Ireland Rising: let’s envision the next 100 years of an innovation nation

29 Mar 2016

The 1916 Rising celebrations in Dublin in 2016. Picture: Conor McCabe Photography

In all the pomp and circumstance marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it is the next 100 years that Ireland needs to consider, and innovation should be at the heart of any future plans, writes John Kennedy.

Across Ireland this past week, the “near” centenary of the 1916 Rising, when a motley crew of patriots, socialists, trade unionists, intellectuals and feminists did the unthinkable and, with a poor assortment of firearms, very little ammunition and lack of tactical or strategic foresight, challenged the military might of an empire at war, was celebrated.

The Rising was a military disaster but a spark was lit and, as Yeats wrote, a terrible beauty was born.

I resolved not to get too caught up in the emotions of the occasion. I stared bemusedly as green-clad re-enactors strode around the place with pretend rifles and I admit I enjoyed the sudden, abundant appearance of the Irish tricolour around the towns and villages I glide through daily.

As a fan of history, what really made an impression on me was how the occasion was embraced by schools across Ireland and the occasion turned into living history as schoolkids got costumed up, learned more about their history and were integral to the celebrations.

I learned this weekend, for example, that the sight of eight-year-olds belting out songs like Grace and The Foggy Dew is quite common in the hallways of Irish homes right now.

But the moment that it clicked, when I really felt a lump in my throat, was when, as the rank and file of Irish Defence Forces personnel passed the GPO, I saw the blue berets of UN Peacekeepers marking 50 years of unrelenting service to the world’s oppressed in far-flung trouble spots, and then the smart appearance of the Irish Navy.

“Navy?” I thought, and then I wondered if almost 100 years ago those desperate and hopelessly outnumbered fighters even imagined that their actions would result in a country with the semblance of a navy, or a government for that matter. Or a future.

The delayed birth of the innovation nation

One of the facts that we were reminded of in the lead-up to the Rising celebrations was the contribution of women. And how that contribution went shamefully unacknowledged in the aftermath of Ireland gaining independence.

Not only did they take part in the fighting during the rising, the War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War, but it was notable figures like Countess Markievicz who also struck a clarion call for feminism and the suffragette movement of the time.

In 1918, Markievicz became the first women to be elected to the British House of Commons, just two years after she took part in the Rising. She never took her seat. She was also one of the first women in the world to hold a government cabinet position as Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic between 1919 and 1922.

The emerging Ireland was a nation of firsts – the first women ministers and, just several years after independence, the Government spent a third of its available budget to build the Ardnacrusha Dam to accelerate the electrification of the country, a move that was lauded by no less than the Financial Times of London at the time.

I will never understand, however, how after independence the role of female fighters was largely unacknowledged, few received their military pension entitlement and, if they did, they had to fight for it.

I will never understand how a country whose revolutionary spark was also lit by feminists became for the best part of the 20th century a repressive backwater in thrall to the Catholic Church where freedoms of women and men were oppressed and the rights of many suppressed.

I will never understand the blind economic policies of isolationism pursued by De Valera, which drove hundreds of thousands of people to emigrate in the 1950s and 1960s.

Everything changed thanks to the policies of Sean Lemass and TK Whitaker in the late 1960s, which resulted in every child receiving an education, and a more open economy was born.

These visionary steps set the spark for a second Irish revolution that been has characterised to this day by our greatest raw material: our people.

It is this raw material that has transformed the nation most in the last 40 to 50 years, attracting billions of investment from multinationals and allowing for the emergence of a bold, motivated entrepreneurial class who see no reason not to be the best in the world.

In 1916, I imagine the motivation of those who took part was to react against injustice and for the bold ideal of a nation free to pursue its own destiny.

Little would the fighters of the day realise how, in 2016, this little country has blossomed:

  • The median age of the population of Ireland is 35, the lowest in Europe
  • Almost half of 25-34 year-olds hold a third-level qualification
  • Ireland is amongst the 10 best-educated countries in the world
  • The ICT sector alone employs more than 90,000 people
  • Nine out of 10 of the world’s biggest born-on-the-internet companies have a presence in Ireland
  • ICT accounts for €50bn of the nation’s exports every year
  • Pharma accounts for €40bn in exports every year and Ireland produces 50pc of the world’s pharmaceutical ingredients
  • Dublin is home to the biggest data centres of tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon and soon a data centre will be built by Apple in Athenry, Galway
  • Young Irish companies like Movidius are making chips that will drive devices made by Google and drone maker DJI while pharma start-up APC is creating 100 new jobs, mostly for PhD graduates
  • Ireland was 11th out of more than 143 countries in the World Innovation Index 2014
  • Ireland is 17th in global scientific research rankings based on data from the European Commission and

A lot done, more to do

Ireland has come a long way, with most of the progress driven by economic and social change.

Last year, the country revealed how much it has moved on in terms of being a more open European society by voting in favour of marriage equality.

But you do have to wonder what the revolutionaries of 1916 would make of a nation where, as you read this, there are thousands of children in families who have been made homeless by escalating rents and weak housing planning.

What would they make of a nation where daily the gap between rich and poor is widening?

And what would they make of a nation that throws billions at a health system that is lamentably the sick man of Europe?

What is our vision for the next 100 years? What kind of society and what kind of economic opportunities do we envisage?

Will the digital age realise an economy where entrepreneurs can set up shop in any village, parish or city and create gainful employment locally?

Will emigration finally be cast into the history books?

Will an Irish entrepreneur one day create a global business that will be a household name all over the world?

Will the internet of things age make Ireland a firm fixture of the world’s next industrial revolution?

We have come a long way, further than we could ever have imagined.

But we have a lot more to do.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years