The Irish government hosted a two day event this weekend at Farmleigh bringing together 180 successful business people, native-born or of Irish descent. The stated agenda was to come up with policy ideas that will help Ireland develop as a smart economy that can compete on a world stage.

In reality this event was more about seeing how we can get the 80 million people worldwide who call themselves Irish to do more to promote and sell Ireland. Israel and India were regularly cited as examples of countries that have excelled at this and that we should model ourselves on.

The cynic would argue that this was merely a jolly to reward those who are close to the current government or state agencies, such as the IDA and EI. The invitee list did to be fair include many who would be critical of our government. Some, such as the ever-vociferous Michael O’Leary, declined the invitation on the basis that it was a talking shop.

Reports from the closed sessions suggested that there were frank discussions and that several “sacred cows” were tackled. Unfortunately the public were not given access to most of the sessions so we’ll probably never know what was said.  By the way, if I hear the phrase “Chatham house rules” from another state agency that invites or allows me to attend an event I swear I’ll lose it. First of all, bloggers aren’t journalists and secondly, why invite people to attend if you don’t allow them to report on it.

The press room where journalists spend more time than expected at the Global Irish Economic Forum

The press room where journalists spent more time than expected at the Global Irish Economic Forum

I attended the last part of the weekend hoping to pick up some nuggets from what was discussed. There were some big ideas, but to be honest I don’t think anyone would suggest there was a silver bullet and I’d be very worried if anyone were to suggest that any of these were the answer to our problems:

Global Irish Portal – this was advocated by a number of delegates, in particular John McColgan. He started off by saying that we should use the Internet to connect with Irish people wherever they are. Great. This then materialised into a new website or portal for all things Irish. Yikes.

As Michael Martin pointed out, we’ve had enough bad experiences with government portals. He should know as he was personally responsible for two of them. Where is that  national e-health portal he spent €2 million on when he was Minister for Health in 2004. The one that he “launched” as a show-case to our EU partners, but that never actually went live to the public?

Minister Martin also launched the Irish Network Great Britain last November, aimed at creating a network for Irish people living and working in the UK. That website, still funded by his department, doesn’t seem to have enough visits to make into Google Adplanner but is ranked by Alexa as 23,072,959th in terms of popularity worldwide. (My piddly website is ranked 1,269,744th by comparison.)

I smiled as he said “not me personally” yesterday during the press conference when asked about whether he was involved in any of the failed government portals.

Let’s use the Internet to connect our diaspora and share with them the challenges we face on the ground as we try to lift ourselves out of the current mess. Let’s not let the Government build it, but lets make use of the myriad of web applications (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin etc) already available for connecting people. Peter Tanham set up one such website in a matter of minutes yesterday.

European Silicon Valley – in terms of infrastructure we lag behind our EU neighbours in both eReadiness and broadband penetration. When it comes to education policy we still teach our secondary school children how to use typewriters in our schools – I haven’t actually seen a typewriter in over 15 years – and yet we don’t have computers or Internet applications on the curriculum. I can only assume that Minister Martin’s denial at the press conference that the latter is the case reflects his incredulity that this could be the case.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. For a really insightful discussion on the real issues facing indigenous start-ups visit the discussion that has been taking place today on Pat Phelan’s blog. Listen to those guys who are talking there as they are all at the coal-face.

So we’re a long way off from being a SiliconValley but there are reasons to be hopeful. There are examples of successful Irish tech companies that have made it with and without state agency support. This is John Hartnett’s (President and CEO, G24 Innovations) response to my question at the press conference about whether an Irish Silicon Valley was realistic:

Global Citizenship – apparently the Israelis do this. They give every Jew a birthright for the land of Israel. It cements identity and invites the holder to experience the homeland at least once in their lives. As I reported yesterday in my live tweets from the event, Minister Martin dodged this issue when it was raised, not once, but twice by numerous delegates at the conference.

Okay, so it could be an administrative nightmare – giving a passport to 80 million people who in most cases have distant Irish ancestry. However, think of the revenue that could be raised. 80 million times €40 per passport makes €3.2 billion. That could sort out our public deficit for a wee while!

Monetise our Culture – Dermot Desmond (IIU, the IFSC and Celtic FC) argued that our culture is our strength and it cannot be replicated. He suggested that we should now figure out how to monetise that strength. Before you balk at the thought of this, we’ve been doing this for years. Whether it’s James Joyce, the Book of Kells, Riverdance, U2 or anywhere in Temple Bar; we’ve been flogging Irish arts and culture and making a packet out of it.

When it comes to foreign direct investment it also works for us. Insiders will have you believe that companies like Facebook decided to come to Ireland after key decision-makers came on holidays here. Furthermore, in many cases the skills that companies coming to Ireland are looking for are not here or not here in the volumes they required. We’re lucky however that, because of our culture, we are an attractive location for highly skilled workers from other countries.

Ethics – I spent a little time at the conference speaking with a gentleman called Tom Corcoran of the Carlyle Institute – a Cavan-man living in Washington. He talked about the ambiguity that exists in Irish business life when it comes to ethics. He mentioned Bernie Madoff as an example of how there is accountability in the US when it comes to white-collar crime and he questioned Ireland’s position on this.

Where do we stand on ethics in business and politics in Ireland? Is there a price to pay when people do wrong? If I were looking to invest in an economy, I certainly wouldn’t be happy to do so where those that step across the line are not held to account.

Confidence – Tom Corcoran also spoke to me about the need for confidence among Irish business people. We need to be confident that we can do better, that we can lift ourselves out of the current mess. Liam Casey (CEO of PCH International) also spoke about the value of confidence:

David McWilliams promises that there will be at least five business plans coming out of this weekend. The Taoiseach has undertaken to lead out the initiative and feed the outcomes into his Innovation Taskforce. Michael Martin invited those who were listening online yesterday to join in the conversation as the government will be “sifting through” the online discussions. Let’s see.

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