Friday 30 September 2016

Halligan might enjoy the limelight, but skills needs a focused minister

James Lawless

Published 15/09/2016 | 02:30

John Halligan. Photo: Tom Burke
John Halligan. Photo: Tom Burke

I believe I am only the second mathematician to hold office in Fianna Fáil (the first was Dev, so the bar is high!) but when Micheál Martin appointed me spokesperson for Science, Technology, Research & Development, he stressed the importance Fianna Fáil has always attached to the pursuit of excellence in science and research - from the establishment of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1940, (Schrödinger was amongst its scholars) to the creation of Science Foundation Ireland in 2003.

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Unfortunately, this Government appears to have no such regard.

The closest thing to an opposite number I have is the ubiquitous Minister John Halligan, who is listed on the Taoiseach's website simply as the 'Minister of State for Training and Skills'.

Notwithstanding the latest appending of 'Innovation' to his title, his official delegated powers contain no such role.

The omission appears symptomatic of the Government's attitude to the sciences and the minister's recent theatrics have just added insult to injury.

Mr Halligan has spent most of the summer talking about everything but his portfolio.

The Waterford Hospital issue is just the latest in a long line - from water charges in June, abortion in July and Apple tax in August.

When a minister has to continually ask the Attorney General whether he should follow government policy, one suspects that things will not end well.

While Mr Halligan may be enjoying the limelight, the sector - which is of critical importance to the Irish economy and our education system - badly needs a champion.

Over the summer we have had two era-defining events: Brexit and the EU's Apple tax decision. Together these create a period of unprecedented challenge and uncertainty.

The multinational sector is in the eye of both storms.

Foreign direct investment has been the mainstay of the Irish economic formula for several decades, ever since Sean Lemass opened Irish trade borders in the late 1950s and started us on the road to EU membership.

All of this has led to the emergence of a highly successful multinational sector, which last year contributed 80pc of our corporation tax receipts.

It has also seen 187,000 people employed directly, and another 200,000 indirectly.

My constituency of Kildare North is home to household names like Intel, HP, Pfizer and Kerry Foods.

Recent developments put this at risk. We need a minister who is dedicated to the job, free from distraction.

Our universities unexpectedly slid down the international league tables last week with Trinity, UCD and Maynooth all dropping, which is a concern.

With Brexit, Ireland must aggressively place itself in the market for any industries relocating out of the UK, but remaining in the eurozone.

Conversely, the Apple tax ruling risks some reversal of that trend, with Ukip's Nigel Farage gleefully calling on Irish-based multinationals to relocate the other way and be "free from EU interference".

The battle is on and Ireland's sovereignty and economic fortunes are at stake.

Ireland needs a minister who will place science, technology and R&D firmly in the spotlight and will support and champion the sector. Multinationals already require certainty about their long-term positioning, while those considering coming here require solid signals that their needs will be met in terms of graduate intake, fiscal certainty and government support.

There can be no ambiguity about Ireland's offering or the benefits to international employers.

Our university sector needs solid support in terms of funding, government attention and a policy to promote the best in class research, which will in turn attract both high-capacity individuals and their teams here.

In terms of our graduate output we must consider how best to meet the demand for Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates of the sort that can make Ireland the European Silicon Valley.

When Google or Twitter have to recruit engineers from overseas - as they do currently - we need to examine what gaps still exist.

Gender remains an issue, with males still disproportionately making up the intake in Stem courses; something I noticed first-hand when my daughter was the only female attending at our local Naas 'coder dojo'.

It is hard to imagine Ireland without the presence of multinationals, without the spin-off secondary industries they create, without the high-end third and fourth level research hubs and universities.

The events of the next 12 months are pivotal to our economic future and I will certainly be holding the Government to account. Hopefully we will have a minister who can concentrate on the job in hand.

James Lawless is a TD for Fianna Fáil in the Kildare North constituency

Irish Independent

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