Our last chance to arise from slumber and seize the future

 

OPINION:IF, AS Swift said, vision is the art of seeing the invisible, then Ireland has had an abundance of those who were cursed with the absence of it, along with the inability to see what is right before their eyes.

The country is in economic free fall: hundreds of billions owed to foreign banks, ghost estates, politics in disrepute, superficial reform raining down like squalls off the Kerry coast and the populace sometimes rocked by anger and struck dumb by ennui.

Only a few years ago, Ireland, with its great universities, talented workers and creative culture, seemed to reign supreme as the best example of the modern European state. Peace had come to the North and the nation’s history of revolt and reprisal, along with spectre of emigration, had seemingly been consigned to the dustbin of history. What happened? And more importantly, what now?

Well, the obvious is well known, from the recklessness of bankers and their giddy amen choir of governmental cheerleaders, to the sheep-like developers worshipping the craven image of a Los Angeles-style suburbanisation in the hinterland of Dublin. It was worse than farce; it was criminal.

Money that should have gone into building infrastructure, promoting new companies and using the new opportunities of the boom to train a new generation of entrepreneurs at home, not abroad, was squandered. The naysayers, like McWilliams, O’Toole and Kelly along with sceptics from historian Tim Pat Coogan to financier Dermot Desmond, were ignored.

Although the government has changed (mistakes must have consequences) they are now, through Nama and other agencies, busy restructuring failure instead of nurturing success. What comes to mind is that line of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, Memory of Brother Michael“. . . we sailed in puddles of the past”. As I read the latest pronouncements from the Government and its Namas and [Bord] Snips, I can only sigh in disbelief. I think in many cases they are saying the right thing, but the key is implementation.

That’s what Craig Barrett, chairman of the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) and former chairman of Intel says. It is where lessons are not being learned.

It is time to think and act anew. Irish officials must implement solutions quickly, before it’s too late, redouble efforts at creating wealth in emerging companies and harness the untapped resources of the Irish diaspora.

There is much talk of this vast diaspora, but its resources are not being utilised. Until the Irish leadership sees that taoiseachs delivering platitudes and bowls of shamrocks will not substitute for meaningful engagement, it never will be utilised.

Here are three suggestions:

Merge IDA, Enterprise Ireland and other agencies involved in economic development into one agency, name a leader, maybe an American chief executive like Craig Barrett, and support innovation, jobs and company formation. Then measure performance, not press releases;

Put whatever resources you can muster into worldwide venture capital funds that have a link beyond the monetary to Ireland, a real eco-system, and make the creation of companies, not reports, their core product;

Instead of abolishing the Seanad, select members who serve at no salary but chosen only from the Irish diaspora. From Silicon Valley select the likes of Craig Barrett, John Hartnett, founder of the ITLG and the Wilde Angel Fund, Conrad Burke of Innovalight and John O Ryan, the inventor behind the dynamic Rovi Corporate.

Add in Maria Shriver, Gabriel Byrne, Chuck Feeney, Niall O’Dowd and Declan Kelly too. And then from across the US, Australia, Canada and globally pick more such people and use them. Don’t lose them in a jumble of compliments and forums. As I once noted, I often found more wisdom in a conversation over a pint in McDaid’s or an hour at San Jose’s Irish Innovation Center than a day of speeches at Farmleigh. Implement, implement, implement as if your future depended on it – for it surely does.

To re-coin a phrase, we Irish may indeed get a second chance to make a first impression. We can yet win the 21st Century and build a nation of which we can be proud. Instead of the false alternatives of the past few years, we can seize the future and claim the mantle of an innovation economy forged in the Silicon Valley model of experimentation, perseverance and revolutionary success.

The people of Ireland are ripe for such a role. This is the last chance to arise from the slumber of the past and seize the future. The decision, as it always does, rests with the people of Ireland.