Speech to the Irish Times Business Awards

9th May, 2019


Thank you for the warm welcome.


It is fantastic to be here tonight with you all for only the second ever Irish Times Business Awards.


I know Liam Kavanagh and Ciaran Hancock from the Irish Times have worked extremely hard in bringing all of this together with the support Seamus Hand and all his team from KPMG.


Their hard work, energy and enthusiasm for the subject has turned these awards into a fixture of the business calendar after only one year.


Thank you all for the energy you have poured into making tonight a celebration of the very best of Irish business.


Historical Business


It is always a pleasure to be here in the Round Room of the Mansion house.


One hundred years ago, in 1919, the first Dáil Eireann met under this spectacular circular domed roof.


In this decade of centenaries we are reminded of our nation’s long and proud legacy of courage and determination.


Of leaders on all levels and in all sectors, from Cosgrave to Markievicz, who strove to improve the Ireland of their time.


And business is no different.


We have seen many leaders in business make huge contributions to their communities and this country.


Many things have changed in the last one hundred years.


A quick perusal of the Irish Times business news on this day in 1919 reveals that there was a boom in rubbers and oils with the textile market displaying some considerable strength.


Movers and shakers were stalking Dunlop Rubber shares while the Nedrem Tea Co. announced a decent dividend of two and a half per cent, less tax.


Some of this appears quite quaint.


Especially hearing tonight about the winner of the Local Enterprise Award, Strong Roots.


I am not sure what sort of market there would have been for kale and quinoa burgers in 1919 but the phenomenal growth and success Strong Roots is enjoying shows that these are the kinds of products that modern Irish and international consumers want.


And if you explained to the Business Correspondent in the Irish Times in 1919 that the State forestry body was a player in the wind electricity generation sector here you would have gotten strange looks.


So congratulations to Coillte for their Deal of the Year award for the sale of their stake in four large wind farms.


Some of the older stories seem less quaint.


The paper also featured an interesting discussion on the negative impacts of proposed new tariffs on trade and the potential for a harmful trade war as a result.


As much as industry, technology and capital have changed it seems like some political and economic topics remain as relevant today.


Importance of the Media


The Irish Times has played an important role in shaping and influencing our country over the last hundred years.


It has produced many great journalists, both business and otherwise, who have made huge contributions to public debate on the issues of the day.


I speak regularly about how we can respond to the rise of populism and the discontents of democracy that together pose such a profound challenge to the global economic order upon which so much of our prosperity is built.


The media, in particular, plays a unique role in responding to this challenge and questioning power, whether such power be politicians in government and in opposition, powerful businesses or individuals.


The media also has key responsibility to be a force for good, to deliver authentic journalism in an age that seems to sometimes be overwhelmed by clickbait and cheap headlines.


It is difficult to avoid populism and maintain ethical values while navigating the challenges of new media, declining print circulation and paywalls.  


Now more than ever we need institutions like the Irish Times to stand up and be counted.


Never more so in business reporting, where seeing the big picture, engaging with difficult questions and sometimes difficult realities plays an important role in framing and informing public debate.


Serious Business


Picking up on the infectious energy and enthusiasm in the room tonight, I think it’s clear we all take the business of doing business pretty seriously.


The Irish have always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a strong sense of business acumen.


We travelled the world building cities and breaking new ground on a whole host of business frontiers.


Where there was opportunity the Irish were never far behind.


The mythos of the opportunities of America were built in contrast to what often felt like a poverty of opportunity for many generations here at home struggling with a staid, restrictive and slow to change business and economic landscape.


So many Irish men and women, with so much to contribute, did so elsewhere.


We have gone from one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of the most technologically sophisticated economies in the world.


Many years of hard work to lay the groundwork for one of the most open, responsive and innovative economies in the world.


The strength of our recovery from the depths of recession is largely due to the internationalisation of our economy.


In the past 10 years our level of exports have more than doubled and GDP has grown by 50 per cent.


During the same period, domestic demand only increased by 15 per cent.


We have also recovered all of the jobs lost during the crisis and are on track to reach full employment soon.


The composition of our labour market has also changed, with considerably less weighting towards construction and a clear shift towards internationally traded services.


Multinational companies see Ireland as the ideal investment location and many of our indigenous companies confidently walk amongst global giants, punching far above their weight.


One such company is Smurfit Kappa, a giant of the European packaging industry.  Its CFO, Ken Bowles, was recognised here tonight as the Irish Times CFO of the year. And for Smurfit Kappa it was some year indeed.


We must also recognise Dalata, the Irish Times Company of the Year, which was founded right at the precipice of 2007 and found its feet during the financial crisis.


Now, some five years after going public it is the Republic of Ireland’s largest hotel group and expanding internationally, which is hugely to the credit of Pat McCann and his team.


One issue Dalata and many other domestic businesses face is the cost and availability of insurance.


I fully recognise the extent to which this has been a major issue in the Irish economy for consumers, voluntary organisations and businesses.


Consequently the Cost of Insurance Working Group, chaired by my colleague Minister of State D’Arcy, was established and has done excellent work in trying to address this issue through the implementation of its Motor and Employer/Public Liability Reports.


Significant progress has been made on the motor side in particular as CSO data indicates that the cost of motor insurance has fallen by 23.8% since July 2016.


