The elections are over, it’s time to put things right

28 Feb 2011

Much has been said and written of Ireland’s ‘Democratic Revolution’ of recent days. However, warns editor John Kennedy in his look back on the week, the victors must hold true on their promises to grow Ireland’s digital and scientific economy.

There have been all kinds of phrases that emerged in recent days to quantify what happened when unprecedented numbers of Irish citizens expressed themselves at the polling booths on Friday last.

“Democratic Revolution” or the “Death of Parish Pump Politics” are typical of the media’s reportage over the weekend.

When the euphoria dies down, the new Government will face an uphill struggle as it makes and implements economic decisions that will immediately prove as unpopular as those of the last regime. There’s no getting around it, the pain doesn’t end with a change of Government.

It would be wrong to expect overnight change. But what we can expect is the implementation of the policies of the victors in the elections. This is what they sold to the people, they have an obligation to deliver on the promise.

Need for infrastructural prowess

There are so many things to fix, from health to transport. We need to become a fairer country for all of our citizens. But, in my immediate sphere, one of the travesties of recent years was the lack of foresight and consideration given for Ireland’s communications and broadband infrastructure, which will be integral to the country’s SMEs being able to trade their way out of recession and grow jobs. This will also be integral for the nation’s citizens to get educated, apply for jobs and build their own businesses.

While Ireland has every right to believe that Dublin, for example, can claim the title ‘Internet Capital of Europe’ because of the concentration of global internet giants that have chosen to locate there, that can’t be said of Ireland’s SMEs – the backbone of our economy – out of whom only 21pc have the ability to handle e-commerce transactions. Internet-savvy UK businesses are gleaning more from the Irish economy than their Irish counterparts because many Irish SMEs aren’t sufficiently digitally literate or connected.

Ireland’s broadband woes go all the way back to the disastrous decision to float Eircom on the London and New York Stock Exchanges in 1999. What should have been the jewel in the nation’s infrastructural crown was subsequently asset-stripped, sold, re-sold and again re-sold.

While all this was happening, the Government of the day failed to heed calls again and again on the need to invest in crucial broadband infrastructure or change our punishing bankruptcy laws.

There was a lot of hot air about Ireland’s vaunted ‘smart economy’. Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett said that if indeed Ireland had such a thing it would consist of smart people, doing smart things, in a supportive, entrepreneurial economy.

While the previous regime could have made major changes to Ireland’s education system (smart people) and supporting entrepreneurs by changing our doomed-to-failure bankruptcy laws (supportive entrepreneurial economy) it did, in fairness, help foster a knowledge economy (smart people) by investing through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in scientific infrastructure and resources.

But we cannot afford to carry on if two legs of the same stool are missing.

Policies regarding broadband

In their policies, both Fine Gael and Labour said they would embark on considerable next-generation broadband projects.

For its part, Fine Gael said €2bn out of a €7bn infrastructure package (NewERA strategy) would be invested in telecoms and it would merge State-owned fibre assets into a Broadband 21 network. Last week, Fine Gael Leader and our new Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD said he would aim to boost games firms by allowing companies to offset the R&D credit against employers’ PRSI as an alternative to corporate tax.

Labour Leader Eamon Gilmore’s party also outlined plans to boost our digital infrastructure through its NetCo proposal, instruct ComReg to reduce LLU prices and boost the nation’s digital literacy.

Each of these proposals would go a long way to enabling Irish people to establish Irish businesses and trade in the 21st-century economy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – fibre infrastructure and the access to high-speed communications will be a game-changer for Irish SMEs and citizens, not to mention the public sector.

The best metaphor I can draw on is this: in the 19th century, railway lines and seaports were the arteries through which trade flowed. In the 20th century, airports became the game changers. In the 21st century, the flow of business will be via high-speed fibre and wireless networks.

To triumph from these networks we need a nation that is digitally literate, highly educated, brave, entrepreneurial and imaginative. We need scientists working side-by-side with entrepreneurs. We need kids who can code and have the self-belief to try, try and try again.

The work at hand for the new regime will be daunting as there is much economic damage to repair and the task of boosting national morale and self-belief in itself will be enormous.

But one thing the new leaders cannot afford to ignore is the digital and scientific imperative. We’re a different country now and if we’re to be a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century, these are the fields we must dominate.

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