Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 14 April 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Community Partnership Mobilisation Programme: ConnectIreland
I remind members, visitors and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment, even when on silent mode. The meeting will be carried live on UPC channel 207, eVision channel 504 and Sky channel 574.
We will proceed to our discussion with ConnectIreland on progress in respect of the ConnectIreland.comjob creation initiative and the community partnership mobilisation programme. I welcome from ConnectIreland, Ms Joanna Murphy, chief operating officer, and Mr. Tom Dowling, senior adviser.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Ms Murphy to make her opening remarks.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to appear before the joint committee. It is great to have an opportunity to provide an update on the progress being made by ConnectIreland. My colleague, Mr. Tom Dowling, will outline some of our ambitions for the project.
In December 2013, the chairman of ConnectIreland, Mr. Terry Clune, and the CEO, Mr. Michael McLoughlin, made a presentation to this committee and said that we had 1,500 registered connectors and just over 300 jobs. ConnectIreland started from a position of no companies and no connectors, a blank spreadsheet and an idea, so we had to become innovative very quickly. We met Irish people in all the usual places in the Irish networking groups and diaspora groups and asked them to help. For example, we asked Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, if it would give us a presence at Dublin Airport. At first it gave us a small presence. I am sure members of the committee are familiar with what has become a landmark site in Dublin Airport at terminal 2. The response to the Dublin Airport stand was remarkable. DAA invited us to extend our stand to terminal 1. I am sure all members of the committee have heard the dulcet tones of Mr. Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh as he descends terminal 2 escalator talking about why Ireland is a magnificent place to live and set up a business. From that initial ambition at Dublin Airport, Cork Airport also became involved as did Shannon Airport. Ryanair became involved also when it invited us to take the centre fold, the two page centre spread, in its in-flight magazine. Aer Lingus also became ambassadors for ConnectIreland. Every time one takes a long-haul flight, one will hear the senior cabin crew say: "Aer Lingus supports job creation in Ireland, you can help too and earn a reward."
We presented to the GAA's Central Council in 2012 and the GAA became ardent supporters of ConnectIreland, particularly through the presidency of Liam O'Neill, who spoke at this committee recently on the same subject. Subsequently, we travelled all over the world with the GAA network advocating and evangelising the power of the Irish networks and what we have to offer if we manage to join it together in some meaningful way. Other major organisations that have become involved include the IRFU and the FAI. The IRFU has allowed us access to the Aviva Stadium at various international games. This has allowed us a magnificent opportunity to speak with people who may be in a position to set up a business in Ireland. Those presences and the initiatives we have undertaken heretofore have created a noise. The noise has brought us connectors and the connectors have brought us companies and, of course, the companies have brought us jobs and those jobs, as we all know, matter.
We asked Irish people and friends of Ireland for help and they responded in their thousands. ConnectIreland has been humbled and inspired by the efforts of many Irish and friends of Ireland and their valiant attempts to do something positive for Ireland in the area of job creation to try to reverse the tide of destruction that recent emigration has brought to our shores.
At this juncture in the programme, ConnectIreland can take little, if any, credit for the success to date. The credit lies with the connectors, some 50,000 of them who are keeping their eyes and ears open for Ireland. ConnectIreland simply provides the vehicle for the connectors to express their affinity for Ireland. My colleague, Mr. Tom Dowling, and I have just come from a recognition event in the Taoiseach's office to applaud the achievements and contribution of three individuals who have, through engaging with ConnectIreland and the Succeed in Ireland initiative, been hugely instrumental in helping create Irish jobs. ConnectIreland is focused on helping to create real sustainable jobs in rural Ireland. Today, we appear before the committee with close to 50,000 connectors and 38 successful companies. To date, 1,200 jobs have been created through the Succeed in Ireland initiative with the potential to create a further 3,000 jobs. About 100 new companies are being introduced every month. Half of these jobs are going to locations across Ireland that would not typically receive foreign direct investment such as Longford, Kinvara in Galway, Kells in County Meath, Shannon and Carlow. Some nine counties have benefited already from the Succeed in Ireland initiative - Carlow, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, Longford, Meath, Cork, Dublin and Clare.
