Nope, it’s not to do with learning from the ever shortening circles of our turgid peace process. The Tories’ shadow Chancellor George Osborne reckons there is much to be learned from the Republic’s economic miracle. Ireland is no longer, he says, “Britain’s poor and troubled country cousin”.
Irish average incomes are now 20 per cent higher than in the UK. After being held back for decades, the productivity of Irish companies — the yardstick of economic performance — has grown three times as quickly as ours over the past ten years. Young Irish families once emigrated in their millions to seek a better life overseas; these days it is young people across Europe who come to Ireland to find good jobs. Dublin’s main evening newspaper even carries a Polish-language supplement.
He goes on to draw three chief lessons:
First, Ireland’s education system is world-class. On various different rankings it is placed either third or fourth in the world. By contrast, Britain is ranked 33rd and our poor education performance is repeatedly identified by organisations such as the OECD as our greatest weakness. It is not difficult to see why. Staying ahead in a global economy will mean staying at the cutting edge of technological innovation, and using that to boost our productivity. To do that you need the best-educated workforce possible. It is telling that even limited education reform is proving such a struggle for the Prime Minister.
Secondly, the Irish understand that staying ahead in innovation requires world class research and development. Using the best R&D, businesses can grow and make the most of the huge opportunities that exist in the world. That is why it is shocking that the level of R&D spending actually fell in Britain last year. Ireland’s intellectual property laws give incentives for companies to innovate, and the tax system gives huge incentives to turn R&D into the finished article. No tax is paid on revenue from intellectual property where the underlying R&D work was carried out in Ireland. While the Treasury here fiddles with its complex R&D tax credit system, I want to examine whether we could not adopt elements of Ireland’s simple and effective approach.
Thirdly, in a world where cheap, rapid communication means that investment decisions are made on a global basis, capital will go wherever investment is most attractive. Ireland’s business tax rates are only 12.5 per cent, while Britain’s are becoming among the highest in the developed world.