On Thursday, after I published a column about how the upcoming cabinet reshuffle could impact Paschal Donohoe’s potential re-election as president of the Eurogroup, I received a flurry of messages from politicians, political advisors and interested observers. Most were in agreement that the system needed to find a solution to keep Donohoe in a job that ranks among the most influential in Europe.
One message stood out: “In the battle between the lofty politics of the Eurozone and petty domestic politics, I would back the latter every time.”
The message came from someone who has served at the heart of government for a long period of time, and who knows how the system works.
It got me thinking about the difference between short and long-term political objectives. Far too often, we become too obsessed with the latest controversy, the latest personality clash, the latest beltway grudge.
These stories are clearly important. I have been utterly impressed (and, as a journalist, somewhat envious) about the recent work of the website On The Ditch. Its series of stories on An Bord Pleanála has been a true game-changer, while the current crop of stories about Robert Troy’s property (mis)adventures have been revelatory.
But, in addition to shining a light on these important issues, it is essential that we take a step back and assess where we are as a country, as a society, and as an economy. Because we do not end up in a particular place by chance; we end up there by choice. And it is crucial that we understand how those choices are made.
In November and December 2020, Stephen Kinsella wrote a 6-part series entitled: Where are we going? Combined, it stretched to more than 12,000 words and contains more than 30 graphs and data sets. Even today it is well worth a read.
More recently, Sinead O’Sullivan has been trying to take a 360-degree view of where we are and where we now need to go. The series has prompted a significant debate, because it has looked at areas we rarely considered (and if we do consider them, we consider them as sacred cows).
I want to retrace some of her columns, because, when you piece them together, they paint a pretty depressing vista.
First, she challenged the conventional wisdom about innovation in Ireland, and across Europe. Sinead argued that most of Europe is not creating the right people who can build things, while the European government funding ecosystem is broken and following the wrong strategy.
As she put it:
“I’m tired of reading so many articles that aggressively tell me how Europe and the US both have technological sovereignty, or that the EU is in a genuine race against China for quantum or other advanced computation. Let’s not continue to kid ourselves that everything is okay. We’ve all got some serious work to do.”
This was followed up with a grim assessment of the Irish education system – particular in third-level institutions.
Drawing from her previous column, Sinead argued that creating people who can build things starts and ends with education. However, according to Sinead, our system is designed to take the one-in-a-million extraordinary people and make them mediocre before they’ve even had a chance to realise the scale of their potential.
This article, in particular, divided opinion. But it was an important contribution to a debate that needs to be more vocal. We continually point to our world class graduates. But do we really mean it? Do we really believe the Irish education system is truly best in class?
The system has become institutionalised, sadly. This is something Sinead was eager to point out:
“Globalisation did not just change the nature of supply chains, it also changed the nature of the types of work we do. It allowed Ireland, and more broadly the West, to move away from low-value manufacturing and into higher-value design and manufacturing. Yet curiously, universities have barely noticed. We teach nearly exactly the same things to undergraduate students today when they are trying to compete in a globally competitive market for advanced technical roles as we did when they were competing within their hometown for manufacturing jobs.”
On Tuesday, she looked at immigration and innovation, arguing that Ireland can create the innovation ecosystem it needs by enabling people to come here as quickly and easily as possible. She wrote:
“There is a real opportunity to leapfrog decades of stagnant innovation growth and to kickstart an ecosystem that is currently deprived of top global talent, nearly overnight. While Ireland figures out how to grow and retain its own one-in-a-hundred-million entrepreneurs, we should at least more seriously be considering how to import them en masse.”
Like housing, these are generational issues. Education and talent will be crucial to the future of Ireland. And yet, sadly, we devote so little attention to them.
We need to stop telling ourselves that we are the best in the world, and accept that we need to improve across a wide variety of metrics and issues. Before we improve, we have to acknowledge our own weaknesses.
Hopefully, we can change. Because we certainly need to.
We constantly worry about the small stuff. Now, as the world is reshaped in the aftermath of a pandemic, it is time to sweat the big stuff.
Elsewhere last week, Tom had a fascinating interview with Altada’s Allan Beechinor and Niamh Parker. It has furloughed 40 employees after failing to secure a funding round, while internal leaks have raised questions about spending. The founders addressed these issues, while Tom sought to understand what was actually going on at the high-potential AI start-up. Thomas, meanwhile, examined the Altada money trail.
Four major data centre operators are now tackling South Dublin County Council in the High Court over the council’s decision to ban the construction of data centres. The cases highlight the conflict between Irish industrial policy and Irish environmental policy.
Deciphex, the virtual diagnostics company led by academic turned entrepreneur Donal O’Shea, has created an international marketplace for pathologists. Having raised €10.9 million last year, it is expanding internationally – despite the fact it has no clients in Ireland. Donal talked to Rosanna in our weekly podcast.
Four Cypriot-registered companies say they have been left in limbo over a €130 million charter deal with the Irish-registered but Russian-owned leasing company GTLK Europe. Francesca had the story.