Working with Enterprise Ireland, Údarás, IDA Ireland and other agencies, ConnectIreland is eager to achieve a wide spread of jobs across Ireland. It is a slow process from connector registration to company conversion but we believe we have proven beyond doubt that the Succeed in Ireland initiative will result in the creation of thousands of real sustainable jobs.
Recently, the Oireachtas committee published a report on policy options to support business growth and job retention in towns and village centres. These jobs are not just numbers. Through the community action plan, ConnectIreland is working with communities throughout Ireland to mobilise and inspire them to make the best pitch for their counties. The purpose of this campaign is to inspire, energise and engage communities and councils to get involved and do something for themselves and to assist in the creation of real, sustainable jobs for their children and communities. Kells in County Meath has been the most successful location, having already brought in four companies. There have been five in total in the county, including one in the Gaeltacht area. Other communities can do this if they work together to showcase what they have to offer. This counts for 160 jobs in Meath, with a further 140 in the pipeline. This is a remarkable achievement in a town with a population of 5,500 people.
While individual connections are important and will continue to be a core part of the ConnectIreland model, whole communities can bring added value to individual connectors by working together to highlight the strength of a particular area and giving a warm and inviting welcome to potential investors. As part of the Action Plan for Jobs regional strategy, ConnectIreland works hand in hand with county councils and community groups throughout Ireland with a view to attracting jobs to regional areas.
Previously rolled out across Ireland, this year the community action plan is being co-ordinated by county councils, embraced by the new local enterprise offices, and is engaging members of the business community and local voluntary and community groups as well as council officials in a joint diaspora engagement programme. Following the appointment of the Minister of State for the diaspora, ConnectIreland has actively engaged with the Minister of State and his Department, which have been hugely supportive, and was included in the Government's first diaspora policy. We worked with the Minister of State on his diaspora policy not only to engage with the diaspora but also to mobilise it to help create thousands of jobs in Ireland as well.
Mr. Tom Dowling:
I thank the committee for inviting us here today. I have just a few words to say, but first I will tell the committee why I am involved and why I believe so much in this initiative. I spent more than 40 years in local government in various councils throughout Ireland and retired as Meath county manager in 2012. Mobilising and supporting communities that care for their own place and people has always been my passion. Through my local government work, as chairman and founder of the all-Ireland Pride of Place initiative and chairman of Third Age Ireland, I am very much aware of the power of communities to achieve when they join together for a common purpose. I joined ConnectIreland as an adviser just over a year ago because I believe the ConnectIreland job creation model is a powerful story of enterprise, hope and opportunity which empowers every person in Ireland to make a difference. I also saw the opportunity to mobilise people in residential and business communities throughout Ireland to realise they can do something to help to create jobs and bring jobs into Ireland.
Ms Murphy has outlined what ConnectIreland is all about and how it is creating jobs for people throughout Ireland, albeit not in every corner of the country. The reality is that we need continuous support in getting our message out there. We want to encourage the business and residential communities to reach out to our diaspora, about whom Ms Murphy has spoken, and ask them a very simple question, namely, whether they know anyone who knows a company outside of Ireland considering expanding its business abroad. If that question had not been asked, the job announcements to which Ms Murphy referred would be in another European country today. That is very significant.
There has been huge support and positivity from the local city and county councils and national business and voluntary organisations such as the GAA, the FAI, the Irish Hotels Federation and more as we roll out this community partnership programme. However, it is a huge effort. We have to keep going and have to keep the message out there. We are doing that, and we cannot give up. We have visited every council at least once. We have met community and business leaders in almost every county. We go to different events to speak to people as well. There is huge positivity towards the programme. As I stated, it is about getting the message out there and getting people to believe they can do something. We are trying to convince them to do that.
I believe that will restore pride to our towns and villages because parts of Ireland have not yet been touched by the current economic growth. That is the reality. However, we can get people to do something for themselves.
