The annual conference of the Regional Studies Association (RSA) Irish Branch was organised at NUI Maynooth last Monday. Conference speakers included representatives of the OECD, IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Forfás and Shannon Development, the ESRI, Teagasc and Irish Universities.

The conference aimed to enhance our understanding of, and stimulate debate about, the role of the regions in Ireland’s smart economy. In Ireland, a key policy response to the current economic crisis has been the Smart Economy action plan. This sets out a vision of structural reform – one that envisages the Irish economy focusing on export-led growth, innovation, R&D and high skilled jobs. However, little attention has been given to the regional aspects of this strategy and the effects on balanced regional development. Prior, during and after the conference, the RSA has received several valuable submissions. I hope you can restate these by way of commenting on this post so that they can serve to stimulate further discussion.

As a background I summarize some of the contributions below.

  • According to the two top-level OECD officials speaking at the event, regional areas internationally are very important contributors to national aggregate economic growth, in particular intermediate regions hosting medium size cities.
  • The OECD emphasised that magical ‘one size fits all’ solutions do not exist. Good infrastructure, investment in human capital and promoting innovation are all key elements. To achieve this, Ireland should ensure that it efficiently links all levels of Government.
  • Other speakers argued that local Government structures in Ireland need to be overhauled, and that the Government should now revisit the National Spatial Strategy.

Two speakers from the OECD addressed the conference. Jose Enrique Garcilazo, Head of Unit in the OECD, emphasised that regions can play a very important role in driving national economic growth, in particular intermediate regions hosting medium size cities. In fact, he argued, they are roughly as important as the contribution from the most developed regions.

According to Joaquim Oliveira Martins, Head of the Regional Development Division at the OECD, there is no magical ‘one size fits all’ formula that can be applied to all regions for promoting growth. He said that the OECD finds that the most important growth drivers are infrastructure, human capital, innovation and agglomeration. Given the range of inputs needed, Ireland should ensure that all levels of Government work effectively together in order to build a sound and sustainable regional economy.

According to the OECD, in order to build a sound and sustainable regional economy, Ireland should design regional polices that combine bottom-up with top-down approaches designed to unlock the regional potential of all Irish regions whereas past growth has been rather unevenly distributed. This requires close collaboration among actors across all levels of government, as well as the private sector and civil society. The policy design should be in line with the new paradigm shift observed in many OECD countries from redistributive subsidies to investment in regional competitive advantages and from a narrowly sectoral approach to integrated cross-sectoral projects.

Echoing the OECD emphasis on the role of Governance, Vincent Cunnane, CEO of Shannon Development called for more collaboration at regional level to drive Ireland’s economic recovery: “Current structures need to be overhauled to make regions more effective sources of economic growth and more attractive locations for inward investment.” Another speaker, Professor Jim Walsh of NUI Maynooth, said that it is now time to redraw the National Spatial Strategy, as it is no longer appropriate for Ireland for the next 20 years.

Also speaking at the conference, John O’Brien of IDA Ireland said that the IDA had had successes in attracting foreign firms to invest in the regions, and that their medium term plan would continue with this aim. However he also said that there were very real challenges to attract some companies to invest outside of Dublin. He emphasised the importance of ensuring the firms which were already employers here to reinvest in Ireland.

 Chris van Egeraat