Monday 20 January 2020

Forum will be low key affair with local heroes taking centre stage

THE great and the good of Irish industry, philanthropy and the arts will gather in Dublin Castle tomorrow for the third Global Irish Economic Forum. As the economy picks up, the guest list moves from global superstars to local heroes.

It's fair to argue the country is in better shape now than we were at the time of the inaugural event in late 2009. Battered, but gradually picking itself back up.

Four years ago we were a year into the bank guarantee, relations with Europe were strained, the full extent of the black hole in the banks' balance sheets had yet to become apparent, and we were careering towards an international bailout which few, if any at that stage, realised.

The event was a much more glitzy affair than this year's, at least from the point of view of attendees.

In the plush surroundings of the Farmleigh Estate in Phoenix Park, we were treated to Bob Geldof and titans of industry including Denis Desmond and Intel chief Craig Barrett.

Geldof told us we were still a banana republic while Intel boss Craig Barrett complained we weren't spending enough on education.

Two years later and the 2011 guest list had another sprinkling of fairy dust in the guise of former US President Bill Clinton sharing the stage with Bono, while actor Gabriel Byrne was on hand.

Some may struggle to outline the benefits of the biennial two-day event. The Government can set out a long list, including the establishment of the Global Irish Network, the appointment of Gabriel Byrne as the first Irish Cultural ambassador, the Certificate of Irish Heritage, the Farmleigh fellowship, the Gathering, and the Invest in Ireland forum hosted by President Clinton in New York in February last year. Drumming up good will for Ireland among the successful sons and daughters of Ireland was also a bonus at a time when the state's name was being tarnished.

Fast forward five years and the latest event looks set to be an altogether quieter affair, although there are some big-name business chiefs present such as a senior executive of Coca Cola and a top manager of Citi Group.

But no former presidents, aged rockers-turned-campaigners or film stars.

I may eat my words, but there isn't much prospect of a headline grabbing event this time around.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, which organises the event, has stressed that the forum brings together 260 Irish and Irish connected figures from across the globe, for "focused and intensive sessions designed to build on Ireland's recovery and foster economic growth and job creation"

"The Global Irish Network consists of over 300 of the most influential Irish and Irish-connected individuals abroad and provides Ireland with an invaluable resource of international expertise," a spokeswoman says.

There are two initiatives this year that are worthy of mention, and both are focused on helping small and medium sized businesses.

While our reputation has been restored and we're on the cusp of leaving the bailout, the recovery is fragile. And while various surveys suggest the manufacturing and services sectors are expanding, many businesses are still not seeing that improvement.

And so on Saturday, for the first time, 100 SMEs have been invited to attend an Enterprise Ireland event as part of a networking and mentoring session between those who are taking part in the forum and Irish companies.

Separately, there are also a series of round table meetings taking place today in Galway, Cork and Belfast involving leading business chiefs.

Mark Fielding, of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) hails the forum as a positive event.

But he says Enterprise Ireland will be showcasing the high-potential start-ups, with not enough being done to get struggling businesses back on their feet. ISME isn't involved in the Forum's SME initiatives.

"When you're at the initial stages, in order to get up to a level of being a high-potential start-up, you're almost left to your own devices," he said. "Enterprise Ireland does a good job for what they've been told to do, which is go and get the top guys and bring them along.

"Saturday is good as a showcase, to show the guys off who have potential. But I would say that there is a need to show a little bit more concern and parity of esteem for the ones trying to get up to that level, There isn't enough information and there isn't enough finance being put into that area."

Danny McCoy of IBEC agrees that the event has been a success story to date. But he wonders if it's had its day.

"I don't want to prejudge it, but obviously it may be something that was of its time. It's never earth shattering but there have been a couple of things to come out of it."

Martina Devlin: main section P33

Irish Independent

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