One lesson we have learned is that one size does not fit all; what works in Mayo may not work in Clare. That is the way it works out. We are trying to devise a programme with each council and with the help of the local enterprise offices to reflect the individual needs and how they should respond.
The reason we are before the committee is to update it on how things are going. We need the continued support of Government and its agencies. We get great support from the Government and its agencies, including IDA Ireland, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and government in general. We would like to hear the comments, views and suggestions of the committee and to listen to any ideas it might have. I thank the committee again for listening to us.
I welcome the members of the deputation and congratulate them on the work they have done in such a short time. This is a great example of local communities in Ireland and our diaspora empowering themselves to create jobs in Ireland. I was pleased to hear Mr. Dowling refer to the local enterprise offices in local authorities. I had planned to ask a question on this. This will be the key. If we are to focus on job creation in our rural areas, it is important we are on the ground in local communities and we ensure the relevant agencies talk to entrepreneurs and the local communities. It is important that we get them on board.
The deputation mentioned messaging and the challenge of keeping the momentum going. Mr. Dowling mentioned ConnectIreland's connection with the various Departments. Can he expand on the organisation's relationship with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade? Does ConnectIreland have direct face-to-face contact with ambassadors throughout the globe?
The deputation mentioned Dublin, Shannon and Cork Airports. Has ConnectIreland considered airlines that may not fly directly into Ireland, for example, Qantas, but which fly to places like Australia? That is a place with an extensive Irish diaspora and it is somewhere this message could be delivered.
Mr. Dowling mentioned IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. These organisations are all doing separate things but they are linked. I would like him to expand on the protocols in place to ensure there is no overlap between what IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and ConnectIreland are doing.
What could we do to get this message out? This is a fantastic initiative. In Galway, where I am from, there has been a major success story in Kinvara. Jobs have been created in that locality due to one person's home connection. As the deputation said, it was simply through a connector expressing an interest and asking why it should not be Ireland, Galway and Kinvara.
What can we do? Given the nature of word-of-mouth and so on, the Irish have a track record of being able to network but we need to keep the momentum going. That is important. Perhaps the deputation could expand on these questions for me.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
I will start from the top. I thank Senator Naughton for those pertinent questions. She has managed to hit the nail on the head with many of them. Reference was made to expansion of the programme and our relationship with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We are extensively supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the immigrant support programme. We have an intimate relationship with the Department and we are invited regularly, through the ambassador network, to present at various events globally which have a relevance and pertinence to investors coming to Ireland. We are delighted to be working with the Department and it has been greatly supportive of us.
The question of what the committee can do was raised as was the story of Kinvara. An interesting man works in that company, which is called Flagship Management. His name is Cathal McInerney. He lost his job in the construction industry during the downturn. He ended up getting a boat to England. Somehow he ended up in Shanghai and somehow he married an Asian lady and had a family there. He thought he would never see Kinvara again and he got on with it. One night his father called him and told him there was a job at home in his sector, information and communications technology, unbelievably.
That gentleman, Cathal McInerney, is our best ambassador because he speaks about how it is for him to be back in his parish, in Kinvara, working for a company in his sector that he would not have known about had his father not told him it was available. The interesting point is that the company has set up in the sweetshop his grandmother owned. It is a quite remarkable, global story.
Senator Naughton’s suggestion about the airlines is a very good one. In ConnectIreland we find that if we tell people what we are doing, they will give us a better idea. That is a better idea. Of course we should expand into other airlines. We have not done that but will embark on that. I thank the Senator for that feedback.
To explain where we fit in, ConnectIreland brings to the IDA and Údarás na Gaeltachta that which they do not already know. In the life of this initiative 2,500 companies have been introduced to us. Before we do a presentation to a company, the first thing we do is ask IDA Ireland if it has been in active dialogue with the company. In 75% of cases it has not been. It is new. We start the process with the IDA of working through those leads. Of those 75% we can actively engage with 50%. Almost 10% of those leads have converted. We are in active dialogue with the remaining 40% which remain interested, and we believe we will convert them at a high rate over the coming weeks and months.
