One end of the corridor


27 Nov 2003

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You don’t have to look too hard to find a robust enterprise culture in Monaghan. The lack of any lasting or substantial IDA Ireland investment in the last 30 years has given rise to a pervasive self-sufficiency.

At one end of the spectrum, a small farmer will supplement his income with a chicken shed or a mushroom house, while at the other you have initiatives such as the digital corridor.

With the information and communications technology (ICT) boom in full manic swing five years ago, local enterprise groups in the border area set out to see how they might get a slice of the action. A range of formal and informal links between such bodies had sprung up in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement. Two in particular, the Armagh Economic Development Group and the Monaghan County Enterprise Fund, commissioned a report from Deloitte (formerly Deloitte & Touche) to identify what the region would have to do to develop an ICT cluster. Out of that report came the m:tek and a:tek buildings.

One in Armagh, the other in the IDA business park outside Monaghan town, both built to the highest ICT specifications and linked by a nominal ‘digital corridor’ that would leverage further high-tech developments in both towns’ hinterlands. Despite the fact that the initiative was launched on the cusp of the ICT meltdown in October 2001, its success has exceeded all expectations. Local software company Datacare became the anchor tenants south of the border, while in Armagh, Dublin company E-blana were first to set up in the a:tek building.

Since then, thanks in particular to UK company AnswerCall Direct establishing a 400-seat call centre in Armagh, employment numbers in the digital corridor have passed the 500 mark. Bernard Conlon, manager of m:tek explains that good-quality, affordable broadband, the next major have-to-have, should be in place by next year. “Five years ago, Armagh and Monaghan definitely would not have been the first places you would have thought of in terms of technology. Now we’re starting to build it up with the likes of good flagship projects, with the infrastructure, the buildings, the broadband solutions and the different projects coming in. We’ve got the makings of a good nucleus, a good cluster…and that has all been driven by local economic development groups and local businesses coming together with the help of the councils,” Conlon explains.

Fern Heasty is MD of one of m:tek’s smaller but more unusual tenants, www.dairystock.com. “Dairystock.com,” she explains, “is there to help pedigree dairy breeders in Ireland market what they have for sale. If they have 10 pedigree heifers for sale, the idea is that they put all their details on the web and the farmer who wants new stock can come along and if he wants 40 new animals, he can search for them and pull up all that are available in Ireland with all the details that are behind them, along with photographs.” The venture remains in its infancy, kept afloat by Heasty’s other, considerably more substantial company, Emode, which provides local businesses with IT solutions. Dairystock.com inevitably runs up against the inhibitions of what remains a very traditional sector. She agrees that farmers have a lot to gain from the internet, “but there’s a fear there. You’re still getting over the obstacle of the fear of IT”.

On the whole, the local authority is a little behind the curve in the provision of online services. The county council’s website, Monaghan.ie, is primarily a source of information, but in its favour, the look and feel is great, as is navigability and there are no dust covered links leading you to urgent announcements from April 2001. The usual application forms are available to download on the site, but drilling through planning applications and approvals is a time consuming, Pdf-ridden business.

Head of information systems with the county council in Monaghan, Paul Treanor, explains that things like applying for higher-level education grants or paying car tax online are of course hamstrung by the fact that you have to provide supporting paperwork. While you can email submissions on the draft development plan, there are as yet no plans to establish online payment facilities for things such as commercial rates or service charges. Treanor makes the point that investing in initiatives such as these is predicated on establishing a clear need for them. “It’s a fairly rural county and I’m not altogether sure that you would get as much take up as you may have in more built up areas.”

The library has a section of the local authority’s rather than its own dedicated site and as yet there are no interactive resources. Management systems are currently being computerised however. At the end of this process, by 2006 at the latest, it’s envisaged that there will be a fully interactive online system, allowing members to reserve and order books online.

There are six internet-enabled PC’s available free to members in the Monaghan branch of the county library, which is a lot for a branch of its size. At the moment, it’s just dial-up access, but the services are heavily subscribed. Catherine Elliott at the library notes the consternation greeted with the news that flooding had put the machines out of action for a week last month. “You don’t know how much a thing is depended upon until it’s gone,” she says. Or, to put it more inappropriately, you never miss the water until the well runs dry.

By John Hearne