Monday 23 September 2019

We shouldn't fear over-dependence on FDI

‘Ireland is in a unique position at the heart of the EU-US relationship,’ says Barry O’Sullivan. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography
‘Ireland is in a unique position at the heart of the EU-US relationship,’ says Barry O’Sullivan. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

Barry O'Sullivan

This is a time of potential opportunity and challenge for Ireland's global trading relationships. Some 700 US companies have Irish operations across every county. Many have deep roots here. US companies stand at the centre of the Irish economy and the local community, directly employing almost 160,000 people and indirectly supporting 100,000 additional jobs.

I am often asked if these jobs are under threat - if Ireland is about to lose its hard-won reputation as a great country for inward investment. The good news is that the two-way US-Ireland business relationship is stronger than ever - in both directions. But the intense competition from other countries to beat Ireland at its own game is more fierce than I have ever seen it.

So what will keep Ireland ahead of the pack? We must keep a laser-like focus on competitiveness. We must listen to the experiences of returnees and those who have moved here for the first time: opening a first pay packet and seeing the outgoings in personal taxes; seeking residential accommodation and discovering the cost of renting; searching for school places for a child to enable them to have maximum choice in their careers - from languages to STEM; accessing high-speed broadband in a local area and getting from home to work using public or private transport.

We must also listen to businesses, from startups to PLCs, and learn from how they compete and adapt to new markets. A key lesson I have learned in business is that to compete successfully, speed and agility are crucial. Ireland must take this approach in relation to its physical and digital infrastructure and public-private collaboration.

Our national debt remains very high but our renewed economic growth and expanding workforce gives us options. We must invest wisely but quickly address our infrastructure deficits. In a small country it should be easier to get from A to B, while every school and small business should have high-speed broadband.

Ireland is rightly famous for an open and collegial approach to life and our strong sense of community. Let's focus on embedding that more in public-private sector collaboration.

Our competitiveness springs from a number of other areas: tax and business flexibility; a commitment to education that has paid huge dividends to date; our world-class third-level institutions which consistently turn out highly-educated graduates equipped to take up career opportunities throughout Ireland; a new emphasis on Stem and lifelong learning. We fully support the Government's ambition in all these areas and we believe they should be strengthened to keep pace with our leading-edge economy.

Some commentators have recently posited that Ireland is becoming too dependent on US FDI, portraying it as a potential negative. The American Chamber strongly challenges that view. Some will say 'Of course you do', but it is undeniable that US investment is very important in Ireland. Our members make up around 20pc of employment in this country, including additional jobs created by innovative Irish companies providing services to US FDI companies. Deep collaboration between the FDI sector and indigenous Irish companies is mutually important and both parties derive considerable benefits. The talent pool created by FDI feeds into Irish startups and established businesses. This diversity of talent and innovation is something to celebrate, and to work hard to protect, consolidate and expand.

Many of the 160,000 people working in US companies are at the cutting edge of their fields on products and services that are enhancing lives across the world. US investment in Ireland is worth over $387bn (€311bn) and in the US, Irish companies now directly employ almost as many people as are employed by US companies here.

The Taoiseach said recently in Strasbourg that Ireland has the potential to be seen as an island at the centre of the world. I believe we have the potential to become famous as an island of talent at the centre of the world. We're building off strong foundations: a community of native talent and tens of thousands of people who have come from all over the world to proudly call Ireland home - making us global, broader in our thinking and more inclusive. The changing faces of Ireland and the Irish are transforming our society: out of every six children born today, one is born to non-Irish parents. Our global impact was felt by being the first country in the world to vote for marriage equality by popular vote.

From a business perspective, serving global markets successfully means doing so with a global mindset, making everyone feel truly "at home". We must ensure we do not place unnecessary barriers in the way of people's ability to build a life here.

In 2018, the Chamber looks forward to working successfully with the Government and state agencies in the battle to win new investment. Ireland is in a unique position at the heart of the EU-US relationship - soon to be the only English-speaking member of the EU; perfectly positioned in the global time-zone spectrum; with a diverse multinational workforce. We must make the most of the opportunities a post-Brexit world presents. Now is the time to double our efforts to equip Ireland to welcome tomorrow's wave of inward investment opportunity.

Barry O'Sullivan is the new President of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland

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