Mr. Tom Dowling:
The Chairman asked what the committee can do. The story the committee told in asking questions is what it can do. We want everyone to go out with a very positive message that everyone can do something for themselves. It is an easy request. When we met community groups in Galway a person said this is the simplest request ever made but the problem is to keep on following up and keep the council on board. We have liaison officers in every council as part of the Leader team or community department. We keep in contact with them and they are linked to the head office in Kilkenny. We keep talking to them. We want the people talking about it as well and saying positive things.
Communities are able to build community centres, crèches, and to run small businesses but they do not have a sense that they can create jobs. They have never got involved in enterprise development. They can fund-raise for anything, fight a cause, campaign against anything or for something. We want them all to campaign to bring jobs into their areas. I have spent quite a lot of time in the west but I am from the midlands and that is probably where my passion came from. If we do not get jobs into rural Ireland, the towns and villages have a serious difficulty. That is why we have to keep talking up this positive initiative. The councils are working with us. We want them to gather their community leaders and get out on the highways and byways and ask people where their relatives are working, what they are doing, whether they know what is happening and whether they can ask the question.
The relationship with the IDA is excellent. Our jobs are their jobs. We are part of the numbers it expects to achieve each year. We have a meeting scheduled with the chief executive of Enterprise Ireland in the next couple of weeks to see how we can add value to the work of the local enterprise offices, LEOs. We meet approximately 120 companies a month but only a very small percentage are suitable for ConnectIreland. We have to do something with the remainder of those companies. Some may be an idea that might never happen but they are going nowhere. We want to send them. That is where we can add value to the LEO work as well.
I welcome Ms Murphy and Mr. Dowling and congratulate them. I commend this initiative.
The figure of 2,500 that Ms Murphy gave came as a bit of a shock - a good shock. They are companies with which the IDA had not engaged. What kind of companies were they? Were they 2,500 connectors? That is a huge figure.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
To frame that, we have almost 50,000 connectors. Back when we had no companies and no connectors, the first step was to find connectors who would introduce the companies. The almost 50,000 connectors introduced 2,500 companies. Of those 2,500 companies, three quarters were brand new to Ireland. We did not know about them before. We started to work through them and that is where the fun starts because we have to try to validate where the opportunity is. It is great that we are able to bring some additionality and that IDA Ireland is very happy for us to explore. Very often what happens on the hotter leads is that we pass them along to the IDA which develops them further and closes them. We often do that ourselves so it is very much a partnership.
Super. As regards the community action plan, as Ms Murphy said, we published a report recently on reviving towns. Can she send us on her own thoughts of how that would fit in to the report? It is something I was not aware of and that is probably my fault. I would be interested to see how that plan is working.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
I would be delighted to send that across. We are also supported in that respect by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and we have a full 12-month campaign throughout Ireland as to how communities could plug in. There would certainly be some overlap and we would be delighted to investigate where that might be.
We regularly have discussions at this committee about the IDA not servicing large parts of the country for whatever reason, and ConnectIreland is potentially the alternative for many communities, so we would love to work together on that.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
I thank the Deputy. We are the IDA, in a way, in that we are able to provide to them the vehicle. We are dealing face to face with Irish communities and they are able to tell us things. We are able to explore more opportunities than perhaps the State organisation with its huge undertaking. It is better for us to try to validate those opportunities and present them only when they are ready to be decanted.
What an interesting story. About 15 years ago I was made an ambassador by Bord Fáilte because I had brought a few different large conferences to Ireland. I thought that concept was great. That was Bord Fáilte. Now it is a 32-county body. Is ConnectIreland a 32-county body or a 26-county body? I heard Ms Murphy mention "throughout Ireland" on a number of occasions but I did not hear anything North of the Border. Are the opportunities there?
