In the clouds

Ahead of what is sure to be another harsh budget tomorrow, there have been a number of news stories announcing the creation of new jobs in Ireland.  The timing of this is of course strategic, offering a glimmer of hope in what promises to be another bleak winter of public service cuts and tax hikes.  The unstated message here is that austerity policy is working; that if we can weather the long winter of discontent the coming spring will be blooming with the new economic opportunities that are slowly beginning to grow again through the permafrost left by the Celtic Tiger’s collapse.

Leaving aside the pertinent issue of the crippling debt that Ireland carries, this message is still deeply problematic and the economic policy that it valorises is rather depressing.

But first: what of the jobs themselves?

The first of these stories was the announcement by the Government that Shannon Airport will be separated from the Dublin Airport Authority by the end of the year and merged with the landbank of Shannon Development next year to form a new State-owned company “NewCo”.  As the Irish Times report, “it was announced that two Shannon-based companies had signed memorandums of understanding to create 1,000 jobs within three to five years in the area on the basis that Shannon would be separated from the DAA” and that up to 3,500 new jobs are expected to be created through the venture.  According to a statement by Fine Gael TD for Clare, Joe Carey, “NewCo… will drive the development of a world-class aviation industry at Shannon, as well as working with tourism and enterprise agencies locally to the benefit of the wider region”.  This all strikes me as more than a little opaque and I’m at pains to see the evidence that splitting Shannon Airport from the DAA will have a decisive impact on its economic prospects in the absence of other market factors that have little to do with economic policy.

The second story, that US cloud computing company Dropbox are to set up their international headquarters in Dublin, was a little more conclusive.  The company’s decision will initially bring in just over 40 jobs, but this number is expected to increase once the company gets up and running in Ireland.  Part of the media allure of this story is that U2 front-man Bono, who was an early investor in the company, was instrumental in persuading Dropbox to come to Ireland.  Dropbox’s Sujay Jaswa is quoted in the Independent as saying: “Bono has been a great investor for us, and he and the Edge were very persuasive in their arguments for setting up in Ireland”.  Meanwhile, Bono himself suggests that “This smart and innovative company will find a smart and innovative workforce here in Ireland, with a creativity and commitment second to none. The Irish Government worked hard on this, and the IDA played a blinder”.

Bono’s comments are particularly telling.  In his rather patronising spiel, the Irish Government comes across as a sales team with the IDA as their star player.  But I can’t help but get a vague sense of an aura of incredulity emanating from Bono; it’s as if this was a game he had expected his team to lose, but by sheer guile and tenacity they pulled off the unforeseen victory.

There is something unsettling here that takes us back to problematic nature of Ireland’s economic policy.  The image that Ireland presents to the world is of a confident, creative, educated and innovative place, “the best small country in the world in which to do business”The hope is that by projecting this image, companies like Dropbox will come and invest here and, by virtue of the employment they create (if not the taxes they pay), Ireland can grow itself out of recession.  Meanwhile at home the budget does the dirty work of austerity hidden from the global spotlight, further eroding public services in areas such as Health and Education, and with them any substantive basis underlying the image of Ireland that the Government likes to project to the world.  And as the structural foundations of the state become weaker, the nation continues to practice the increasingly precarious policy of reliance on foreign direct investment.  The fact that in 2006 U2 moved part of its business to Holland to avail of a lower tax rate makes Bono’s ambassadorial role in brokering the deal with Dropbox seem all the more apt.  He makes a suitable figurehead for the casual indifference the Irish Government gives to the incongruity between its external image and internal policies.  When weighed against the deadening barrage of cuts that the last few budgets have brought, the small victories that these stories highlight, rather than signalling new growth from the ground up, seem more like small kites floating through the clouds, oblivious to the frosty landscape of despair below.

Cian O’Callaghan