Why Ireland needs a 2020 vision

20 Mar 2006

The cornerstone of our present economy is the inward investment gains of the Nineties and today that have made Ireland the envy of Europe and the world at large. In our €51bn technology industry alone some 90,700 people are employed in more than 1,300 indigenous and multinational companies.

One third of all PCs sold in Europe are manufactured in Ireland. A fusion of the IT industry and an equally powerful pharmaceutical sector should ideally place Ireland for the challenges of the 21st century.

Such gains, however, look set to be eroded due to rising costs, the supply of human capital and infrastructural headaches. More than ever we need vision and the key lies in the past.

The inward investment strategy driven by IDA Ireland was a product of the nerve exuded by Sean Lemass and TK Whitaker in shaping economic policy in the Sixties.

Whitaker, for example, believed that free trade with increased competition and the end of protectionism would become inevitable and that jobs would have to be created by a shift from agriculture to industry and services. Lemass summed up his economic philosophy in one simple but often quoted phrase: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” By this he meant an upsurge in the Irish economy would benefit both the richest and the poorest.

In 1965 a new report called Investment in Education was published. After more than 40 years of independence the report painted a depressing picture of a system where no changes had taken place.

Lemass’ decision to back the endeavours of several young intelligent Ministers of Education, in particular that of Donagh O’Malley who announced that from 1969 all schools up to Intermediate level would be free and free buses would provide transport for the students, had far and wide implications. It could be argued that the economy of the last 10 years was built upon such visionary approaches to education.

Less than a month ago it was announced that some 350 jobs were to be axed at Japanese technology company NEC’s semiconductor plant in Ballivor, Co Meath. It is understood that the company decided to close its Irish manufacturing operation because of high operating costs and is moving its operation to Malaysia and Singapore. The NEC plant in Ballivor has been operating for more than 30 years and was long regarded as a jewel in the crown for Ireland’s electronics industry.

The lesson from this in my opinion is that the cornerstone for Ireland’s economic growth of the next 20 years can be summed up in one word: ‘relevance’. Ireland needs to stay relevant in the shifting landscape of the global economy and we need to make far-reaching decisions in terms of education and infrastructure to stay relevant.

We are being told again and again that in order to compete against Asia for the best projects we need to ‘move up the value chain’. Some people have assumed this means manufacturing is dead. Not so, says Barry O’Leary, divisional director for ICT and life sciences at IDA Ireland.

“It really depends on the operation’s position in the overall value chain. NEC in Ballivor was conducting test and assembly operations.” O’Leary pointed to Intel’s major 4,000-strong manufacturing operation in Leixlip, which is engaged in developing and producing the wafers for the latest generation of Intel microprocessors. “Intel’s test and assembly work is conducted in the Far East,” he said. Intel also conducts vital R&D work in Shannon.

He pointed to significant gains in the past year with major technology job creation projects announced by major internet players such as Google, Yahoo! and eBay. O’Leary also pointed to the recent announcement that more than 1,100 new jobs are to be created at Carrigtwohill in Cork by 2010 with the investment of more than US$1bn by Amgen, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies, in a major manufacturing operation. Amgen plans to build process development, bulk manufacturing and fill and finish facilities at Carrigtwohill.

“We are currently focusing on winning higher-value activities for Ireland,” he explained. “Look at Amgen in Cork. It doesn’t mean Ireland is not interested in manufacturing; it’s the type of manufacturing that’s done at the higher end that’s vital,” O’Leary said.

Winning higher-end activities means having the right graduates with the right skills and ‘fourth level’ is the new term de jour. However, such a strategy as observed back in 1969 begins at primary and secondary level where young minds’ aptitude for computing, science and engineering takes shape.

In Northern Ireland, for example, some US$100m is being invested as part of a Classroom 2000 initiative to enable education authorities there to proceed with a 10-year plan to give all students from primary to university level access to their own PC, email address and broadband access. In the Republic, however, a paltry €20m for computers and €18m for broadband by comparison are being invested with no overriding strategy on training teachers or teaching through technology being mentioned.

Seaghan Moriarty, a former primary teacher who also works in the third-level sector and who has worked as webmaster for the Irish National Teachers Organisation and the Irish Primary Principals Network, points out: “All that money we are ploughing into mortgages is borrowed money for the future, basing it on our expectations to earn money on a good economy in the future. We won’t be able to participate in that economy because we won’t field the graduates in the same way we did in the Nineties.

“Not only should Irish pupils be learning technology but they also should be learning through technology. The Government is doing a huge disservice to the economy by having an ad hoc vision. The technology is here and the Irish are just not prepared,” Moriarty warned.

Irish political leaders with an input into education and communications policy should consider themselves sufficiently warned. It’s time for you to stand up and make your mark.

By John Kennedy