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Friday 18 October 2019

Kevin Doyle: How the Taoiseach cosied up to giants of Silicon Valley

Leo broke tradition on US trip, but there are clear pitfalls in getting too close to tech firms

Main image: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar opens Microsoft’s new €134m campus, at One Microsoft Place in Dublin last February. Picture: Naoise Culhane
Main image: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar opens Microsoft’s new €134m campus, at One Microsoft Place in Dublin last February. Picture: Naoise Culhane
The Taoiseach opens the new Google offices at Grand Canal Street in Dublin in the same month. Picture: Tony Gavin
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

If you are planning a global takeover then where better to have as your base than an island "at the centre of the world".

That's the message that Leo Varadkar took to Silicon Valley just weeks before Christmas, when he made his first trip Stateside as Taoiseach.

Mr Varadkar broke with tradition and headed to America's west coast rather than Washington, opting for the vibrant tech 'leaders' in their open plan offices over the largely male and stale politicians on Capitol Hill.

It gave the young Taoiseach a glimpse of how the other half live, fuelled by office-cooked rather than homemade meals, and a quest to be the best rather than to do their best.

In the space of 48 hours, Mr Varadkar had whizzed his way through the boardrooms of Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google, Stripe and others.

He liked them and they liked him.

Things went well, perhaps with the exception of Apple boss Tim Cook who was shutting down plans for an €850m data centre in Athenry, Co Galway.

It was at Facebook that Mr Varadkar seemed to enjoy himself most. Their Californian base is the largest open plan office in the world. Decorated by artists, the walls also contain an endless stack of posters made by staff.

It's like another dimension - but for a company that has so much information about us, they don't like us to see too much of their world.

The journalists accompanying Mr Varadkar were warned not to take any photographs that might capture a computer screen.

We even had to be accompanied to the toilets, in case we went rogue.

Everybody was fantastically friendly, but it was clear that our presence was messing with the system.

In the absence of us reporters being present, we were told it's possible to find Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk in the open plan office among the bank of 30-somethings in hoodies.

Up on the rooftop are health bars, and deck chairs nestled among nine acres of shrubbery, and a running track that overlooks the marshlands of Menlo Park.

The office walls are covered in a combination of professional art installations and posters made during 'downtime'.

The motivating slogans included 'Even busy bees stop and smell the roses' and 'What would you do if you weren't afraid?'

Mr Varadkar posed up with billionaire Facebook creator Zuckerberg in front of a specially commissioned 'Cead Mile Fáilte', bordered on one side by poster reading 'Focus on Impact' and on the other by 'Be Bold'.

During their meeting the pair mainly discussed the social media network's set-up in Ireland. Issues around privacy and safety are not thought to have featured heavily.

And at the end, Mr Varadkar was able to announce that Facebook plans to increases its workforce in Ireland by "several hundred" this year.

At Google, the Taoiseach was similarly feted in their bright and airy offices which had been 'greened up' for the occasion.

He laughed as he walked down a staircase lit up with the most-searched words of the day.

Among them was All Souls' Day (It was November 2) and Tax Reform.

Over at Apple the mood was far more business-like. Sources say that while Mr Varadkar found Zuckerberg to be affable, Tim Cook was stern.

Apple didn't invite the media inside, although they did give us a demonstration of the new iPhone X - before promptly taking it back off us and directing us towards the on-site store.

During his trip to Silicon Valley, Mr Varadkar's message was simple: Ireland wants to be the tech capital of Europe, our taxes are legal but low and the Irish people are pro-migration.

But there was no notable mention of the need for tech giants to clamp down on predators who target children online or questions about how social media is becoming all-invasive.

The Taoiseach said the "power is shifting west". But surely after the past few days he must begin to ask if too much power has moved to California.

Irish Independent

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