This week’s Time magazine has an interesting interview with Leo Varadkar. Whether or not you are a fan of the new Taoiseach, being profiled in Time is good for the country. The value of this type of international publicity is difficult to overstate. Contrast the image of Mr. Varadkar talking to the world about tolerance, centrism and the future with the Orangemen up the road talking to themselves about intolerance, tribalism and the past.
Granted it’s not hard to look Mandela-esque when compared with the bowler hats, but compare Varadkar’s Time magazine message of openness and liberalism with Teresa May’s narrowness, telling the British people that if “you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. The implicit threat in May’s remarks is not lost on anyone. Or forget May and her bowler-hatted allies, compare Varadkar’s observations about respect with Trump’s embarrassing misogynistic “You’re in such good shape” to Madame Macron.
Mr. Varadkar’s final statement in the Time interview resonates:
“Ireland is not so much a country at the periphery of Europe, but an island at the centre of the world”.
This is a crucial statement and marks a vision for the country that has come a long, long way from the parochial navel gazing of our founding fathers.
Cynics will say this is only PR, marketing and spin; nothing more than lofty words and image manipulation. But that misses the point. In a world of global capital, people and networks, image is everything. Image is the first thing that the world knows about you. Your image is crucial. If the country is led by someone that the world can relate to as being part of something new, something different, something hopeful, then the image of the country changes a little bit.
The reason all this is important is that the world — and critically the world economy — has shifted so much in the past decade and the notion of an island at the centre of the world is compelling.
When we achieved independence, the nationalist and parochial navel gazing of the first generation of leaders that looks outdated to us now, was extremely apt back then. Remember the world was in the process of major de-colonizing. It was a world of hopeful independence movements and this placed newly independent Ireland at the centre of contemporary thinking. Economically, that accompanied liberation was the economics of nationalization when it was believed that large-scale government-owned strategic companies would deliver prosperity.
Romantically, the liberation language of the righteous struggle, national self-determination and independence pitted courageous national movements against brutal colonizing oppressors. In a way Ireland was an exemplar for the politics of the time. That was our image and in a sense it was in tune with the times for at least half a century.
But that was the 20th century and this is the 21st century.
The 21st century is a century of networks, mobile capital and mobile people. It is not a world of national movements, borders and national government-owned companies. The 20th century view of a job for life, a steady planned career and “the world owes me a living” is over.
The world has become in many ways more precarious, careers less permanent and the gig economy is becoming more and more the norm. This presents huge opportunities for the country that positions itself at the centre of this world. Furthermore, because of the collapse in the cost of communications, geography that for millennia was one of the most significant determinants of wealth, is now redundant.
Commercially, Ireland can be the centre of the world.
It is hard for many Irish people to appreciate the way Ireland is perceived as a beacon for hundreds of thousands of young people who are on the move all around Europe, let alone all around the world. Talk to young Croats, young Poles or young Greeks and they will tell you that Ireland is a place they’d like to live and work. This is a huge resource for us and national image is important.
Consider the cultural goldmine that these migrants present for Ireland in the future.
It is important not to blow it.
The Financial Times reported this week that Dublin was leading the pack as the preferred destination for companies relocating from London following Brexit. According to the FT:
“The EY study, which follows statements from 222 of London’s biggest financial services companies, said that so far 19 had spoken of a move to Dublin/Ireland, whereas just 18 have mentioned Frankfurt/Germany. Luxembourg comes in third place, with 11 mentions.”
This is a once in a generation opportunity for Ireland. The 20th century reaction to this would be to declare that we in Ireland have our existing, inflexible rules and if companies can fit into our existing structures then they are welcome to come here.
The 21st century response to this opportunity should be very different. Brexit has created a unique situation brought about by the decision of the UK electorate. We in Ireland could set up a special Brexit offering, like a Christmas 2 for 1 deal in retail, and make it as easy as possible for these companies to pick Ireland immediately, rather than agonize.
We are in the selling game after all.
Consider getting into the heads of the individuals who make the relocation decisions right now. On the basis that individual greed and self-interest have proved to be, over the history of humanity, extremely influential factors in decision making, why not offer these key corporate decision makers ex-pat tax deals such as the Dutch do? Offer them a Brexit special 30% income tax package if they make the decision in the next 12 months. We could require that corporations meet certain conditions. For example, a minimum head count or that corporations must make significant local investment in housing. There are various conditions we could impose in our favour while still appealing to the self-interest of the individuals as opposed to the faceless corporation.
The 20th century reaction to such opportunism would be indignation, but the world has changed and the difference between countries will be between countries that think and behave like they are in the 21st century and countries that continue to think like they are in the 20th century.
The tax revenue from these companies — both corporate and income tax — could be ring-fenced for social spending and in that way everyone wins. With technology all this is possible. It just demands a mindset change.
If we want to be at the centre of the world, we have to tell the world why we should be. Brexit is a great opportunity to assert that we are a 21st century country: open, tolerant, flexible and well aware where our calculated, self-interest lies in a rapidly changing world.
This type of thinking would make Mr. Varadkar’s aspirations a reality.