As political portfolios go, Mary Hanafin’s is one of the more diverse and challenging ones. As Government chief whip, she has the challenging job of keeping parliamentary colleagues in check; as Minister of State for Defence she does, well, God’s knows what; and as Minister for the Information Society there is the small matter of delivering the knowledge-based economy.
If her first role is arduous and her second anomalous, her third seems little more than aspirational at this stage, given the considerable hurdles that still need to be overcome. How she intends to bring about the information society was the theme of her address to the e-Forum business debate, sponsored by Ennis Information Age Services and siliconrepublic.com, in Dublin yesterday. She was joined on the podium by Dr Chris Horn (pictured), co-founder and chairman of Iona Technologies and one of the country’s most respected voices on technology-related matters.
Could these two luminaries – the Government apparatchik par excellence and the senior statesman of the Irish tech sector – light the way to Ireland’s knowledge nirvana?
Hanafin began with the basics: what are the building blocks of an information society and how do we make it happen? Taking the first question, an effective legal framework, proper training facilities and good content that will attract people to online services are all part of the mix, she said, but the glue that binds it together is an excellent communications infrastructure. “Unless we have affordable access there’s no point in talking about this,” she remarked, welcoming her colleague Dermot Ahern’s recent announcement that always-on unmetered internet access should soon be on its way following a policy directive from his department.
On the issue of making it happen, Hanafin made it clear that the Department of the Taoiseach is where the real centre of government power resides and that the cabinet sub-committee on the Information Society, chaired by the Taoiseach, is the engine that will drive the project to its conclusion.
“The sub-committee … brings together the Departments of Defence, Communications, Enterprise, Education, Community and Rural Development and more. My job is to bring together all the different elements so they don’t go off in other directions,” she explained.
It would be foolish to doubt her resolve: she was only half-joking when she remarked that as Government chief whip she was in an excellent position to “bribe” her cabinet colleagues – she would get their policy proposals through if they agreed to deliver on their element of the information society.
Namechecking the already significant successes of Ireland’s information society programme – from the Ennis Information Age initiative to the e-Tenders electronic procurement site – Hanafin concluded by underlining the Government’s commitment to the information society.
“I can assure you that the information society is at the top of the agenda. It’s still a major Government priority because it’s not just a social inclusion measure; it’s an economic measure. The bottom line is that we’ve got to be able to prosper in the global context,” Hanafin said in closing.
As co-founder of Ireland’s most successful software firm, Chris Horn knows better than most what it means to prosper in the global context. In his speech, he offered the benefit of his wisdom and experience to pinpoint what Ireland needed to become this elusive information society. While not wholly uncritical of government policy in this area, Horn believed the politicians had got some important things right – the appointment of a minister with responsibility for the e-agenda and the publication earlier this year of New Connections, the roadmap document to the information society. He also felt that the Government had outstripped the private sector in its adoption of the internet. Reserving particular praise for the e-Tenders site, Horn called it “inspirational” and urged multinational companies to model their own e-procurement sites on it.
Inevitably, Horn dwelt longest on the infrastructure question. Giving his full backing to the Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) programme announced in New Connections, which will involve building fibre optic rings around 19 towns throughout the State, he argued that this programme was more economically feasible today than before despite even allowing for depleted public coffers. “Mary Hanafin’s timing is wonderful because the cost of optical fibre and components has fallen dramatically in the last two years. I’m delighted the MAN programme is going ahead,” he said.
Horn didn’t sidestep some familiar obstacles – slow unbundling of Eircom’s local loop and how to deal with the carrier’s dominant position in the market. Comparing the telecoms sector with another established industry – aviation – Horn posed the question: “Wouldn’t it be strange if the airports and the airlines were both owned by the same people?”
Being the true technologist he is, Horn wrapped up by peeking into the future and sharing his vision of what Ireland could look like – if we all were connected to the internet at 5Mbps. E-tailing sites that provide a video link between online shoppers and real shop assistants; teachers that use the internet to hold classes with students based hundreds of miles away; hospital consultants that diagnose a patient’s complaint using a video link to a GP’s surgery; and ordinary members of the public using digital video cameras to file reports to the news networks. “There wouldn’t be such a thing as a CNN reporter any longer, we’d all be reporters,” he enthused. Not too sure about that one, Chris…
By Brian Skelly