Good morning everyone.
Firstly, I would like to thank the LEO Forum for inviting me here this morning. It’s always good to have the opportunity to acknowledge the excellent work that the LEO network is doing all across the country to encourage and facilitate local enterprise. They make a great contribution to the Government’s goal of regional economic development.
I particularly want to begin straight up by congratulating the LEOs, the LEO staff and all those that contribute to the LEO vision on another tremendous performance in 2017.
The provisional figures indicate that last year LEO clients created in the region of 3,700 new jobs after taking account of job losses across the client portfolio.
That is an increase of 10% on 2016 - and the fourth straight year of employment growth.
Growth was evident in each area showing that each county has the potential to grow its own jobs if the right promotion, encouragement and supports are put in place.
I firmly believe that the work by the national agencies, which has yielded strong results in recent years, must be complimented by a bottom-up approach – a service on the ground, locally active, where individuals and micro businesses can seek help in taking those first tentative steps to greater things.
So once again my congratulations to the LEOs for making their very welcome contribution to jobs growth across the regions and counties of Ireland.
And that achievement was delivered against a mixed environment for business growth and job creation.
In broad terms the domestic economy and our export performance were strong in 2017.
On the other hand, the impact of Brexit was visible – the weakening of sterling, a dip in UK business confidence, the need to keep a watchful eye on supply chains and the need to keep a tight hold on costs and logistics – all caused businesses to proceed with caution and not take on unnecessary risks.
We will hear more about the broader Brexit challenge later from Caoimhe Gavin.
But two things are clear.
First, certain sectors and certain regions are more vulnerable than others.
Second, it seems astonishing that more than eighteen months after the UK Referendum, the levels of awareness among Irish businesses generally, never mind preparation for - the fallout from Brexit, remains low.
The onus is on all of us in central Government, in local Government and in agencies, to get the message out there about understanding the threat to your business and doing something about it.
There is no shortage of advice and supports available, and the LEOs have played their part through seminars, training, grants and other supports for those who seek it.
In the coming months, my Department will be launching the €300m Brexit loan fund which will be available to all companies, regardless of size or sector to address the challenge of Brexit.
I expect the LEOs to play their part in promoting the new fund and encouraging local businesses to access it.
The main reason for having this Annual Forum is to look at what the future challenges and opportunities are and how the LEOs can help local businesses to address them.
I am acutely aware that the LEOs, with modest resources, cannot be all things to all men.
The primary focus will always be on supporting commercial start-ups and strengthening local businesses that will sustain and create jobs.
I regard my Department and Agencies as the drivers of the three E’s – Entrepreneurship, Enterprise Growth and Export Development.
What can we do to stimulate more start ups at Local level? Are we tapping into other sources of new ideas in schools, colleges, existing firms, or local multinationals?
IBYE has been a roaring success over the past four years. Are there also new ways we could increase, for example, the numbers of female entrepreneurs, experienced workers or our fellow county men and women working overseas.
Secondly, are we fully realising the job potential in our existing clients? Are there new approaches to working more closely with them, to develop the various facets of the business and to make them more resilient?
In a period where we are approaching full employment, it is hard to ask for more resources simply to do more of the same. We preach innovation so we should try to demonstrate it in our own offering too.
I would be open to trialling some ideas to encourage more start-ups and more jobs in existing clients and I would invite the Local Authorities, Enterprise Ireland and the LEOs to put forward some ideas in that regard.
I have often said that LEOs mustn’t waste an opportunity to highlight what they do. Later Sheelagh Daly will talk further on this aspect.
We have just appointed a new LEO Communications manager as part of the Enterprise Ireland team whose job will be to strengthen the LEO brand and thus to encourage more and more people to avail of their services.
One aspect that might be considered is more up-to-date announcements, maybe at regional level, on the kinds of projects and job creation that are being supported on an ongoing basis.
One very big challenge for which I have also been given responsibility in the new Government is the whole area data protection. Most of you will be aware of the new General Data Protection Regulation which will become law on 25th May this year.
The GDPR will strengthen the data protection rights of individuals by giving them greater control over the use and retention of their personal data. For businesses, the GDPR will increase their obligations and responsibilities in terms of how they collect, use and protect personal data. They will need to be fully transparent about how they are using and safeguarding personal data.
We are very fortunate to have John Keyes of the Data Commissioner’s Office with us this morning to discuss the GDPR in more detail. I’m sure John will be happy to answer any questions you may have on what is a very significant development in the whole area of data protection.
Another – Agency under my remit, is the National Standards Authority of Ireland, and through working in partnership with the LEOs, there has never been a better time for SMEs to use standards to attract and assure customers.
In that regard, I am pleased to say that Geraldine Larkin, CEO of NSAI, is here to give us her insights on NSAI business audits.
Finally, returning to another of my key messages, I believe there is always greater scope for private and public entities to work together at local level to support start ups and to grow local businesses.
I want to thank the Local Authority Chief Executives for their role in strengthening the role and the visibility of the LEOs as part of the LA suite of services.
In that sense, they are best placed to bring various local resources together – the LEOs, Education and Training Boards, LEADER, Local Enterprise Centres, mentoring groups, maybe schools and colleges, banks and credit unions, to create a truly concerted county level enterprise drive focussed on job creation.
As Eamonn Sayers will tell us, County Kerry is working on such an initiative supported by prominent Kerry business figures and promoted by the Guinness Enterprise Centre.
To conclude, I want again to show the Government’s appreciation of the work that the LEOs are doing to stimulate enterprise and jobs in every corner of Ireland.
The Government will shortly publish its Ten-Year Capital Plan with the aim of balancing economic growth across the regions. Investing in the infrastructure is one part of that equation. But it also has to be matched with the encouragement, incentives and supports to start and grow local enterprises.
I expect therefore, that the role of the Local Authorities and the LEOs in that regard will become more important in realising the ambitions of that Plan.