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Thomas Molloy: Rediscovering our 'soft power' would give the country a lift

EVERYBODY wants to be a "soft power" these days; even military superpowers like the United States.

Like sex appeal, soft power allows you to punch above your weight and get away with things that the plodders are forced to endure, like repaying your debts.

One of the great myths of Irish public life is that Ireland is universally loved for the craic, our famous but often unreadable writers or the Cliffs of Moher. That myth was debunked recently in an intriguing survey on soft power by the always readable 'Monocle' magazine which combined with the London-based Institute of Government to produce a report on the world's top 30 soft powers.

Ireland didn't make the list, although both Portugal and Greece did.

Those compiling the chart used the sort of criterion put forward by foreign policy expert Joseph Nye when he first came up with the concept of soft power two decades ago: foreign aid, number of think tanks, income inequality, spending on scholarships, patents, FDI, tourist visits, film exports, UNESCO heritage sites, Olympic gold medals and the like.

Obviously we would have done well on a few of these scores, such as FDI and foreign aid, but in almost every other category it is not hard to see why we were among the few established EU members not to make the grade.

Some people will shrug and dismiss concerns about soft power as a luxury we can no longer afford. Others will argue that it is so intangible that there is no point in trying to improve our position.

They are wrong. Anybody who lived in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s knows that we had soft power back then.

Bands such as U2, films such as 'The Crying Game', poets such as Seamus Heaney, along with unspoiled countryside and UN peacekeepers all helped to make Ireland much more famous and influential than we are today.

We can never be a cultural superpower like France (third place) or Switzerland (eighth place) but we can surely return to the top 30.

At a time when our economic policy amounts to little more than boosting exports and renegotiating our debt, the importance of Ireland's reputation overseas is all too evident.

We need people to believe that 'Made in Ireland' means something and we need people to believe that Ireland is worth saving. In fact, we need to be worth saving.

The sad truth is that it is rather late in the day. We haven't played much of a role in international affairs for more than a decade. During the Tiger, we were too full of ourselves, and during the bust we have been feeling too sorry for ourselves.

A big missed opportunity was the peace process in Northern Ireland which could have been the key to expanding our soft power if only we had had more idealistic politicians who were prepared to travel the world like Sweden's (sixth place) ex-foreign minister Carl Bildt.

Small countries need to be niche players but we have squandered the opportunity to become a player in the peace arena where we have genuine expertise and could give something back while also burnishing our reputation.

While chasing office this time last year, Enda Kenny told voters that we must measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.

Thanks to 'Monocle' and the Institute of Government, we can make a stab at measuring where we stand in the world and start to improve that standing so that being Irish is no longer the cause of rueful jokes.

For this to happen by next year's survey, we have to start winning gold medals in the London Olympics (without losing them afterwards), convince Neil Jordan to start making decent films again, reduce income inequality, start treating the environment as a serious issue, create a few decent tourist destinations and fight violent crime.

It's a tall order but not impossible.

Men overboard in NAMA brain drain

WHAT is happening at NAMA these days? The agency has lost three high- profile members in four months. Last to leave the sinking ship was lending boss Graham Emmett who quit last Friday.

The former Goldman Sachs banker might be familiar to some readers for making some sensible comments about the future of the Irish property sector which were later disowned by NAMA itself.

Other NAMA bigwigs to walk include board members Peter Stewart and Michael Connolly.

NAMA is so absurdly secretive that we can only guess at what is going on.

It may well be that Messrs Emmett, Stewart and Connolly have all left because they see opportunities overseas or they may be unhappy with progress at the organisation or the level of political interference that NAMA must endure these days.

Trouble is that we are unlikely to be told anytime soon.

What we do know is the agency cannot spare people like Mr Emmett who appeared to understand how markets are meant to function and who actually had a few good ideas, such as setting a deadline for selling off the UK property (quickly rubbished by NAMA which must now contend with falling prices in the UK) and renting empty flats to tenants to increase the value of apartment blocks.

Mr Emmett appeared to understand what the poor dunces in NAMA just don't get: apartment blocks full of people paying rent have a value. Empty apartment blocks, the only type that NAMA seems to like, are just a drain on the State's coffers.

DCC profit alert was as clear as the driven snow

SOMETIMES the markets really are dense. The fate of DCC's shares, when they fell 6.8pc during trading on Monday after the company said warm winter weather would equate to lower profit, is a case in point.

How can this profit warning have been a surprise to DCC's investors and the analysts who follow the company? Do they not have gardens with snowdrops and daffodils pushing through the flower beds? Do they not pay for their own fuel bills or watch the energy prices charged in the rest of Europe?

It is almost alarming that serious investors have been taken unawares by the inevitable reduction in demand for heating oil and bottled gas that follows one of the mildest winters in living memory.

The market's regular surprise at such simple cause and effect makes it difficult to believe that the analytical apparatus exists to chart more complex events.

While the warm weather may be confusing for the country's flowers and wild life as well as DCC shareholders, it has at least saved Finance Minister Michael Noonan from too much flak following his decision to cut the winter fuel allowance.

Perhaps he could now introduce real reform of this outdated allowance and link it to the weather, rather than handing out the same amount of cash year after year regardless of whether there is snow on the pavements or buds on our trees.

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