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“It’s all about making Dublin great for everybody living here”

Dublin Chamber president Niall Gibbons talks about his plans for the year ahead and his ambitions for his native city

Dublin Chamber president Niall Gibbons with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Dublin Chamber president Niall Gibbons with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

 

It should come as no surprise that Dublin Chamber’s new president brings an international perspective. As chief executive of Tourism Ireland, Niall Gibbons is charged with selling the island of Ireland to tourists from around the world and in his inaugural speech as Chamber president he said Dublin must seize the opportunity to look outward and build new relationships around the world at a time when others are looking increasingly inward.

Indeed, he combined both roles during the recent St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US. “We had a very strong joint delegation from Dublin Chamber and the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC in March,” he says. “Tourism Ireland is a cross-border body and when I knew I was coming into this post, I was in Northern Ireland and I met with the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. I said the two chambers should do something together. That led to the joint delegation to the US.”

The delegation attended an event at the Irish embassy in Washington. “We had a 15-minute meeting with the Taoiseach,” says Gibbons. “That was a very productive meeting. In the context of Brexit, we were able to deliver the message that the business community is still talking and still working together. We want to keep the channels of dialogue open. Brexit is often seen as an east-west thing, but the cross-border element is vitally important as well. We were able to communicate our view that the Good Friday agreement is the only game in town in that regard.

“We were able to show that this island is open for business,” he adds. “Dublin Chamber will continue to set its sights on developing stronger international relationships – something all the more important as we see political turbulence impact on what had once been dependable political norms and institutions.”

Gibbons aims to build on the work of previous presidents during the coming year. “It is a privilege to become president of Dublin Chamber,” he says. “I joined the Dublin Chamber council in 2012 and have experienced some great presidents including Anne O’Leary, Liam Kavanagh, Derry Grey and Brendan Foster during that time. I was elected deputy vice-president two years ago and was vice-president last year. It’s been a great experience. It’s a really good chamber. We have 1,300 members employing 300,000 people in Ireland and internationally. It’s a huge, well-run network.”

That relatively long induction period meant he was able to play a role in the formulation of the Chamber’s Dublin 2050 strategy. The Vision for Dublin 2050 document was developed on foot of a survey of Dubliners, which offered a fascinating insight into how they expect, hope and need their city to evolve over the coming years and decades.

‘Future of the city’

“The chamber management team led by Mary Rose Burke has worked on the strategy for the past three years. I worked on it as part of what we call the ‘chain gang’ – the deputy vice-president, vice-president, and president. We kicked off the strategy in 2017 and the aim is to get the people of Dublin and the other stakeholders to think differently about the future of the city.”

He sees the strategy as part of a continuum. “In 2017, we carried out the Great Dublin Survey, when 20,000 Dubliners shared their views on what they wanted for their city in the future. Last year, Anne O’Leary started a communication with other chambers around the country. She held a number of National Conversation workshops in Cork, Waterford, Galway and Limerick, where local people and businesses come together with Dublin Chamber to discuss Dublin’s future and its role as the national capital. It’s not only about Dublin, we depend on each other to grow. As the capital of Ireland, and the powerhouse of the national economy, it is vital for everyone that Dublin works.”

We have to be conscious of Dublin’s brand and where it sits both nationally and internationally

Gibbons wants to build on this work during 2019. “What I have in mind is to assess Dublin’s international reputation as a place to invest, study, work and visit. We have to be conscious of Dublin’s brand and where it sits both nationally and internationally. We have engaged the Reputations Agency to do a comparison with 10 other countries. This will be an assessment of Dublin as a place to live for people who choose to come here; 17 per cent of the people living in Dublin were not born here. For some of our members, 50 per cent of their staff are from outside Ireland. It’s like a reverse diaspora. This research offers the opportunity to get under the skin of the issues and see what we need to do to attract more jobs, investment and the best talent into the country. It will allow us to assess the city objectively and hold up a mirror to see ourselves as others see us. The findings will be used to identify the areas that need to be addressed to ensure Dublin is able to compete with the best cities in the world.”

The process of choosing the 10 countries is about to begin. “Of course, they will include major trading partners like the UK, the US, France and Germany,” Gibbons says. “We will also look at emerging markets and ensure there is a good spread geographically. China is also growing in importance and it will be in there of course. We have also been talking to the IDA, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Enterprise Ireland and Fáilte Ireland about it. They are all very interested in the output. We will announce the results at our annual dinner on October 10th, when we will be joined by Qantas CEO and Dubliner Alan Joyce, who will be our guest of honour on the night.”

Research will begin as soon as the countries have been chosen. “The first step will see the researchers going out into the marketplace. We will have the results in June and will then go through them and dissect them during July and August. We will then develop an agenda and strategy which will feed into Dublin 2050. The key question is what do we need to improve to enhance the Dublin brand.”

