Fifteen years of marriage is a crystal wedding anniversary. Hopefully someone at Government buildings this week remembered to send an appropriate present down to the Dublin headquarters of Google, signed with love from Leo and Paschal xxx.
Google celebrated its 15th anniversary in Ireland on Monday. Ever since it first sashayed into Dublin in 2003, effortlessly cosmopolitan and dripping Californian chic, the State has appeared smitten. The tech giant and our Republic are now – for all practical purposes – married, joined at the hip and increasingly reliant on each other for support in times of trouble.
Just look at how the Government this week helped to strangle a proposed European Union digital sales tax that would have cost Google hundreds of millions of euro. Ireland dug in, much to the chagrin of larger and stroppier nations such as France, even as we rely on them for support to steer us safely through the maelstrom of the Brexit backstop negotiations. That's true love.
But after 15 years, what sort of a marriage has this become? It is hardly one of equals, as this is a sovereign state with the power to make its own laws and Google is merely a company, which must follow them.
Yet the $765 billion market cap of Alphabet (Google’s holding company) is more than twice the value of the Irish economy, as measured by GDP. So perhaps it isn’t at all clear which of us in this union is more equal than the other.
If we’re going to be absolutely honest about it, the marriage with Google is probably more one of convenience. Yes, there may well be genuine affection there on both sides. You can’t fake that sort of thing, unless you’re really good. But the relationship is, at its core, transactional.
Ireland gets 8,000 jobs and counting, a jolting injection of European millennials, more than €1 billion of capital expenditure, and the glossiest of calling cards as the State travels the world selling itself to investors as the Silicon Valley of Europe.
Google, meanwhile, gets in return unfettered access to the corridors of State power to further its interests. It gets a lovely riverside home near the heart of the city, a nice number on tax (compared to foreign alternatives), and a massive financial return on its investment.
It also gets a friend – a sovereign state, no less – that is prepared to go to war for it in the crucibles of Brussels and the European capitals beyond, no matter the reputational cost. If you are a massive corporation yet almost uniquely vulnerable to regulation, you really can’t buy that sort of love and commitment. Or, rather, in this instance, is it the whole point that you can?
Looking back at Google’s entry into Ireland in 2003, there is almost an innocence to the news reports of the time. One report helpfully explained that Google, which pitched ashore with 200 jobs – a fortune back in those days – “helps users find sites by typing in keywords”. Bless – the naivety of it.
But who back then could have known that Google, through astounding innovation and sheer ruthlessness, would morph into an omnipresence that knows everything about everyone and every subject? A company that knows our every move through Maps, what our homes look like via Streetview, our every thought as expressed through word searches. Even our favourite songs and videos via YouTube.
Ireland had no idea of the awesome power for which it gleefully threw back the duvet all those years ago. Not that it would have stopped us. For 8,000 jobs, we'll even enjoy it. After the pillar banks – AIB and Bank of Ireland – and the grocers Dunnes Stores, Musgrave and Tesco, Google is by far the largest private sector employer in the State, when you count all staff contracted to it.
Fifteen years on, Google is now so deeply embedded in this society that it is hard to see how it could ever leave without a messy, drawn-out divorce. It isn’t just the 8,000 staff and the collection of prime Dublin properties. Google is buried core deep in our society. It’ll have to be dug out.
Google provides funding to Irish schools, through coding programmes, and universities, such as Trinity College, where it pays for access projects and science initiatives. It provides project funding to media organisations, including The Irish Times, the Journal, and State-owned RTÉ.
Google provides seed funding for Irish companies. It puts up cash to encourage investors to Adopt a Start Up, in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland. This week, it even put up €1 million for not-for-profit Dublin groups to provide "social opportunities in their local communities".
In Ireland, Google is everywhere. This is why it gets such easy access to ministers and other elected politicians. It's all there in the public lobbying register for anyone to check. They may as well put in a monorail from Grand Canal Dock to Leinster House: there'd be no shortage of traffic for it.
The register outlines dozens upon dozens of Google meetings with the most senior politicians in the State. They discuss issues as diverse as tax, a steep hill upon which Ireland has shown itself prepared to die in Europe; the Digital Single Market, which Ireland is at the forefront of pushing in Europe; data privacy rules, about which Ireland also has plenty to say; and even education policy.
But make no mistake: this marriage, convenient as it is, has been every bit as good for Google as it has been for the Republic. It has made an absolute fortune out of Ireland. Both parties should never lose sight of that fact.
There should never be any need for bowing and scraping from the Irish side.
- Remember the class action lawsuit that was filed against Ornua in the US recently, disputing the marketing claim that Kerrygold is so yummy because Irish cows are fed on fresh green grass, and accusing it of “false and misleading advertising”?
Ornua has this week filed its response. The State dairy agency appears to be in no moooo’d to roll over.
It is seeking to have the case thrown out of court. It argues that the marketing claim is essentially correct, because Irish cows eat fresh grass up to “95 per cent” of the time.
It also argues that the complainant, a property executive from San Diego, cannot prove which Irish cows eat grass all the time and which don’t, and which of those cows provides milk to make Kerrygold butter.
It argues also that the plaintiff has no jurisdiction to take the case against the Irish company, and that his complaints are “implausible” and “fail the reasonable consumer test”.
Ornua’s lawyers dismissively and pithily sum up the case against it: “Plaintiff alleges he bought butter and suffered some unspecified economic damage as a result. This case is straightforward and should be dismissed in its entirety with prejudice. ”
Accounts have just been filed for Café Sol, the coffee chain purchased by Dunnes Stores three years ago, at the outset of the retailer’s strategic push to go posh. And the figures, for 2017, show that under the Dunnes umbrella, Café Sol is perking up.
The abridged accounts suggest the coffee chain made a profit last year of close to €250,000, while shareholder funds are up to €773,000. In the 12 months to March 2016, the last full year before Dunnes took control, the chain was losing money and shareholders funds were going in the opposite direction.
Better value beats them all. Every time.