Wednesday 28 September 2016

We're not in the game if €13bn bolt can come out of the blue

Published 17/09/2016 | 02:30

European Commissioner for Violation of EU Treaties Margrethe Vestager addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Photo: Reuters
European Commissioner for Violation of EU Treaties Margrethe Vestager addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Photo: Reuters

Surprises can go down a bomb: like at a kid's birthday party; but when you are in government they can go off like an atomic bomb - especially when they carry a €13bn price tag.

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Decisions like the Apple ruling involve many moving parts and this is all about the big picture.

To be in the game, you have to be aware of the momentum, the ebb and flow of play.

Bolts of this magnitude cannot come out of the blue and must always be on our radar. Our guys on the ground must pick up something in the wind; expecting a minor slap on the wrist, instead of a full-on attack speaks to a failure in intelligence. I do not mean that we should have an army of spooks in Brussels but a knowledge-based economy is built on connections, and relationships.

I spent 18 years in the Council of Ministers in the EU. There are always whispers in the corridors of the complex of buildings around the Espace Léopold at EU HQ.

But it is often after the official meetings that the real briefings and tip-offs are traded.

It needs to be reiterated, the Government must appeal the Apple ruling; but make no mistake, Brussels is central to our future and we must build, not burn, bridges.

All relationships are complicated. But keeping the triangular partnership between ourselves, Brussels and the multinationals in harmony while meeting the needs of our open economy has to be managed with French discretion, American business acumen and native Irish ingenuity.

Foreign direct investment here is our economic oxygen. It can't be turned on or off arbitrarily, a steady and rich supply is critical. So we must state our case and make our position clear: retrospective decrees, outlawing how Irish State aid was given, have to be challenged.

But the Commission has to be engaged with it, we can work things through. Yet there must be no more seismic shocks coming our way, a warning signal system must be in place. The multinationals don't like sudden subterranean jolts, they work on solid foundations, like the ones we laid down here, and they must be protected.

For all those firing off volleys from the Left, we need to remind ourselves we can't take things for granted. The massive capital expenditure foreign corporations have committed was intended for the long haul. The huge contributions in corporation tax, the hundreds of thousands of jobs that flow from all this, come from painstaking work in building three critical pillars: trust, confidence and certainty. All of these need maintenance and constant attention.

When big corporate investors came here, they would meet with us and we could always guarantee that, whether it was Fianna Fáil or some other party that was in power, we recognised and embraced the idea of cohesion and stability in the economy. In government and on the industrial front, social solidarity and a pro-business culture could be taken as a given.

This means no unforeseen game-changers thrown into the mix on a whim.

While we are touching on the subjects of confidence and durability, I find it hard to look past a 'best case' survival scenario of 2018 for this Government. That is providing they can get a Budget over the line.

Once again, the theme of 'relationships' rears its head. I wrote here before about respect for Cabinet confidentiality and cohesion. If you lose it, you can forget about delivering, you lose direction and security goes out the window.

Having survived juggling with three Coalitions (1997, 2002 and 2007), you learn quickly that volatility has to be handled with care. In order to stop leaks that might undermine or weaken some vital pivot in precarious coalition arrangements, we used a point man.

Séamus Brennan was brilliant in his role as a political horse-whisperer, calming nervous members and making sure the stable door was never left banging in the wind.

But as Taoiseach, I also established, worked with and relied heavily on cabinet committees.

When an idea was born, it was road-tested by the department, then when proposals were drafted, they went back to the committee to be further kicked around. Only after all this was a memo prepared and Cabinet worked it over again for final approval, before going public.

In other words, everyone was in the loop and no-one got caught on the hop.

We have enjoyed a golden autumn, but on the industrial front it looks like we are heading into a harsh winter.

The current deadlock at Dublin Bus, matched with stirring discontent in the gardaí, teaching and nursing sectors, all need to be addressed and the sooner the better.

Once more the 'R' word comes into play: relationships with unions have to be taken seriously; lines of communication must be open and clear and this channel must go to the top in Government.

No matter what the dispute is, the minister is the person with the executive power looking after the public interest. If they opt out of a dispute, they still bear the responsibility, so why not get involved as an agent of change and facilitate a resolution?

Social partnership has become a much-derided term due to the mistaken view, among other things of Benchmarking 1, but there is never a mention nowadays of Benchmarking 2, which gave no increases to public servants.

It has also been conveniently forgotten that it delivered almost two decades of industrial peace after the near-collapse of public services here in the mid-80s. It is always better to talk, than to threaten or walk away.

Conflict can't always be avoided, but it always has to be managed. Whether dealing with Brussels, Apple or the unions the thing is to speak respectfully and, above all, don't frighten the horses.

Irish Independent

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