Does Ireland need a digital affairs minister in the next Government?

12 May 2020

Lorraine Higgins, CEO of Digital Business Ireland. Image: Digital Business Ireland

Digital Business Ireland has called on leaders of the next Government to consider introducing a minister to focus solely on digital affairs.

Digital Business Ireland, the representative body for online businesses, has called on leaders of the next Government to prioritise the provision of a senior cabinet post dedicated to digital affairs.

In this role, a minister would handle matters regarding Big Tech, the development of infrastructure, digital awareness and supporting the creation of web content.

Lorraine Higgins, founder of Digital Business Ireland, said: “Like most countries, Ireland has embraced digital in order to keep functioning during the shutdown brought about by the coronavirus.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated Ireland’s digital development and we must be ready, as a country, to embrace the possibilities it now presents.”

‘Ireland can no longer afford to have a piecemeal approach to issues affecting the digital world’

In its proposals to help businesses get back on their feet in the wake of the Covid-19, employers’ group Ibec also called for a new minister for digital affairs to prioritise cybersecurity, digital innovation and the adoption of digital education and public services.

Increased dependency on technology

Digital Business Ireland, which was launched in 2019, represents members from retail, hospitality, technology, professional services, travel, transport, education and more. To support digital businesses, it said that there is important work to be done to bridge the digital divide in communities and to drive the digital literacy agenda.

“The future of business, education, health, human resources and education will depend on a strategy that will ultimately deliver meaningful results for our country,” said Higgins, who is a former Labour party senator, barrister and public policy professional.

“Given the increased dependency on technology and online, it is clear that we desperately need a department to house all matters relating to it so there is a streamlined approach and that the burden isn’t spread across a range of departments.

“Ireland can no longer afford to have a piecemeal approach to issues affecting the digital world as this will have longstanding ramifications for the future of this country and our ability to attract investment.”

The group has written to leaders participating in Government formation talks to urge action on the appointment of a senior minister for digital affairs. It said that Ireland needs to be “fully equipped” to embrace a new digital culture, adding that European countries such as France, Germany and Poland have appointed members of parliament to similar posts.

Digital Business Ireland has also published a number of other recommendations to the Government to help support companies during the Covid-19 crisis, including offering e-learning initiatives through Local Enterprise Offices and grant funding for alterations to retail and hospitality premises to allow for click-and-collect services.

What could the role entail?

One country that has already introduced a dedicated digital affairs Government position is France. Cédric O, the French junior minister for digital affairs, stepped into the role last year after working behind the scenes on the French tech ecosystem for some time.

Since taking on the position, O has brought in new incentives for tech start-ups, stating that “France has a clear ambition to be a world-leading country in technology”. More recently, he announced €4bn in supports to help French start-ups during the Covid-19 crisis.

In an interview with TechCrunch last year, O said he believes there is a need for cooperation between European countries when it comes to keeping big digital companies in check, as well as a clear regulatory framework and a new type of regulator.

“Platforms shouldn’t write laws about what’s legal or not,” he told the publication. “However, they are responsible when it comes to implementing regulation and getting results.”

As well as looking at regulation, O has been championing French start-ups in his role. In a speech at a La French Tech event in Paris last year, O said: “The French tech ecosystem is important. If we want our children, our grandchildren to get jobs, we can’t do it without start-ups.”

Better support for start-ups in Ireland has been called for by non-profit advocacy group Scale Ireland. Amid the Covid-19 crisis, the group has urged the Government to take “swift and targeted” action to update its supports and schemes to reflect the realities of how start-ups operate.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic