We must be ready when the global upturn comes


OPINION:AS WE enter the new year, we do so in the knowledge that our economy will face significant further challenges. With the number of people searching for employment on the rise, it is clear that these challenges are the most significant the country has witnessed in a generation.

As a small, open trading economy, Ireland was quick to feel the effects of the global downturn. To survive, economies such as ours must react quickly and with flexibility to global economic developments, securing advantages and reassuring trading partners.

It is for those reasons that we took tough decisions in the autumn, guaranteeing our banks and delivering an early budget. While we may have to take more tough decisions soon, it must be made clear that the short-term pain is with a very specific medium- to long-term goal in mind - to ensure that Ireland is among the first to benefit from the new economic order that emerges.

The decisions we take in Government today will substantially affect the country's direction and prosperity for the next 10 to 15 years. For that reason it is important that such decisions are grounded in a clear understanding of where we want to be then. Our comprehensive framework for sustainable economic recovery, Building Ireland's Smart Economy, published earlier this month, sets out exactly that.

A crucial component of the framework is the role of the enterprise and business sector in the economy, and its ability to compete successfully in international markets.

We must play to our strengths and aim to become the world's leading location for business innovation. We will combine our role as an attractive home for research and development investment by multinationals with being a highly-attractive incubation environment for the best entrepreneurs and talent in Europe and beyond.

This goal is ambitious but achievable. It will entail Ireland becoming a country with a critical mass of companies - both indigenous Irish and international - at the forefront of innovation, creating the products and services of tomorrow. Research and development will play a central role as these companies innovate.

Given the level of taxpayers' money being invested through our Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, research and development must result in tangible outcomes in terms of jobs. Building on the knowledge that we have gained over recent years, we must then expand the number and size of indigenous Irish companies with export potential.

We already have some excellent indigenous global businesses based in Ireland, but it is essential that we have the means of converting research, development and innovation into commercialised products and services delivered by companies based out of Ireland. The establishment of the €500 million Innovation Fund will play a major role in this drive.

This approach will shape the next phase of the Irish economy's development, delivering quality and well-paid jobs. Many of these jobs will be highly skilled: that is why such importance is given in the framework to training and upskilling. Both will be crucial in ensuring that jobs in the future economy are available to all.

Additional training places are being provided and our labour market programmes are being reviewed to ensure that the required skillsets are available to future enterprises.

We will establish an advisory council of business leaders that will report regularly to me as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and to the Cabinet committee on economic renewal. This council will report on the measures it believes the Government can take to return the economy to sustainable growth.

I am confident that through adopting the right decisions today, Ireland will be well positioned in future to create new jobs and to increase the standard of living for all.

• Mary Coughlan is Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment