On the threshold of a new year

Posted on December 21, 2017 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

On the threshold of a new year, the Nevin Economic Research Institute continues its work on a number of key fronts including a special focus, this year, on enterprise development.  For too long, there has been an absence of focussed research on the reasons for why native enterprises, here, have generally been nowhere as successful when it comes to global markets as other enterprises have been. 

For its size, Ireland is out of line with many similar economies in Northern Europe. The extent of cross-border trade (north-south, east-west and beyond), soon to be complicated by considerations arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, is an important measure of success especially in small and medium-sized businesses which employ the bulk of the workforce, North and South. Much remains to be done to raise levels of innovation and productivity as identified, for example, in the NERI Working Paper, Innovative Competence, How does the Republic of Ireland Fare and does it Matter?, prepared by my colleague Tom McDonnell in early 2017.  Though the context and detail differ, Northern Ireland enterprises show similar challenges (see, for example, the Paper, Industrial Policy in Northern Ireland: A Regional Approach, prepared by my colleague Paul MacFlynn).  As part of our work on enterprise development in 2018, we will turn our attention to the topic of ‘the future of work’ (see a presentation by colleague Lisa Wilson last year here).

Work on enterprise development will dominate our work programme this new year and well into 2019 as we seek go beyond analysis and description of the problem to identify adaptation of policies to transform enterprise performance.

The emergency in housing, especially in the Republic of Ireland, has moved to top place in the list of social problems directly affecting hundreds of thousands of people.  It is essential that the housing supply emergency be addressed as a top priority in 2018. This will take courageous decisions in relation to how the necessary funding, legislation and institutions can be put in place. Earlier in 2017, together with colleague Paul Goldrick-Kelly, we published a paper entitled, Ireland’s Housing Emergency - Time for a Game Changer). This revealed the magic formula for coca cola (!) – the European Cost Rental Model (however, we took the essence of the formula from the National Economic and Social Council reports on housing in 2014 and 2015 which were and still are largely ignored).

Coming up in 2018 will be the challenge of reforming the health service and moving towards a single-tier public health service open to all on the basis of need and not ability to pay in the Republic of Ireland. We will focus on the structure of costs in the healthcare system as well as patterns of demand for services and building on the insights of the Sláintecare Report which outlined a pathway to a publicly-funded universal health care. We will take this two steps further by (i) analysing cost structures and how savings could be made in the longrun, and (ii) raising additional funding to set up for the first time a genuinely European Public Healthcare Service in the Republic of Ireland.

The prevalence of low-paid and precarious work (the two not being necessarily the same) has very much come to the fore in 2017. A number of important research papers were published last year by two NERI colleagues including:

A time-series analysis of precarious work in the elementary professions in Ireland by Ciarán Nugent

The gendered nature of employment and insecure employment in Northern Ireland: A story of continuity and change by Lisa Wilson

The unfolding of pre-Brexit has dramatically changed the context for future-orientated analysis and vision-setting. We can be much less sure of anything because of the likely withdrawal of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, from the European Union and, also, from the Single Market and Customs Union (if not in name at least in practice following a torturous transition period of some years). Paul MacFlynn has focussed on one key dimension of pre-Brexit in a paper entitled, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the EU Customs Union. We can expect the ground to keep shifting with little certainty about anything for quite some yet as we will continue to monitor developments and options.

Throughout the past year, we have published the Quarterly Economic Observer providing timely analysis of recent economic developments, projections into the future and a special focus on some thematic or policy area in each edition. Although a collective publication of the whole Institute, a number of colleagues – not least Tom McDonnell have played a significant role in ensuring that the publication comes out each Quarter and retains a high level of quality and relevance to a trade union and public audience.  The QEO helps to inform discussions on public expenditure, wages and enterprise policy.

Throughout 2017, the NERI has continued to run a number of seminars in Dublin and Belfast as well as the very successful Annual Labour Market conference in Maynooth last May and the Annual Donal Nevin lecture in November in Dublin when Professor Prassl spoke on the gig economy. None of this could happen without the hard work and skill of the NERI Administrator, Louisa Gavin.

All research papers, including presentations at NERI seminars, are available on our website at

Readers may find the NERI blog roll of interest.

However, when all is said and done, the biggest single challenge facing Ireland right now is not homelessness, poverty, under-employment, debt, precarious work, Brexit, taxation or enterprise competitiveness. 

The biggest single challenge is the environment.

We have limited time – if any – to begin to reverse the unrelenting march towards global warming and chaotic disruption to the way we live, work and migrate. The world is a village and a crisis in one sphere impacts on everything else. If Ireland does not step up to the plate and play its role in collaboration with other counties, we can hardly complain about the pressures exerted by climate change and a breakdown in global social solidarity. We must lead by example and not just words.  Recessions will come and go (and hopefully will not come for a few years as levels of household debt are abnormally high). However, the long-term damage caused by rapacious capitalism must be addressed. The key role of new forms of public, private and voluntary enterprise in providing Ireland with an alternative to our excessive reliance on foreign direct investment in a narrow number of sectors should be to the fore. These issues will shape our research work well into the next decade.

Finally, it is hoped to publish An Ireland worth working for: how a socialist commonwealth could emerge in Ireland in the 21st Century. This will draw on six years of research at the NERI as well as provide a vision and a strategy to transform the economies of Ireland.


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