Business

Sunday 19 November 2017

James O'Connor: We can't take our strong position in attracting American FDI for granted

Ireland has grown a strong reputation as the global location of choice for US business investment but the factors that brought us success need to be constantly re-examined to ensure that this position is strongly maintained Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Ireland has grown a strong reputation as the global location of choice for US business investment but the factors that brought us success need to be constantly re-examined to ensure that this position is strongly maintained Picture: AFP/Getty Images

James O'Connor

I'm a big believer in always understanding and knowing who your key business stakeholders are. How you build strong, deep partnerships and relationships ultimately influences the impact you can have as a business leader - among your customers, partners, colleagues, and broader network.

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear first-hand what is on the minds of US decision makers and business leaders, and to see how well the new US administration interacted with the Irish Government during the St Patrick's Day visit to the US.

I left Washington DC with clarity on three key points. The first is that the level of access Ireland is granted at US leadership level is as good - if not better - than any other country's representation. We need to protect it and build on it. Our various State office-holders and agencies; the Taoiseach, the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, our embassy and consular officials do an outstanding job of building and nurturing relationships and leveraging them for the benefit of the Irish economy and society.

Secondly, there is an opportunity for Ireland to play a leadership role on behalf of the EU with the US. This role is not necessarily straightforward - the EU has a credibility problem among some segments of the new US administration. They need to be gently reminded that the EU is the US's biggest trading partner and one which directly supports four million jobs in America.

Thirdly, the ongoing rally in the stock markets points to a renewed sense of confidence now felt within the US domestic economy. Confidence in the trading environment is a positive for the hundreds of Irish companies that have invested there. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has an intimate knowledge of Ireland through previous investments here, said he was "pro-trade but pro sensible trade". Because of the fair and sensible approach Ireland has consistently taken, our US business partners have responded by placing confidence in us - investing strongly in Ireland and positioning this country as their gateway to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

And it's not a one-way street. Irish companies are creating almost as many jobs in the United States as the United States is creating here. And Irish entrepreneurs such as Dr Pearse Lyons of Alltech and the Collison brothers, founders of Stripe, are creating amazing innovative companies in the US. On both sides of the Atlantic, companies are investing in R&D and creating high value employment. This is a powerful example of free and fair trade in action.

During our visit last week, US business leaders called out Ireland as an exemplar in how countries can attract and retain inward investment. Our leadership role at the EU table on key issues such as data was also noted. Many of these leaders emphasise how centrally important Ireland is to their global operations, and how the world-class talent in Ireland enables them to consistently serve their markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa with efficiency, ease and amazing innovation. These markets could not be served with the same success from the US. Investing in Ireland has been good for US business, and for the US economy.

It is incredible to think how our contribution to America has transformed over the centuries. From being the principal source of manual labour for the great US infrastructure projects of the past, it is an Irish company that is the number one producer of asphalt, the second-largest producer of aggregates and the third-largest producer of ready-mixed concrete in North America today. In newer sectors, Irish companies are creating clusters of excellence in fields from nutrition to cyber-security to drug development services in the United States.

Ireland has grown a strong reputation as the global location of choice for US business investment but the factors that brought us success need to be constantly re-examined to ensure that this position is strongly maintained. There are a lot of international changes occurring - in the US, in the UK (with Brexit), and beyond. While last week clearly demonstrated the strength of the relationships between Ireland and the US, it was also very clear that we don't yet know the true impact of the new administration.

With these factors outside of our control, we can't take our strong position in attracting FDI for granted. We can't rest on our laurels and we must be more ambitious in raising our game. As well as our strong pro-business environment, we need an education system with sufficient choice of schools, and one which offers lifelong pathways to education and training. An education system that equips boys and girls equally to avail of the opportunities that will flow from the digital economy, which is growing at pace across all sectors. We need fit for purpose physical and digital infrastructure; including an extensive, advanced broadband network across Ireland. We need a globally competitive personal tax regime that rewards productivity. And we need access to quality accommodation to meet the needs of a changing population.

Last week, the political and business leaders of Washington rolled out the welcome mat for Ireland. While that is gratifying, we can't know what the future will bring. Instead we must stay sharply focused on consolidating our strong position as a global leader for US FDI.

James O'Connor is President of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland

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