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Beware the Dragons, and those who would tremble before them

Last Tuesday, hours before the Government unwrapped its jobs package, RTÉ Radio's News At One cut to the real story. Just as Born-Again Christians are encouraged to ask themselves the ultimate soul-searching question in moments of crisis -- what would Jesus do? -- the national broadcaster evidently decided it was time we all examined our consciences with the secular equivalent: what would the dragons do?

The big beasts in question are not mythical creatures, like unicorns, mermaids or people who take Willie O'Dea seriously, but rather the five venture capitalists who adjudicate on the business ideas pitched by contestants in the reality TV series Dragons' Den.

Most of the dragons' suggestions were eminently sensible. Niall O'Farrell, founder of a formal-wear company, advocated enterprise grants. Gavin Duffy, an investor and media coach, called for a reduction in red tape. Sean Gallagher, who made his fortune in construction, recommended the establishment of a programme to teach small business managers how to expand into export.

Drawing on his experience in running a coffee-shop chain, Bobby Kerr argued for tax-cutting initiatives, including a PRSI holiday for employers. Norah Casey, a magazine publisher, was eager to see an internship scheme for graduates.

While all these proposals have merit, you may have noticed there isn't a single magic formula among them. That's because magic formulae exist only in fairytales (and the policies of Joe Higgins). Ireland's unemployment problem is very real and can only be battled by steady progress on multiple fronts.

Yet, by elevating the opinions of any small group above all others, we risk creating the impression that wisdom lies in following the lead of an elite that has the inside track. It's precisely this kind of thinking that destroyed our economy in the first place.

Of late, there's been much adverse comment about the role played in economic debate by so-called celebrity economists, and there's considerable justification in the argument that inordinate weight is being accorded to the views of a handful of pundits who are distinguished primarily by their talent for self-promotion. We would be no less foolhardy to fall for the charms of celebrity entrepreneurs, and there's good reason to suspect some of us are starting to do so.

An overseas visitor to this country could be forgiven for imagining that Dragons' Den is a political party rather than a TV series. When not outlining their economic manifestos on RTÉ news programmes, several of the show's stars are happy to hold forth on virtually any issue on any one of their multiple media platforms.

Nobody seems more convinced of the dragons' potential as national saviours than the dragons themselves -- witness the astonishing fact that one of their number is touting himself as a would-be president. If hubris was traded on the commodity exchange, shares in Gallagher would be going through the roof. The bookies, however, aren't so easily impressed.

Personality cults are always a bad bet, for both the guru and the followers. Moreover, a reputation for business acumen is by no means the same thing as money in the bank, as we know from the well-documented travails of Sarah Newman, a former dragon who's also been making headlines in recent days.

So beware dragons, and those who would have you tremble before their awesome might. The five incumbents may have emerged from different business backgrounds but, having grown accustomed to the warmth and rewards of the limelight, they are now united by a devotion to showbusiness, the most fickle racket there is.

Indo Review