Chamber Patron, Niall FitzGerald KBE DSA – Keynote Speech to British Irish Chamber of Commerce Annual Conference

England and Ireland: The Only Game in Town?

Tackling New Relationships between Commerce Culture and Community

Keynote speech by Niall FitzGerald KBE DSA

to the Annual Conference of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce

Dublin on Thursday 16 March 2017

Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to speak with you today. Though my home is in London I am a frequent returnee, particularly to Dublin, Cork and Limerick.  I recently took a former Director of the CIA on a week long Irish Tour…but that is a story for another day! Of course there could hardly be a better time to be in Dublin than on the eve of an Irish opportunity to block an English World Record.

Well quite clearly Ireland and England are not The Only Game in Town. But for the next few minutes I want to talk about two “players” in particular  – one English and one Irish as it happens – who helped shape our “modern game”.  Who took bold leadership roles that were to secure and sustain their communities for decades.

So let’s stand back.  In recent weeks you’d have had to pinch yourself to be sure you hadn’t woken up in the middle of some surreal drama, with a walk-on part in a movie or TV show – somewhere between La La Land and The Great British Bakeoff (where you get to have your cake and eat it). It seems the new reality is a world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ – where there is only time for dumbed down news, ideally in 140 characters or less, and where the ‘expert’ is never as attention-grabbing as the social media celebrity. I spent several years as Chair of Reuters whose commitment to reporting the news accurately and without opinion was legendary… but that is now so yesterday!

On the surface, the “make it up as you go along” approach to news, seems innocent enough, sometimes even entertaining, but it underlies a potentially devastating tsunami of personal disillusionment, citizen disenfranchisement and political disengagement.  What might be described as the Politics of Rage.

And it is these which have quite clearly led us to Brexit, to Trump and to what may yet become a tidal wave of rejection of a world order.  To coin a phrase, this is not ‘the end of politics’, but the emergence of ‘new politics’ for which we have no road map.

In a world where we ‘get it’ that it’s the job of businesses to create wellbeing and the job of governments to distribute it, many now believe that globalisation has led to greater inequality not less – with a dangerously widening gap between the have lots and the have much less. And while it’s true that hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of abject poverty in the third world through the benefits of open markets, it appears we have accepted the emergence of the ‘just managing’ in the developed world and an ever widening income gap globally.

So the surprising thing may not actually be that Trump and Brexit have happened, but that we’ve taken so long to get here.

Because protesters about our western world order have been making clear for years their anger that the poor too often pay for the sins of the rich. Young people now face higher taxes, less generous benefits and longer working lives than their parents.  Our youth are stressed by the scarcity of affordable homes and secure employment.  Their parents are strained by the cost of care for the elderly and eroding pensions.  The European Social Contract may have collapsed.  The American Dream may now be an illusion!  And politicians and business leaders have been at a loss for words in delivering answers to these very real issues.

And the challenges we face here at home are not just about ‘somewhere else’.  It would be foolish and dangerous to think that ‘rustbelts’ only exist in the US or that everybody in Ireland believes they’re sharing equally in our ‘recovery’. The Celtic Tiger is clearly back in heavily booked Dublin restaurants but the well fed diners are tripping over more homeless street sleepers than ever before and the Tiger seems to have bypassed centres further south and west. So is it any wonder that we’re seeing a breakdown of people’s trust in business and in politics?  As we try to figure it out, it may serve us well to pause and think back so we can go forward.

During my career of over 40 years in business and civic life, I spent many years with Unilever, which had its origins in the Lever Brothers soap company.  William Lever described a real social purpose to this enterprise in Victorian Britain.  It was, he said: “To make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products.”  This was quite a trick for a bar of soap and a remarkable vision for 19th century Britain.

William Lever had a far-sighted view of the purpose of business and how to treat his workers.  He exemplified the ability to connect both the commercial and community purpose essential to any sustainable business. In his time, there was little or no state-funded social provision and many businesses and their workers operated in appalling conditions.  He believed he had a moral responsibility to help, both through business and his personal actions.

He built a ‘garden village’ for his workers at Port Sunlight, on Merseyside.  He introduced a shorter working week, sickness benefits, holiday pay and pensions.  He championed health and safety and he even built an art gallery for his employees.

What’s important to understand is that he recognised that it was in the interests of his business to act in this way. He once said: “The truest and highest form of enlightened self-interest requires that we pay the fullest regard to the interest and welfare of those around us, whose well-being we must bind up with our own and with whom we must share our prosperity.”

This idea of “enlightened self-interest” was an early recognition of the importance of business not just creating shareholder value but also shared value and the need to share the benefits of successful enterprise with both capital and labour.

Looking closer to home in Ireland, we have our own inspiration from the past for a more positive and hopeful future. Just fifty years ago, Ireland faced huge decisions from a much weaker base. Not long independent, impoverished by a trade war with our neighbour and exporting our young alongside our animals, we had missed out on the industrial revolution and had no natural resources – other than our land and our people.

