Hurley, Dorsey,
Zennstrom and Birch. The names may not have the resonance of Notre Dame’s fabled
backfield immortalised by Grantland Rice, but all four were in Dublin at the end
of October. The founders of You Tube, Twitter, Skype and Bebo came for the
Digital Web Summit. The presence of the heavy hitters of cyberspace, social
networking and the Internet is a mark of Ireland’s standing in this world, in
many ways the cutting edge of social economic and cultural change. The event,
characterised as a “Davos for geeks” was attended by around 100 of the leading
founders and HEOs of technology companies worldwide.

Their presence did
not just happen. It reflects the growing importance of the cyberspace sector in
Ireland, the latest successful initiative of Ireland’s Industrial Development
Authority in attracting important and seminal investment into Ireland. Ireland
already has 9 of the world’s 10 top pharmaceutical companies, 15 of the top 25
medical technology companies included in her portfolio of Foreign Direct
Investment Companies (currently 966, almost half from the USA).

Internet and Cyberspace sector is a roll call of the world’s major players.
Facebook has recently established its European hub in Dublin, following in the
footsteps of Google which now employs 1600 people in Ireland; LinkedIn, E-bay
and PayPal have major operations here. And, in another area of growing
importance – On Line Gaming – Ireland is also fast attracting international
leaders in the field including Gala (of Japan), Popcap, Riot, Electronic Arts
and Blizzard (of World of Warcraft fame).

Such has been the preoccupation
with our current economic woes that it can be difficult to achieve some
perspective on developments in the economy as a whole. At the moment Ireland is
in a fiscal bind, with the bank bailout compounding the problem of a major
budgetary shortfall after the worst recession in the OECD. There is currently a
crisis of public confidence, with general acceptance of what needs to be done
but dismay at the harsh measures required. The short term will be very tough on
people’s pockets with substantial hikes in taxes for several years to come
already announced. There are dire warnings of the IMF coming in should there be
any backtracking from the programme of austerity. A general election seems
likely sooner rather than later, in particular should the December budget not

Yet, as the Digital Web Summit demonstrates, there is a parallel
economic world out there, where most people have jobs, albeit in many cases with
less money.  Unemployment appears to have peaked at below 14%; though emigration
is clearly a factor, any fall in numbers is welcome. Our exports, which held up
well in the face of a global downturn in 2009, have surged ahead in 2010, with
the figures for the third quarter showing a 12.8% year on year increase. And we
are continuing to attract very significant top-end foreign direct

The last two years, moreover, have seen a significant shift
in the economy’s cost base. Wage cuts and increased productivity have done much
to restore competitiveness, though the albatross of the high minimum wage still
has to be tackled, together with the bloated public sector. There have been
notable cost reductions in hotel prices, which should stimulate growth in
tourism, where recent innovations have included free train travel for tourists
over 66 (announced, appropriately, on St. Patrick’s Day). Provided we can
successfully navigate the next six months or so economically politically and
socially, the medium term holds promise, with most economic experts forecasting
an early return to (modest) economic growth.

The recession has also
stimulated domestic interest in the potential of one of Ireland’s most valuable
but least utilised assets – the Irish Diaspora. The strengthening of links
between Ireland and the Irish family worldwide was given added impetus over the
last decade with the establishing of a dedicated section within the Department
of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in 2004 and the provision of greatly increased funding
for emigrant support in succeeding years. An important step in this process was
the holding of the Global Irish Economic Forum in September
2009 which sought to explore the potential for a more strategic
partnership between Ireland and the Irish overseas, inter alia to contribute to
the efforts at economic recovery. It brought together many of the great and the
good among the Irish worldwide and explored a wide range of issues and potential

One year on a progress report has issued setting out what
has been done. It can be read at the DFA website and makes interesting reading.
A first step has been the establishment of a permanent Global Irish Network
with 300 participants from 37 countries. Initial regional meetings have taken
place. The potential value of institutionalised direct access to and interaction
with and between key successful business figures of Irish extraction throughout
the world is self-evident. It should surely have been done before. Other steps
have included the establishment of an Irish Technology Leadership Group in
Silicon Valley, chaired by Craig Barrett (ex-CEO of Intel), an Overseas Graduate
Programme, and several youth fora linked to a Young Leaders Programme in

Initiatives have been taken also in the Cultural area,
beginning with the appointment of actor Gabriel Byrne as Ireland’s first
Cultural Ambassador. Next year Culture Ireland is to develop a special programme
showcasing Irish arts and culture in the US in partnership with leading US
festivals, and there will be an enhanced emphasis by Tourism Ireland on Diaspora
Tourism in coming years (the 1901 Census website –an invaluable heritage source-
was launched in London and New York). Plans are now at an advanced stage for a
permanent Irish Arts Centre in New York, jointly funded with the City of New

Most interestingly are the proposals for the launching of a
Certificate of Irish Heritage. While not conferring citizenship or any legal
rights or entitlements, the certificate would “give official recognition to the
many people worldwide who are conscious of their Irish heritage and feel a
strong affinity for Ireland, but who are not eligible for Irish citizenship”.
The modalities are still being worked on (what proof of Irish ancestry is
required, etc.). Nevertheless, even as it stands, the proposal is a major
advance in giving recognition to our kith and kin worldwide.

The problem
with positive developments such as the above is that they are rarely headline
making. It is easy to focus in on bad news, like factory closures or the monthly
unemployment figures. It is far more difficult to generate interest in a
conference, or the report of an expert or study group, or on a process which may
take years to achieve results. The achievements of the Irish economy after 1987
were built on the foundations of strategic decisions taken over previous decades
on taxation policy and the targeting of specific industries for inward
investment. Now that the tsunami of the collapse of the building boom of the
last years of the Celtic Tiger has ebbed, the durable elements of previous
policy, amended, updated and re-focussed, are seen to be still in place, and
still delivering. It is important, always, to see the whole picture.”


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