Wednesday 21 February 2018

We must face facts and find new fiction to beat Brexit

Irish exporters face their greatest challenge yet in adapting to a post-Brexit world, we must fight to protect all our exports. But having invented and re-invented industry and services, we've never been better placed to use our imagination and talent to create a dynamic and prosperous future without our traditional reliance on the UK and its markets, writes Nicola Byrne

Inventions such as the iPhone show how much technology can change the world around us — Ireland’s exporters will need to change with the demands of brexit. Stock image
Inventions such as the iPhone show how much technology can change the world around us — Ireland’s exporters will need to change with the demands of brexit. Stock image

Nicola Byrne

Where do we go from here? Brexit is real and it's happening Ireland is at risk and we find ourselves trying to work out what are we going to be after all this has happened. Our ability to identify with the UK is strong and there has always been a link, it's just part of who we are and we found ourselves in this position. Yet we are different.

On a recent trip to Bakewell, Derbyshire, I learned one fact about our difference.

Not one that applies to anything important, yet this fact was fascinating - there are no moles and snakes in Ireland - though there are in the UK. All my life I just assumed that the reason I hadn't seen a mole was because they are underground and nocturnal.

How could I not have learned there are no moles in Ireland? For those interested in why we have no moles, 15,000 years ago Ireland was covered by ice - a mile high. As that ice melted, the sea levels rose again and the moles and snakes never made it across - fact.

So, if that's what a fact looks like - let's have a look at fiction. There is a book called Sapiens in which I read that what makes humans so special is the ability to "invent fiction".

The list of our invented fictions includes law, religion, education, banking, and insurance. None of these things are tangible items we can hold and touch, yet we live within them and are defined by them.

Over the past 100 years we have seen things move from fiction to fact. An iPhone - the knowledge of a billion people at the touch of a button - looks like magic when held by somebody who has never seen any technology. Just 120 years ago, we had no airplanes.

It was our ability to imagine and create them that turned flights of fantasy into flying facts.

So, why do moles, snakes and invented fiction matter? It matters because now, more than ever, it's important to make decisions based on facts while also trying to make invented fiction work in our favour.

Let's look at the facts. Ireland finds itself it a unique position in our history - we are a global leader at many things.

Attracting inward investment. Being one of the world's biggest exporters of pharmaceuticals. Being ranked consistently as being among world leaders in fields as diverse as working conditions, aviation financing, foreign aid, competitiveness as well as being ranked as the world's best for economic, press and political freedom.

We're really good at a lot of things.

In 2016 we exported €117bn a year and 88pc of this was made up of exports by foreign companies - not Irish companies.

Some Irish exports are still based in real and tangible areas, such as food and agriculture - and these are under real threat with Brexit. Irish indigenous companies export 46.2pc to the UK, unlike foreign-owned companies where the UK accounts for only 9.2pc of exports, while the US, at 25.7pc, is the largest market for them.

Our Brexit negotiations will need to protect all of our exports - especially growing ones, like services. Ireland already exports 50pc more software than food.

Trade has changed hugely over the past 100 years. We have turned fiction to fact and traded it to create wealth.

Looking out the window 150 years ago you would have seen every man with a hat and a horse.

You would have believed that investing in hats and horses were a safe bet until Henry Ford came to Ireland and built the first cars.

Our own business is testament to the changes that are occurring around us.

Eleven years ago, we set up a directory enquiry business providing one of the oldest services to telecoms for whom operators have been needed for over 100 years. In this new world of invented fiction digital has replaced the need to call for a number.

In response to this decline in directory enquiry business we invented a new service which, four years later, now trades internationally.

Using new technology, our agents in the call centre now read the internet for large banks and semi-states.

In real time, we assess risks and content and then pass those on to the people who need to action them. This couldn't have been done 10 years ago because it wasn't required.

You can't touch this service - you can see it on paper and screens but the work that's been done is invisible.

Every risk from upset customers, systems failures, employees and reputation is analysed and collated.

We now get paid to assess risks. We invented this service, created software which we built from our thoughts. In return, we get money through a banking system that delivers numbers seamlessly to our bank account. We then pay employees electronically - who use that money to consume real products and services.

So, to review the facts - Ireland is very similar to the UK - but different in important ways. Brexit is happening.

We are world leaders at exports. Our future exports are just fictions. We are experts at converting fiction to fact and selling them. We need to protect our exports - especially those that are new and growing.

If unmanaged, Brexit poses huge risks to our existing exports especially if everybody is solely focused on protecting what we currently have. We will only thrive if we look forward.

We need to imagine our children selling their imagined fiction and services to other people, all around the world. We need to make sure that our future is protected too.

The future is going to as great as we can imagine it to be. We'll need talent to make that become fact.

We've never been better placed to do that.

Nicola Byrne, the founder of, is the incoming President of the Irish Exporters Association

Sunday Indo Business

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