Ms Joanna Murphy:
Currently we operate within the Twenty-six Counties. That is not to say we do not have connectors from every corner of Ireland and the globe. We have people everywhere and if jobs are created in Belfast, as the Senator knows, the people who will work there invariably will come from Dundalk and vice versa. We have an ambition that this programme would be developed and would become an all-Ireland programme. It seems like a sensible thing to do in terms of brand Ireland being one green product. As a tiny island, it would certainly be an ambition to expand that.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
There is an obstacle, and there will always be one for me. I tell people about this programme and they become very engaged and ambitious. Then they get on with their lives and it is important to keep the message alive and keep reminding people in order that they meet it everywhere they go. Recently we had an example of a gentleman called Donal O'Sullivan. Donal was in a meeting with an Australian company called Pepper and as the meeting adjourned and they were standing up and shaking hands, the Australian, a guy called Mike Culhane, told Donal they had been planning on going to Europe. Donal remembered he had read in The Irish Timesabout a ConnectIreland initiative, an announcement of 45 jobs in Carlow - not a big number. He contacted us and said he had met a company and perhaps there was something in it for us. I did not know until I met Mike Culhane that he was third generation Limerick. His grandparents had come from Limerick.
As a result of that single light bulb moment with Donal O'Sullivan - he is the smart guy, not us - there are 149 well paid FDI jobs in Shannon. That is what it is all about, from our perspective, and it illuminates us. It is a great privilege.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
We would love to expand our programme. We have energy and 50,000 people who are positively disposed towards it and want to do other things. If we have 2,000 connectors who are in a position to introduce an expanding company, the other 48,000 will want to do something for Ireland. They will ask what we want them to do, such as a tourism or education piece, and where they can add value. I want the committee to understand the next link in the chain for us. We have great ambitions, as do those in the Irish diaspora. They like to be asked and remembered. We are delighted to be a vehicle for them to utilise in that respect.
I welcome Ms Murphy and Mr. Dowling. It is a really exciting project and they have given us a lot of food for thought, which will, it is to be hoped, prompt some of us to make a few phone calls and connections with people we know in various parts of the world. There are 50,000 connectors. Where, geographically, is the group making the most progress? Is it in the UK, US, Australia or elsewhere? Is IDA Ireland interested in companies of a particular size? Where is the line drawn between large and small companies? Is it based on potential employment levels? What means of making connections works best in the various locations? Reference was made to various sporting organisations.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
Our connector spread is everywhere. We have connectors in parts of the world I have not even heard of. In terms of our company success, we are primarily, but not exclusively, talking about North America. We had an announcement of seven or 15 jobs this week by a Japanese company called SMK. It is small, sustainable and succinct, exactly what is needed.
In terms of the relationship with IDA Ireland, it is delighted to work with us on projects of any size. There is no breakdown of how many jobs it or we work on. We bring to the table things it did not know about. If it is a small project, it is better that ConnectIreland sees it through to the end, but very often, such as the case with Pepper, we would deal with larger companies. There is nothing to preclude us from that. As we work in partnership with IDA Ireland, we cultivate the leads together, which gives Ireland the very best chance of delivering success in a professional manner.
Ms Joanna Murphy:
Yes, of course. St. Patrick's Day was a wonderful opportunity because it has a tangible output. ConnectIreland travelled with the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. One cannot have enough people, so we tried to equip, in every way that we could, all of the Ministers who travelled with information and to remind them that if an opportunity came up that they should pass it along to us. We just left a meeting with the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora with that same focus.
Mr. Tom Dowling:
In terms of the council representatives, we gave them ammunition also. We had them prepared also and gave them information. I understand we sent out the magazine the committee has received. We discussed obstacles. The obstacle is that people will leave the information after they have heard it and become excited, but we are trying to keep that excitement going. That is what today is about, namely, making sure more people know, as a part of a by-word of activity, that everybody, no matter where they are from, can get involved in this and provide assistance.
I thank Ms Murphy and Mr. Dowling for their attendance and for engaging with the committee. We look forward to hearing of their further successes. I congratulate them on their achievements to date.
We will suspend for a few minutes to allow our next guests to take their seats and we will resume in private session. Is that agreed? Agreed.