At that bleak time, one man stepped forward, a man who would later be described as the greatest living Irishman. That man was Dr TK Whitaker, who sadly died just a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 100. The choices guided for this country by Ken Whitaker fifty years ago shaped what we are now – a vibrant, resilient people, an economy and a community that has paid its dues and which now features the best growth rate in the EU and some of the world’s finest employers. And it’s no coincidence that we’re a society that’s talented, diverse, tech-savvy, investor-friendly and working hard to include all our people in the shared benefits of our success.

But I suspect if Ken Whitaker were with us today he would be insistent on policies that ensured that no citizen has to sleep on the street, policies that would deliver investment in infrastructure, that spread economic benefit more evenly throughout the country and that emphasised the vital importance of an education framework which facilitates continuous learning for all our people.

Because it’s obvious that you cannot have a sustainably successful business community in a broken society, business has a significant responsibility to contribute to the necessary solutions.

Whitaker and Lever had much in common. They respected the past but they chose to look forward and they couldn’t have imagined the scale of positive change which their strategic focus and values would deliver.

In Britain, Lever instilled a caring industriousness that was to shape a global powerhouse with one of world’s most embracing social systems.

For Ireland under Whitaker, we owe to his vision our Membership of the European Union, our updating of our relationship with the UK and our appreciation of the importance of looking upwards and outwards, of Education and of Trade.Both of them knew that people’s Lives and Livings are fundamentally intertwined; that respecting the interconnectedness of Commerce, Culture and Community is the key to overall wellbeing for both business and community.

And so now the baton passes to us. We have to lead a new Vision for our people and it’s my view that we need to dream big. Indeed, the challenge and the opportunity require nothing less.

Because we don’t have to settle for the status quo. We don’t have to allow ourselves to be carried along on a global wave of alienation, hatred and divisiveness. Ireland doesn’t have to lose out to the challenges of Brexit, of Trump, of protectionism or to the loss of trust in politics or business. In fact it’s my firm belief that Ireland can instead be a unique beacon of openness, diversity and social inclusion.  Ethically leading, outward looking, embracing technology & lifelong learning and fairly sharing the benefits among all.  But this will only happen if we have a clear and compelling ‘National Development Plan’ executed through a real partnership between business and the community.

And if it’s true that 50% of today’s white collar jobs will be replaced by technology within the next twenty years, technology will need to be made to work for us, not the other way round. Because it’s technology – not globalisation – that will create our future rust belts, with their vacant office signs and empty homes for sale. Right now we have no plan for how we deal with the consequences of this – no policy response, no effective social safety net – and that’s nobody else’s responsibility but ours, all of us, employers and employees, to solve this, together

But technological change no longer has to inevitably lead to hollowed out communities, with advances in communications allowing us to develop alternative occupations in locations that have gone through change. And not just in tourism or seasonal work, but in high value creative sectors, in education, in enterprise and in exploiting technology – not being impoverished by it – to open up access for entrepreneurial employers countrywide to global customers they could never reach before.

The key to ensuring that the jobs displaced by technological advance will be replaced by jobs at higher – not lower – income levels is developing core competencies of value – creative thinking, managerial and adaptable problem-solving skills, cooperation and cultural empathy, all underpinned – as Whitaker knew – by education, skills and infrastructure and – as Lever knew – fairly managed and fostered for the benefit of all.     

And, as it happens, the UK and Ireland, while not the Only Game in Town, are actually well positioned, together midway between Singapore and Silicon Valley, with deeply embedded relationships with both the EU and the US.  There are multiple opportunities including:

–           New cooperation among the best of our shared research and learning faculties.

–           Leveraging Ireland’s surplus supply of high quality and dependable food.

–           Harnessing Britain’s advanced materials and manufacturing and finance expertise with Ireland’s burgeoning creative technology base.

–           Jointly developing innovative energy sources and building on world class joint clusters of pharma and medical devices.

Opportunities abound, but we must organise to grasp.

All of these powerful factors are screaming at us for a more joined-up way of thinking in a disintegrating world. And I believe we NEED a joint “UK/Ireland Powerhouse Plan” because – while we absolutely support the ideals of the EU and our ongoing membership of it – our unique circumstances mean that a bad deal for the UK in trade with the EU will inevitably be bad for Ireland.

And for the avoidance of doubt, Ireland doesn’t define itself in terms of its relationship with either the UK or the EU nor indeed the US. We get on with everybody and we get on with the job. We’re fit to fix ourselves for the changes coming and to stay the fittest in a world of constant change. We need to take care of ourselves and to care for all our relationships. And it makes total sense for us to be intelligent, open and pragmatic as we do so.

That’s how we really punch above our weight and, you know, it’s only a match when you have more than one team. Whether in the Aviva or Twickenham or Chicago or Paris, we Irish have been wearing a proud jersey forever and we’re equally proud to swap it when the contest of the day is done, and to meet another day as friends. What’s going on around us will be the biggest collective test of our lives. This Saturday, this year, this lifetime, we deserve to stand up and fight, for what’s right and for what’s fair, for each other and for those for whom we’re minding this little patch of turf.  Fifty years from now, think about how you’d want us to be remembered.

Thank you very much.



Comments are closed.