Tuesday 25 October 2016

Adrian Weckler: We're the best little country in world . . . at letting a growing conference slip away

Published 16/10/2015 | 02:30

Paddy Cosgrave
Paddy Cosgrave

'You're operating in a parallel universe where a jobs announcement or a photo opportunity at Web Summit is the biggest opportunity you see."

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As exasperated put-downs go, it's not the worst that a Government department will have encountered. Yet Paddy Cosgrave's testimony will burn both elected ministers and department officials. It's the verdict of someone who, whether you like him or not, has built a global event based on valuable connections for Dublin.

In 40 pages of email correspondence between the Web Summit and Government officials, Mr Cosgrave, who is taking his 30,000-person Web Summit conference to Lisbon next year, asks again and again whether anything is possible to alleviate traffic and transport issues around the event.

The answer he's given is masterful in its non-committal nature. "A high-level task force will oversee and coordinate arrangements for engagement, with subgroups and mechanisms as needed for different strands such as logistics, engagement with attendees, political involvement etc," said a document called a 'draft framework' sent by the assistant secretary general of the Taoiseach.

In other words, "let's have talks about talks."

But at least a couple of key issues appear to have been addressed.

First, the money. Apparently there was none. The Government put out a press release yesterday claiming that a sum of €725,000 has been paid in "financial support" to the Web Summit through the IDA and Enterprise Ireland.

What it didn't say was that that "support" came largely in the purchase of exhibition space over three years. In other words, the Government paid for a stand in the same way as, say, Accenture or Goldman Sachs would. The Government does this all over the world, such as at conferences like Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Claiming that this amounts to some sort of booster subsidy is like arguing that the Government gives handouts to Vodafone because it pays for operator services. Or to Electric Ireland for the electricity it uses.

"We have never sought a single grant or subsidy," wrote Cosgrave. "Nor have we received one. Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and others have only ever paid to exhibit or host dinners, just as other governments including Britain, Austria, Israel, France, Belgium and Portugal during Web Summit."

Unless there is something missing here, it looks like the Government has been caught in a pretty blatant spinning fib.

And the truth is becoming a little clearer. The Government just isn't that bothered with events like the Web Summit.

Sure, they'll turn up to photo ops. And they'll take any kudos going. But after that, it's not really their thing.

"In Dublin, while press secretaries constantly reached out to our team requesting photo and speaking opportunities for ministers, the British government had a cabinet minister quietly getting on with business in Dublin. No photos required. He wasn't looking for votes, he was drumming up business for British companies and the British economy at large. Other governments are cleaning up under your nose. How can you be outplayed by the British government in your own backyard? Or by the Dutch, the French, the Danes? It's surreal."

There are obvious questions that arise in all of this that go beyond the Web Summit.

Is the stereotype of our Government being a bunch of affable, yet low-level achievers still really so acute? The IDA and Enterprise Ireland have both had their share of praise in recent years. But closer to Government, does it all get a little more short-term and vision-less?

"No minister has ever attended a meeting yet they all show up for photos at Web Summit," said Mr Cosgrave in one exchange.

"Meetings for 2015 have been left to committed civil servants, who realistically without real political will are powerless to initiate significant change. We've never succeeded in getting a single meeting with Dublin's City Manager, nor been invited to one, yet we're invited constantly to sit down with prime ministers across Europe. Over five years, we've been invited to more meetings in Number 10 Downing Street than to meetings in Leinster House."

Tax exemptions? Sure. Lack of stringent regulation to let you stretch your commercial wings a bit? No problem.

But re-organising public services for non-sporting or religious events? That's a little out of our league for now.

"Even an indicative plan and we would stay. But after three years of asking and asking, we still don't even have one single page outlining even a basic committed plan for the city. What little is being done for this year is unfortunately disorganised, uncoordinated and in many instances not guided by evidence."

Other cities, including Lisbon, weren't slow to capitalise on the controversy. In many ways, this isn't about the Web Summit, it's about the capability to think strategically.

But what weeks of email correspondence between Paddy Cosgrave and officials from the Department of the Taoiseach boil down to is one basic attitude: 'Your event is grand, but we have other things to think about. So we'll come back to you in due course.'

Irish Independent

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