Dave Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of Fitzgerald+Co., and Kevin Conboy, president of the Irish Chamber of Atlanta, are members of the "Global Irish Network," which is committed to facilitating Ireland's economic recovery and promoting its cultural and educational strengths.
It’s a great week for the Irish! And while the prognosis is guarded, this is a story of Ireland’s rise, and fall, and its current recovery. According to the Chinese proverb, ‘Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.’ Ireland is getting back up, and Americans can learn from Ireland.
As recently as the late 1980’s, Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, with per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at 65 percent of the average for the European Union (EU). It was wracked by labor strife, chronic unemployment (approaching 20 percent, violence in Northern Ireland (“the Troubles”), and an absence of the collective will to change things. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, things began to change.
First, Ireland’s membership in the EU began to pay big benefits, with reduction of trade barriers and with substantial transfer payments to Ireland for its agricultural sector and the upgrade of its infrastructure.
Second, Ireland dramatically reduced its corporate tax rate, to 10 percent. (It remains low, at 12.5 perccent).
Third, it focused on education “like a laser beam” – upgrading schools throughout the country and creating an excellent educational system substantially free through the college level.
Fourth, Ireland’s principal economic constituencies – labor, farmers, employers and the government – came together and entered into a social compact, renewed annually.
Finally, Ireland aggressively sought inbound ‘foreign direct investment’ (FDI), particularly from American companies.
The success of the Industrial Development Agency Ireland (IDA) was so dramatic during the 1980’s, 1990’s and this 21st century, that to this day, there is more U.S.investment in Ireland (at about 27,000 square miles and 4.5 million people in the Republic, less than half the size and population of the State of Georgia) than there is U.S. investment in Brazil, Russia, India and China - combined.
You read that right.
The Celtic Tiger roared for the better part of 20 years. During the period from 1995-2007, the Irish economy grew at an annual rate in excess of 7 percent, the highest long-term growth rate recorded in a significant developed country. By 2008, per capita GDP had grown to 145 percent of the EU average, and per capita income in Ireland was the highest in the EU, except for Luxembourg. It was higher than per capita income in the United States.
During the Great Recession, as the economies of the EU and the United States “caught a cold,” Ireland contracted pneumonia. During the latter years of the Celtic Tiger, a boom in the prices and development of real property occurred, with prices throughout the country and particularly in the capital of Dublin rising to unsustainable levels.
And any price for property was fully financeable. And because of a substantial tax on the value of property transfers, government revenues increased and activities and obligations expanded to absorb available revenues. When the slowdown occurred and it became clear that both property owners and their lenders, the Irish banks, were seriously overextended, the then Irish government announced that it would guarantee the obligations of its banks.
The die was cast; though not immediately apparent, this would ultimately cause Ireland to need a bailout of almost $100 billion from the EU and the International Monetary Fund.
As Ireland’s economy contracted by more than 10 percent from 2008 through 2010, property values plummeted (40-50 percent nationally would be a rough average), developers, builders and construction companies went insolvent, high percentages of bank loans went into default, unemployment spiked, and the banks themselves became “zombie” banks.
One of Ireland’s big three banks is in liquidation, and another is under government ownership and control. The bad news is that Ireland’s local, internal economy remains very sluggish.
The good news is that all of that foreign direct investment, much directed at the export of pharmaceutical and medical products, software and technology, has continued to grow. Exports have already recovered to pre-recession levels. (And for the first ten months of 2011, exports were up 4 percent over the first ten months of 2010.)
Perversely, Ireland’s current difficult financial circumstances – approximately 14 percent unemployment, property price collapse, etc. – have improved Ireland’s ‘value proposition’ to prospective foreign investors, by reducing labor costs, property purchase or rental costs, and the cost of other inputs.
For the first six months of 2011, FDI in Ireland rose 19% over FDI for the first half of 2010. In December of last year, IBM issued its Global Location Trends Report, which ranked Ireland as “the top destination in the world by quality and value of investments.”
Ireland’s economy moved forward, slowly, in 2011. It did so largely because of its exports. However, as part of the bailout, Ireland has agreed to both increase taxes and cut government spending in order to reduce the government budget gap that erupted when its property bubble bust and it lost the revenue from the property transfer tax.
The government reduced welfare subsidiaries, cut government workers’ salaries, cut legislative perks and recapitalized banks. Neither the increased taxes nor the spending cuts were easy.
But Ireland’s leaders made the hard decisions. The social compact held. The pain was shared. Irish people were unhappy about these moves, but everyone shared the burden – without riots, protests and strikes.
Thus, the Irish have done all they can to facilitate recovery, they continue to make their home an attractive place for FDI and thus improve the economy, and the Irish have thus set an example for the rest of EU countries under stress, and for the United States, on how to handle a difficult situation with determination and grace.
