OPINION: Ireland’s Innovation Economy: Roots at Home and Abroad
Before the European headquarters came the call centers.
Only a decade before the much-vaunted arrival of the Celtic Tiger boom years, the 1980s were a brutal time for Ireland. The conflict known as the Troubles engulfed Northern Ireland, as its violence and insecurity damaged the business and political relationship between Dublin and London. Unemployment levels surged, particularly devastating rural areas.
Against this bleak economic backdrop, many skilled and highly educated young professionals considered leaving Ireland to be the only reasonable option. Call centers, as well as manufacturing operations, opened by American technology companies created essential jobs at the time, but all too often Ireland’s people found their opportunities elsewhere—as they had for more than a century.
Strong Irish communities blossomed throughout the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere around the world. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—with a combined population of 6.4 million, comparable to Massachusetts—spawned networks at home and abroad that were often stronger than those of larger countries. The vastness of the global diaspora and its continuity over the course of decades led to a distributed and diverse group of individuals and families with connections to Ireland.
Historically, Ireland benefited from the remittances of its exiles. My mom and her sisters and brothers regularly enclosed British pound notes or U.S. dollar bills from their wages when writing to their mother at home in rural County Kerry during the ’50s and ’60s. Similar practices continue today, only instead with financial investment, research partnerships, and relationships across businesses, academics, and nonprofits alike.
Digging out of political and economic difficulties took time and money, with Ireland benefitting greatly from European Union structural funds. By the mid-1990s, the economy had turned around. Driven by foreign investments and the successes of information and communications technologies in particular, GDP growth climbed significantly. At the beginning of the new millennium, the New York Times declared that Dublin had gone from a “Backwater to Boom Town.”
Visiting Ireland throughout this time of growth in the 1990s and living there for a period in 2006 and 2007, I remember the energy and optimism that defined the era. Many people had a reason to stay. Others had a reason to return. New arrivals came from across the EU and around the world for employment and education. Even those who worked far outside the realm of technology—for instance, those who had been in construction for decades overseas—had the chance to come back with more work and a higher quality of life. For more than a decade, this continued—until the bottom fell out as the economy collapsed into recession in 2008, only now in recovery.
While Ireland continues to confront its deficit, debt, and high rates of emigration, last year the country topped the Forbes “Best Countries for Business” list, its foreign investment remains strong, and its economy is again growing—faster than other European Union countries. Concerns of a “two-tier Ireland,” however—also expressed during the height of the Celtic Tiger—highlight the problems with relying primarily on international companies without similar attention to smaller local businesses, especially outside the hubs of Dublin, Galway, Cork, and Belfast.
Still, given many of the improvements over the past few decades, how should Ireland build on these advances?
Support infrastructure, education, and other forward-looking policies:
Ireland and its development agencies have done admirable work supporting Irish companies setting up overseas and bringing businesses of all sizes, from many locations, into the country. Government, civil society, and business leaders can further act as advocates at home, across the European Union, and on an international stage for forward-looking policies beyond corporate tax incentives.
Ireland should use its voice to advance initiatives that improve broadband connectivity and accessibility, stand up for net neutrality and freedom of information laws, and create legal and policy frameworks that encourage innovation rather than reward entrenched businesses and business models resistant to change.
Support local economies, including rural communities:
Ireland needs to continue focusing inward as well as outward, to grow stronger local economies. Replicate homegrown success stories like Storyful, as it rethinks journalism in modern times. Grow the next Kerry Group that begins small and goes onward to global success. Expand on the themes celebrated at the annual Web Summit conference, so they inspire all corridors of the economy throughout the year. With strong technical workers continuing to head overseas, the more that multinationals can be encouraged to grow their engineering and R&D presence in-country, the more reasons others will have to remain.
Dublin recently announced a Commissioner for Startups to inspire entrepreneurship, a strong hire and smart step that should encourage similar efforts elsewhere. In a country with a deep agricultural and rural tradition, it’s especially important that investments don’t solely focus on the cities—that the Silicon Republic of Ireland extends far beyond the Silicon Docklands of Dublin.
Build further upon global connections:
Diplomacy has economic impact. The Irish people and those with Irish roots in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand have long been—and will continue to be—great assets to the country. Increasingly this reach extends to Abu Dhabi, Bangkok, Berlin, and elsewhere with more recent pockets of Irish arrivals.
The demographic changes within Ireland over the past decade also create new possibilities to explore in the future. With the influx of temporary and permanent Irish residents from around the world, there are strong opportunities for longer-term ties. For instance, the Nigerian and Polish communities now within Ireland offer potential for closer ties with Lagos, Warsaw, and other hubs of commerce and culture. It requires the right efforts to ensure these relationships are strengthened.
Just last month, a McKinsey report asserted that Ireland “punches above its weight in attracting” foreign direct investment and recommended that the country “play a bigger role in the world’s flow of innovation and ideas.”
Doing so should be only natural. Ireland has deep and strong roots from which to grow—both at home and abroad.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Olszewski
Sean Carlson is a writer completing his first book, a nonfictional narrative of emigration and change in Ireland during the twentieth century. He previously managed global communications and public affairs at Google.
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