However, there is still much work to be done particularly in the business insurance area. 


In this regard, the Personal Injuries Commission has highlighted the significant differential between award levels in this country and other jurisdictions, and has made a number of recommendations to address this issue, in particular the establishment of a Judicial Council to compile guidelines for appropriate general damages for various types of personal injury. 


Both I and Minister of State D’Arcy believe that this awards gap needs to be significantly closed and we are working closely with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD, to implement the recommendations of the Personal Injuries Commission to ensure that this happens at the earliest opportunity.


Openness brings Innovation


I have repeatedly discussed the need for and argued for political and economic openness.


Whether it be our role in the European Union.


Whether it be the openness of our society, through our labour market.


Whether it be trying to make the case for a trans-Atlantic relationship that can work for both sides.


Ireland’s openness to ideas, trade, people and investment lies at the heart of our economic strategy.


That has been the essence of our social and economic model now for four decades, but for the last two in particular.


And tonight I want to make the case for continued and increasing openness and transparency in business.


Tonight is not about recognising dynasties or lauding inherited titles. Everyone here tonight has earned their stripes.


They have gone the hard road.


They have experienced repeated failure and risked again anyway because they are passionate about business.
They have done this because that is what great businesses and business leaders are made of.


At its best business is a meritocracy.


And seeing the breadth of the nominee business leaders here tonight, the innovation and ingenuity of the nominee companies I am left in no doubt as to the overwhelming benefits to us all when business embraces proper openness and allows fair competitive forces to shape their destinies.


Diversity of thought and openness have been key to bringing us where we have gotten to.


But we must keep innovating.


We have to make sure that the business leaders of tomorrow are not side-lined because of their gender or background.


If we are to continue to compete and to thrive globally, we need to be a nexus of business and innovation, where youth and experience work hand in hand to ensure their businesses stays at the forefront of their industry.


We must take the best indigenous talent and attract the best international talent.
I was therefore very pleased to see such a strong field of candidates apply to succeed Phillip Lane as the Governor of the Central Bank.


Whilst Phillip becomes the first Irish person to join the European Central Bank’s executive board, the new Governor was born in Egypt to a Cypriot-British father and Greek-Armenian mother.


He is literally moving from the other side of the world, New Zealand, to become the first non-national to head up the Central Bank.


You are all prominent influencers of the Irish business scene. You represent Ireland at home and abroad.


Our joint ambition should be to ensure that Ireland nurtures and attracts the best talent.


Recently the Irish Times reported that 4 out of 5 women still felt that a “glass ceiling” exists in the Irish workplace whereby women did not reach the same professional levels as men.


The feminist campaigner and author Caroline Criado-Perez writes in her extraordinary recent book ‘Invisible Women’ of the habit of the “default male” bias.


All of us in business and political life must renew our efforts to guard against this.


And I believe we are improving in this regard.


There is around 30% female representation on boards in Ireland and this figure is over 40% for State boards.


The trend is going the right way but it needs to relentlessly and passionately continue.


I all too frequently hear the excuse it is hard to find appropriately qualified women for boards.


I do not accept this.


We should not accept this.


Today I made four appointments to the board of Home Building Finance Ireland a new entity I established to provide finance to the property sector.


Finance and property are, traditionally, male dominated sectors.


Three of the four new board members are women. Importantly, they were all appointed on merit alone.


I know that both industry leaders like the Irish Times and KPMG are strong advocates here and I commend you on this and urge you to continue.


The Meritocracy


Businesses must be challenged to be part of an economic and social model that that’s inclusive, that’s sustainable, and in which we all have a stake.


I believe, at its best, business is a meritocracy built on people having the right character, skills and behaviours rather than being based on their gender, ethnicity or what school they attended.


This will ultimately lead to a more capable, effective, respected and inclusive business that attracts and retains the best customers and employees.


This in turn will help businesses to aspire to their highest level.


This is what the Ireland of today is becoming and we need to ensure that this continues to be the Ireland of tomorrow.


Ireland is a global leader across a number of sectors and that is something I am very proud to be able to say.


We need to continue to promote Ireland and its businesses to a worldwide audience.


We also need to future proof our economy for the challenges and opportunities ahead.


Our ambitious plans, including the Project Ireland 2040, Rebuilding Ireland and Future Jobs Ireland are core to this.


Another central element of this future proofing will be to ensure that all of our citizens have access to broadband connectivity.


Broadband connectivity is vital to supporting future living standards.


Every policy choice that will support our social contract – education, health, transport and employment opportunities – will require effective and fair access to broadband connectivity.


That is why I was glad to support the Government’s decision yesterday to appoint a Preferred Bidder for the National Broadband Plan.


The delivery of this project is in the national interest and for the common good of all our citizens.


In Conclusion


Our island at the centre of the world should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind when it comes to somewhere to do business.


Being nominated or winning an award tonight is only be a stepping stone for each of you.


You know where you started from, you know where you are right now and I know you are thinking of ways and ideas of how to take yourself personally, and your business to the next level, whether that is domestically or globally.


To compete globally we need to bring our best players to the fore by working together, embracing openness and transparency that we are going to build the businesses and business people that the 21st century demands.


I would like to thank you for your time and enjoy the rest of your night.