One other thing the government has done is to tap the Irish “diaspora.” Since the 1840’s, when Ireland’s potato famine reduced the island’s population over the course of several decades from 8 million to 4 million, half of all people born in Ireland have emigrated permanently. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that many of the 40+ million Americans, and 70+ million worldwide, who call themselves “Irish,” are ready, willing and able to help.
In October, the authors traveled to Dublin to attend the Irish Global Economic Forum. This was the second time that the Irish government has invited business people, artists and academicians from the Irish diaspora to provide input to the Irish government on how they should go about solving the problems that confront Ireland.
The prime minister and deputy prime minister sent personal invitations to 400 members of the diaspora (called the “Global Irish Network” (GIN)), including eight Atlanta leaders.
The Atlanta group consists of the authors, Jim Flannery, director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation at Emory University, senior executives with The Coca-Cola Company, which has substantial operations in Ireland, and CRH Oldcastle, Ireland’s largest company, and others.
Six of the eight were able to attend. The 270 attendees hailed from 37 countries. After general sessions, we were dispatched to any of 15 smaller breakout groups to provide input on topics ranging from job creation to education to national reputation. The stated goal of the forum was simply articulated: “to make Ireland the best small country to do business in by 2016.”
Forum participants paid their own way and provided more than 1,700 man hours of free consulting – much it from the best and brightest minds in global business, education and the arts. Former President Bill Clinton, singer and activist Bono, and the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney, were part of the group.
The prime minister and deputy prime minister (who represent different parties in Ireland) along with many other members of the Irish Parliament across all parties and senior representatives of government departments and relevant state agencies participated in the breakouts, which were facilitated by University College of Dublin business school faculty.
The quantity and quality of initiatives recommended was phenomenal. But what was most impressive was the fact that a government was not merely listening to its constituents – but is committed to implementing the recommendations. The prime minister announced that the government was there “to listen, to engage, to act, to follow through and to report.”
Attendees have already received a full report on the Forum and are now receiving regular updates on the progress against the initiatives recommended. And if there’s no progress – reasons why. How utterly refreshing. The Irish media covered the event from gavel to gavel – ensuring a transparency that attendees regarded as further evidence of government eager to listen and to act.
The forum’s recurring theme was “What will each of us do when we get back home on Monday?”
The government’s report on the Forum was released just six weeks after the event. The lengthy report summarized the discussions and deliberations and catalogued the many ideas of the participants.
Further, the government separately identified a dozen initiatives, including visa reform, ‘the Gathering’ (an organized effort to gather the diaspora back to Ireland for a visit), the establishment of a Strategic Communications Unit within the office of the Taoiseach (the prime minister), an advocacy system for Ireland, and a conference which occurred last month in New York, organized by Bill Clinton, to solicit additional U.S. FDI into Ireland.
Follow-up by the government has been sustained. In addition to frequent communications from Dublin, members of the GIN frequently hear from the Honorable Michael Collins, Irish Ambassador to the US, and from our own consul general of Ireland, and friend, Paul Gleeson, here in Atlanta. (The Atlanta Consulate, opened in the summer of 2010, was the first Irish Consulate opened in the United States since 1933.)
This cooperation and teamwork is part of the reason why Ireland, unlike many other European countries, is digging out of its current economic crisis. Austerity is politically unpopular
But the Irish people and their government have pragmatically approached their very difficult times by taking personal and political hits in order to lay a strong foundation for the future of their great country. We are confident that the best ideas raised at this year’s Forum will also be implemented by this engaged, caring, listening government and embraced by an equally engaged and concerned populace.
The authors are citizens of both Ireland and the United States. While we are proud of both countries – today, we’re especially proud of how Ireland is handling its current economic crisis – the hope is that our home country, the country that our grandfathers immigrated to, will steal a chapter from the tiny country they emigrated from.
Ireland’s problems are far from over. To some extent, Ireland’s recovery depends on ours and the EU recovery – or not. But Ireland’s problems are being confronted openly, honestly, transparently and directly, with a real sharing of the burdens necessary to recover.
Our mighty nation has much to learn from a little island in the Atlantic, from where so many of us came. We must stop bickering, pointing fingers, assessing blame, and begin to work together to reach our common goals. Ireland is doing it. The greatest country in the world can do it, too.
Dave Fitzgerald and Kevin Conboy are both damn Yankees, having come to Atlanta in the 1970’s from different towns on Long Island and having never left. Dave is CEO of Fitzgerald+Co., a fully-integrated creative, media, PR and planning solutions company, part of McCann Worldgroup. Dave serves this year as president of the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade (www.stpatsparadeatlanta.com). Kevin Conboy is a retired partner from the global law firm of Paul Hastings, and will return to full-time teaching in August at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. He has served since 2005 as president of the Irish Chamber of Atlanta (www.irishchamberofatlanta.com).