Foreign investment can take us so far, but Ireland needs to become self-reliant
Published 13/02/2014 | 02:30
WE can talk about economic growth and economic justice, but when put to the test, our ideas are often exposed as confused. The Labour Party came to power on wonderful slogans expressing justice and the like. But in power, it seems compelled to choose between justice and growth and the electorate perceive Labour as having sold out. Promises were forced to give way to pragmatism. Fine Gael, on the other hand, is committed to growth and not so hung up about justice.
This is based on an idea that growth will, in the end, bring justice and all will be well. Labour has had to buy into this philosophy and must hope against hope that it is true. If it turns out that austerity does not bring growth, Labour is done for.
But Fine Gael's idea of growth is superficial. Jobs figures have become the be all and end all and tiny movements in obscure statistics signal success or failure. And yet everybody knows that there is a pressure on people and on communities, which is stifling.
Fine Gael relies almost entirely on the old chestnut of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Ministers travel the world to trade shows and the rest and the opening of a foreign-owned factory in Ireland is the cause of much celebration. But FDI was an idea conceived of in the 1960s and born in the 1970s. It grew through the 1980s and underpinned the huge expansion in the late 1990s. While it cannot be discarded, it is not the future.
FDI came as a response to the previous policies of desperate and awful isolation. Lemass jettisoned the old and heralded in a new way of life for Ireland, which was to make us the most open economy in the world. He, and those around him, were visionaries; they were new and they were golden.
But that was then and this is now. To continue to rely on the Lemass vision is to have no vision, for his vision has already been realised.
This is where we need again to consider justice and growth and how they interrelate today.
Is our future to be as some giant aircraft carrier for US multinationals? Even the original FDI policy was that foreign investment would spawn Irish companies. Is it right that US corporations pay 2pc tax?
Fine Gael are status quo merchants – the party of the big farmer and the professions. FDI suits Fine Gael because it does not involve change or new thinking.
But can there be a new vision for Ireland?
Yes, there can and it is as plain as the nose on our face. What Ireland needs is new enterprises that are conceived here, that are born here, that are raised here and that become adults here. They are Irish enterprises that could in some instances become global, but they are Irish – through and through.
We can go out to the entire world and call upon talents to bring these enterprises to life. But like the children of immigrants, these enterprises will be more Irish than the Irish themselves.
I use the word 'enterprise' because it encapsulates much more than commerce. Enterprises can be artistic, revolutionary, scientific, commercial – activity of any sort that involves human creativity, here in Ireland, from conception to maturity.
How can we make the leap from the stale FDI model to something dynamic that is rooted here in this wonderful place?
In fact, it is already happening – just not with sufficient pace. There is an Irish genius which, in the right surroundings, can be extraordinary. Like any new way of doing things, it is dangerous and involves risk. But ordinary Ireland has nothing to lose from risk and everything to gain.
The ancient Greeks wrote that wisdom was the first of virtues from which followed justice, courage and then wealth. Wisdom brings wealth, not the other way round.
For a century, generations of Irish people sacrificed so that their children would be educated. This was their wisdom; they understood, even in the absence of being formally educated, the value of knowledge and the freedom it would bring. Our wealth today is a direct result of that sacrifice made in countless villages and towns in every part of Ireland.
Lemass's wisdom was his understanding that isolation in any form is ruinous. He opened the place up and the light came in.
What is our wisdom today and how can it be articulated?
The growing realisation today concerns self-reliance. This is not a selfish reliance. It is an understanding of ourselves and our capabilities. The second century of our nation's modern existence will see us looking to ourselves for our inspiration and for our growth.
Right now, one could be forgiven for believing that we have gone back a generation. We have gone back to a time of emigration and to looking outside of Ireland for help. We urgently need to stem this regression and we do that by taking risks and being daring. Yes, there will be failure but failure is the elixir that, if properly understood, is the path to success.
Labour can bide its time, stuck between a late 19th-Century ideology and a partner committed to 1960s' thinking, and hope for a miracle. But the miracle will not come and Labour will have had its time. Fine Gael will survive because there will always be those in a deeply conservative society who vote for the party of the status quo.
There is still time, though, for the incumbent. The Fine Gael conservatism has served us well, taking over at a time when the ship of State was headed straight for the rocks. The emergency now abated, we will wait and see if the revolutionary spirit in Labour, coupled with some young blood in Fine Gael, can inspire a new thinking. If not, we will have to look elsewhere.
ROSS MAGUIRE IS A SENIOR COUNSEL AND FOUNDER OF NEW BEGINNING