Gibbons accepts that the answers will not always make for comfortable listening. “It’s going to challenge us as well,” he says “There are lots of issues which we know will come up, like housing and education. There is also the question of why we are trying to attract people. Is it for who they really are or who we want them to be? That will take us on a cultural journey. We want to attract people by making them choose to come here.”

Influx of talent

He believes the city has been enriched by the influx of talent from overseas. “One of our member companies has 89 different nationalities,” he says. “That adds to the buzz and energy around Dublin.”

The benchmarking exercise is part of a broader international agenda. “We were out in Hong Kong with a number of member companies earlier in the year. We have a delegation going to Austria in the autumn. International relationships are really important for a city like Dublin. We also have delegations coming into Dublin from a number of countries later in the year.”

Those relationships are nowhere better exemplified than Dublin Port, through which so much of the country’s international trade flows. However, the recent revelation that the number of cruise ships visiting the port is to be seriously curtailed for a number of years has been greeted with dismay, most notably by tourism operators.

Gibbons has more than a little sympathy for the port operator, however. “Dublin Port has seen massive growth in its freight business in recent year,” he explains. “This means that a massive redevelopment of Alexandra Basin is required. The major part of that work will be done between 2021 and 2024 and will lead to a significant reduction in cruise liner traffic during that period. But there is a plan to see the cruise traffic come back after that, with new facilities for the cruise ships further upriver.”

Putting it in context, Gibbons says these are first-world challenges. “If I said back seven or eight years ago that we would have these problems, people would almost have welcomed them,” he says. “Companies are choosing Ireland and Dublin for all of the strong points like talent, our location, our competitive tax regime, our competitive cost base and so on. And we have five big challenges in that context.”

The first is water. “We need to secure Dublin’s water supply. It’s running at full capacity and last summer’s drought was a stark warning of exactly how little wiggle room we really have in our supply of an essential resource. The Water Environment Abstraction Bill needs to be enacted as soon as possible. We cannot afford for the Dublin region to run dry. Dublin Chamber is a big supporter of Irish Water’s Eastern and Midlands region water supply project.”

That scheme involves the abstraction of water from the Parteen Basin on the lower River Shannon, with water treatment nearby at Birdhill, Co Tipperary. Treated water will then be piped 170km to a new reservoir at Peamount in south Co Dublin, connecting to the Greater Dublin network.

The second challenge is delivering the Metrolink project. “The revised proposal has now been published and we need to rally around large capital projects like this that take years to complete and have such a positive impact on the city and its economy. The time is now for our decision-makers to take an ambitious leap in terms of the transport infrastructure needed to take our capital city to the next level.”

Next up is capital gains tax. Gibbons points out that the Irish rate at 33 per cent is significantly higher than that pertaining in the UK, while there are further issues in relation to Entrepreneur Relief, which reduces capital gains tax on profits earned from the disposal of businesses to 10 per cent subject to certain limits.

Capital gains tax needs to be reduced to 20 per cent. We operate in a competitive environment and businesses here operate at a disadvantage in this respect

Childcare

Childcare is another challenge. “The availability of childcare facilities and their affordability are critically important issues, particularly as we attract more and more women into the workforce. We also need to give Dublin a government. We have one city but four authorities governing it. We need a strong executive to deliver for Dublin in an integrated way.”

While there are challenges, Gibbons’ love for his native city shines through. “Dublin is a great city and I’m very proud of it. People growing up in Dublin now who are in their late teens or early 20s have great prospects in front of them. I did an interview with a film crew recently and I was asked to contrast The Commitments with Synge Street, where I went to school. The city has come on so much over the last 30 years. Our goal in Dublin Chamber is to help it realise its full potential.”

Solving the housing crisis will play a critical role in attaining that goal. “Housing is absolutely fundamental to all of this, of course. We know we need half a million new dwellings by 2050. The five challenges we have identified are ones that can be tackled more immediately. We have to address the issue of height. When you start to look at some of the higher developments which have been built of late, like Capital Dock, they are not as intrusive as might have been thought. Increased height has to be considered in areas where there are good transport links.”

He calls for long-term thinking to deliver solutions to this and other issues. “We need to look at our city and our ambitions for it for the next 100 years. Dublin Chamber of Commerce is an amazing platform for networking and collaboration and it is the leading voice for business in the capital. The Chamber has very good relationships at senior level with the public service and Government. And most of the suggestions put forward by the Chamber are evidence-based and reflect the views of Dubliners themselves.

“It’s all about making Dublin great for everybody living here,” Gibbons concludes. “The decisions to be made are very complex and it is important that we get them right. Dublin Chamber’s voice is very important in that regard.”