- 22 Jul 20
Following the shocking impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the next five years promise to be supremely challenging. Which is why it is vital for the new coalition government to hit the ground running. For inspiration, the Taoiseach Micheál Martin might look to Sean Lemass, who transformed Ireland by embracing the world.
So, finally a Government has been formed. It’s long overdue and there’s no time to waste, on many fronts. There’s the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and the coming great depression. There’s the global climate crisis and the deep economic damage that will follow the extraordinary measures it demands.
But there are opportunities too in this precipitous moment: to re-tool, in the right way, our society and production; our ways of working, consuming and contracting; our energy production; our transport and distribution systems; our creative and cultural industries and their many spinoffs; our services...
I could go on but you get it. In fairness, the Programme for Government isn’t short of big plans. We wish them well. But words are cheap, action isn’t. They’ll need their share of luck to make it all happen.
Everybody – social reformers, green radicals, business people, educators, health professionals, carers, artists, parents and students alike – has a pet priority. Every sector has an axe to grind. Can they all be satisfied? It is a tall order.
Up here on Hog Hill, we reckon that Micheál Martin will prove far more progressive than any Fianna Fáil leader since Sean Lemass. Under Lemass our national goals were completely redefined. Our economic policy was turned towards growth, development and the future. Our education system was prioritised. A new, more prosperous future was envisaged. There were troubles, there were grievances, there were long dark nights and cold hungry days along the way. But the narrative changed.
Doing the same for Ireland sixty years later, and in just thirty months, would be remarkable. Like sixty years ago, it will demand that we abandon some old comforts.
There’s widespread agreement, certainly in Europe, that a new fiscal model must emerge after Covid-19, and that the recovery must be fair and green and focus on the regrowth of broad socially-focused infrastructure and services. Fine. But in the deluge of demand, there is typically a great gulf between the clarity about what needs to happen; and how it can be paid for. To complicate things, in Ireland begrudgery is never far away.
During one of the debates before the last election, Pearse Doherty was challenged on how Sinn Féin’s grand plans might be funded and he answered that they’d tax the seventeen Irish billionaires identified in the Sunday Times Rich List. Now, maybe he hadn’t read the list. And perhaps many of them should pay more tax.
That said, even though there are significant disparities in wages and salaries here, our existing tax system is very effective at income redistribution. You wouldn’t know it from much of what’s written on the subject but Ireland is mid-table in Europe for overall equality, and that’s according to the OECD in 2020.
But there’s a deeper problem in Doherty’s throwaway comment, and it’s a feature of much present-day polemic in Ireland. It’s the implicit disapproval of success and of enterprise. For example, second on that rich list are the Collison brothers from Limerick, owners of Stripe. Theirs is a phenomenal success story. Thanks to a recent share sale their company is now worth over €30bn.
Wow, think of the potential tax, eh?
RISK AND ENTERPRISE
Unfortunately not: the Collisons live in California. One presumes they pay their taxes there. So how could anybody with pretensions to government suggest that Ireland would tax them as well? It’s nonsense.
A second vital question follows: why is it that they – and others like them – had to leave Ireland to set up their business and grow it on the scale that they have?
Like the Collisons, Shane Curran won the Young Scientist, in 2017 with a project named Qcrypt. Now, at the age of 20, he has raised $16m to start-up his data privacy company Evervault. He has described it as an essential part of building the kind of data privacy infrastructure for the internet that is essential.
While regulation makes data privacy complex, he says, technology makes it simple, adding that with Evervault, developers can do more in one line of code than GDPR did in 99 articles.
Lots of big tech names fancy his chances. Silicon Valley features, of course, but there are Irish-based investors too. It sounds great. We wish him the very best, especially when he says: “I’m thrilled to be on this journey and look forward to growing our world-class team here in Dublin to work towards our mission of making data privacy simple and accessible for all.”
So here’s the challenge: how can the new Government help to build a social and economic ecosystem that will encourage Shane Curran, and others like him, in many spheres of action, to build from Ireland rather than California? Even more importantly, how can they open our public service to greater appreciation of risk and enterprise? Solve that riddle and you’re a long way towards creating an economy that can carry our current green, and egalitarian, expectations. We need to value and nurture our entrepreneurs alongside our artistic creators and performers.
RADICAL AND TRANSFORMATIVE
The word entrepreneur means “one who undertakes” or “adventurer”. Entrepreneurs share much more with artists than you might think. Both can be described as people of ideas and innovation. Both should play a key role in our economy – but for this to happen, and for entrepreneurs and artists to prosper, we need to embrace risk rather than shun it, as we currently do and as the ultra-cautious response to the pandemic showed so clearly. And we need to be less begrudging.
Finally, let us return briefly to Sean Lemass. He led what many think was the most radical and transformative Government of all, and with a parliamentary minority at that. He fought in the rebellion of 1916 as a teenager and later on the anti-Treaty side.
In June 1923, after the end of the civil war, his brother Noel was abducted and murdered, almost certainly by pro-Treaty forces. His body was dumped in the Dublin Mountains. Yet, in later years Lemass was one of those who led the Republicans into parliament and then government. He became a great leader of the State, a man with a totally different view of the future to de Valera’s. The latter’s vision, not unlike many Greens today, was for a rural and frugal Ireland; whereas Lemass wanted Ireland to be as central to the workings of the modern world as possible and he did his best to make it happen.
That’s as good a model as ever, in 2020!