Jobs agency must run to stand still this year
THE IDA's glory days are over but there is still some life in the fabled agency which holds such a special place in the establishment's heart.
At the turn of the last decade, the state agency created 23,000 jobs. A year later disaster struck as the technology bubble burst and it created 10,000 fewer jobs, but even that terrible year saw more job creation than last year's performance which was widely praised yesterday.
The intervening decade has seen the number of people employed in IDA-supported firms remain almost unchanged, despite the agency's best efforts to attract companies to our shores.
There are many reasons for this relative failure and most of them are not the IDA's fault. Ireland has become much more expensive as salaries and other costs, such as land, soared.
Many countries in eastern Europe have copied our low-tax strategy and the world economy has changed beyond recognition as Europe loses market share to countries such as China and India.
While the IDA can't be blamed for the excesses of the Celtic Tiger, it can be criticised for failing to spot the emergence of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of yesterday's report is that only five of the 61 companies which set up shop here for the first time last year came from the economic powerhouses that are Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Emerging markets will never play the same role that the United States plays in Irish life.
Only a limited number of companies in low-wage China or India will ever want to move manufacturing here no matter how low corporation tax is, but it is disappointing that the IDA has been so slow when it comes to wooing the sleeping giants of the Far East. Countries in mainland Europe have stolen a march on us.
The big picture is that the IDA will have to work increasingly hard in the years to come to preserve what we already have.
With so many large companies already based here, it is difficult to attract others. When you already have the vast majority of top 10 pharmaceutical companies in your country, it becomes hard to find a dozen smaller ones to replace any giants that leave.
But they will leave as patents run out and the appetite for expensive drugs grows in the Far East and shrinks in Europe. Low taxes will never be enough to replace them.
The agency has the usual five-year plan which talks glibly of cloud computing and clean tech as possible saviours, but it remains unclear whether a country with high energy costs and a lousy environmental record will really cut the mustard in these areas.
It would be churlish to criticise the IDA too much after the success of 2011, but the truth is that 2012 will be a much greater test for the agency which receives €86m from the State every year.
Last year was terrible for Ireland, so it is easy to forget that it was a reasonable year for the world economy which made life relatively easy for the IDA.
With the US economy skirting recession and Europe's economy almost certainly in recession, this year could be far more challenging for chief executive Barry O'Leary and his colleagues as they attempt to lure struggling US companies and corporations here to sell into the struggling European market.