Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Report of Seanad Public Consultation Committee: Statements
I welcome this report. It is the second time we have discussed it in the House. I want to speak from a personal perspective. Senator Ó Céidigh made reference to being self-employed. I established myself as a self-employed chartered accountant many years ago and was self-employed for about 12 years before I went into politics. SMEs, in particular startups, were my bread and butter. There is no substitute for experience.
There are a couple of things in the report which I welcome and a number of others to which I would make an addition. It is important that the report was done. It is important that we have someone like the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, with specific responsibility for SMEs.
I want to look at Brexit in a positive, rather than a negative, light. I see it as a wake-up call for us on several levels. We have been over reliant on the UK market for many decades. We have to give SMEs the scope to go into other markets, and that is happening through Enterprise Ireland. In terms of Brexit, we must ensure that whatever supports are required to enable the SME sector to reposition are available. This is particularly important for the indigenous and agricultural sectors, which have a disproportionate reliance on the UK market.
The Minister of State, Deputy Breen, will be aware of the importance of artificial intelligence. Companies which were set up by young people living in Limerick, Clare and the mid west have become multinationals. We need to promote a model whereby we are outward rather than inward looking. Multinationals coming to Ireland are great, but we have to provide an environment where young, vibrant men and women in Ireland can establish businesses, the markets for which are not just Ireland, although that is extremely important, but Asia, Europe and Britain.
People should not be afraid of failure. People in America set up businesses which fail. Many successful businesspeople have failed two or three times. In Ireland people are still worried that if they set up a business they may fail. People should be encouraged to set up businesses because they learn from experience. When one is self-employed, there is no substitute for putting money into a bank account or seeing that an overdraft has gone over the limit. The late Albert Reynolds was quoted as saying that when the peace process was ongoing he was told that the pressure must be horrific, but he said pressure was going out on a Friday night knowing that if he did not collect £10,000 in all of his dance halls and lodge the money in the bank on a Monday morning he would be out of business.
In the early years of my business I was not paid by certain clients. I remember going out for three or four hours on a winter's evening to wait for a client to come back so that I could collect my money. I had a young family. We have to create an environment where people are not afraid to fail and we support SMEs.
That self-employed people are now eligible for jobseeker's benefit is a small but significant and positive change. Payments for the self-employed who become ill is another small but significant change.
The largest employers in the country are SMEs. Multinationals are fantastic and there are many in our region, which I welcome. However, SMEs are major employers and have a significant status in small towns and villages for myriad reasons. They enable people to rear their families nearby, support local shops and pubs and keep post offices open. We have to look at SMEs in a wider context and ask what we can do to support those being established in rural villages, towns and suburbs.
This report is extremely important, and it is now important that it is acted on in a timely manner. We will not get everything right. Having been self employed for many years, I learned that it is tough and banks are extremely important. They are not the only essential ingredient, but having access to cash is critical. Many of my clients over the years could not get overdraft facilities. Instead, they got drafts at the start of the month from the local credit union and lodged them to their current accounts so that they could function. That is why I always stand up for the credit union movement. It has started to evolve and needs to get into public banking. One option is the Canadian model, where credit unions have back-office facilities. Credit unions need to take on the banks.
We need to ensure that the State spends money wisely on behalf of taxpayers in supporting SMEs.Second, we need to ensure that the State spends money wisely on behalf of the taxpayer in supporting SMEs. I want to see that if somebody wants to have a cut and fail, they should not be penalised to the extent that in many ways they are, both in reputation and in how they are sometimes recognised by banks. This is a feature of being an entrepreneur.
Third, with Brexit, we need to foster an environment where we take up the challenge. I see no positive aspect to Brexit and I am hoping that it will not happen. It is a wake-up call, however, to tell us that we need to diversify more and more, particularly with the SME sector in the non-UK market, even though the UK market is hugely important.
I want to see the continuation of an environment being fostered where our entrepreneurs go into the multinational sector but are based in Ireland. I see many of these entrepreneurs going abroad and being based in America. This should not be happening. I would like to see them based in Ireland. I would like to have seen the Collison brothers being based in Limerick. People will have personal reasons for their views. I would like to see a situation where we are doing business in such a way that entrepreneurs from abroad will come into Ireland. There is so much going for us here and what we have in Ireland is a natural entrepreneurial streak. It is a little bit wild and outside the box, which many of us are. It is endemic in the Irish psyche. I very much welcome this support. It needs to be acted upon and we need to continue to create this kind of environment.
The real dimension is what can we do to get SMEs to set up in their own localities, to employ local people and to suddenly see these blossoming into great multinational companies. We have many examples throughout the country. Fexco is one below in Kerry. We have H&MV Engineering, which the Taoiseach came down to open in Limerick, and companies like ActionPoint and multitudes of others. I want to see that approach being developed and these companies being recognised.