Thursday 19 July 2018

'Don't shoot people for creating wealth'

Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor was supposed to take over a 'good news department' - but Brexit changed everything

Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor Photo: Caroline Quinn
Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor Photo: Caroline Quinn
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

'Money doesn't grow on trees. Somebody has to create wealth," says Mary Mitchell O'Connor, as she launches into a defence of people often described as 'toxic'.

The new Jobs Minister is beginning to find her stride after weeks of readjusting to life with a portfolio.

Like every TD, she had heard plenty of stories over the years about Cabinet meetings from colleagues and media leaks - but they are still not what she expected. There's no time anymore for leisurely walks on Dun Laoghaire pier and even if she worked 24 hours a day it would be impossible to keep everybody happy.

But that's what Ms Mitchell O'Connor seems to want to do.

'Think Small First' reads the handwritten sign on the printer in her Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation office across the road from Leinster House.

"Everyone talks about the massive 500 jobs announcement but you have to remember that it's also the small business owner that employs one, then two and three people," she says.

"That's the key to it, especially in rural and regional Ireland. That's why that's there. I put that there to remind myself of that all the time."

Perhaps the motivational notes shouldn't come as a surprise given Ms Mitchell O'Connor's background as a school principal.

Whether it's Brexit, the challenges facing rural towns or demands for pay increases she refuses to be negative.

"Everything has opportunities and threats. We have to make sure that we grasp the opportunities that are out there," she explains.

The Fine Gael TD argues that not enough focus is put on the small home-grown enterprises and retailers needed to breathe life into the regions, and that too much disdain is targeted at the big multinationals that employ thousands.

"Somebody has to create wealth. Then we have to share wealth and make sure all our people get a fair chance and that there is equity," she says.

"But at the same time don't shoot the person that is creating the wealth. They are not toxic. There are here. They are putting their necks on the line as well," she says.

Her appointment straight from the backbenches to such a central ministry caused some surprise in political circles but doubters concluded that with the economy recovering it would be simple enough to keep a 'good news department' on course. Today, she is expected to announce the creation of 300 new jobs in Cork, Kilkenny and Dublin. The Programme for Government sets a target of 200,000 new jobs by 2020, with 135,000 of them outside Dublin.

However, in the wake of the UK referendum, that task became immeasurably more difficult and Ms Mitchell O'Connor now finds herself at the centre of one of the biggest storms to ever face this country.

She insists the targets will still be achieved. There are plans for "beefed-up" trade missions to China and India. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland have engaged in major behind-the-scenes work and the Budget will offer an opportunity to entice more business to Ireland.

She flatly rejects any suggestion that the French government is being more proactive when it comes to luring financial service companies looking for a new home outside London.

Her view is that new business will be won in backrooms and boardrooms, not from putting up billboards.

"We have a competitive edge. We'll be making sure that our Budget will be helpful to potential clients that might come into the country. We'll do our work. We've been doing it for the past five to six years," she says. "We are looking at every tax measure that we can. We're looking at what is the best environment for business and FDIs coming into the country, but also for our own indigenous business and our small businesses."

The minister reveals that Enterprise Ireland is likely to get funds for extra staffing in the Budget to help indigenous companies diversify.

"This country, in 2011, when the last Fine Gael government came in, was on its knees. What we put in place was to go out there, be proactive and bring foreign direct investment into Ireland. We will continue that job," she insists.

"That's really my priority - to make sure that the IDA and Enterprise Ireland can go out and fight for jobs."

She believes many larger businesses planned for Brexit but smaller ones were not as prepared. And Ms Mitchell O'Connor says those clamouring for big pay hikes on the back of last year's economic figures should pause for thought.

"Brexit is a reality check for the whole country. It really is. We all need to be just very careful. It's only five-and-a-half short years ago that Enda Kenny came into government," she says.

"The country was on its knees. We need to be careful now. We could easily slide back. We could lose our competitive edge and you would find that the FDI companies will get that message too," she says.

"There is a balance between employers and employees. What we're pushing for is to make sure that jobs are sustainable. Please God there will be two million people employed in Ireland in the coming months and I want those jobs to be sustainable."

But many would ask whether her own job is even sustainable in a precarious minority government.

She believes Fianna Fáil must "pull on the green jersey" and help the partnership stay the course.

"I believe that they would want Ireland to do well," she says, adding that she loves her new job.

"The challenging piece is that I could work 24 hours a day. There aren't enough hours in the day. What I really find great is the wonderful people out there that I'm meeting and we never hear their voices. Let's say in retail - they employ 275,000 people. We never hear their voice."

She adds: "I try to be in the constituency on a Saturday evening and a Sunday. I really work 18, 19 hours a day. I absolutely love it. I have landed in a really proactive department."

In her own words

"I think Brexit is a reality check for everyone. I think we have to be respectful in terms of the that relationship and symbiotic relationship between the employer and the employee. The employers have had it difficult as well."

- On the clamour by some for pay hikes.

"We have to have confidence in the IDA. It's not just putting up a billboard or an advertisement in London or Paris."

- On attempts to attract new investment in the wake of Brexit.

"Money doesn't grow on trees. Somebody has to create wealth... Don't shoot the person that is creating the wealth. They are not toxic. They are putting their necks on the line."

- On the opinion some people have of multinational companies.

"We have a 12.5pc corporation tax rate. It has served us really well and that is a line in the sand for us."

- On Ireland's tax rates

"If I can give a message to parents, especially for parents of Leaving Cert students, there are huge opportunities out there especially in engineering, biopharma, and all about the internet of things. It's a complete new world out there."

- On job opportunities

"I don't get a chance to walk down Dun Laoghaire pier. I try to be in the constituency on a Saturday evening and a Sunday. I really work 18, 19 hours a day. I absolutely love it.

- On life as a minister

Irish Independent

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