong, innovating economy again. There is a huge amount of rebuilding to be done. Last week was a significant step along the way.


Richard Bruton TD is Minister for Enterprise, Jobs, and Innovation