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Shane Ross: Angela torpedoes quango jaunt in the desert

Posted on: January 12th, 2014

A glutton for punishment, I rang Enterprise Ireland’s press office last week. It was the voicemail: “This is Enterprise Ireland on Monday, January 6…”

Small problem: It was Tuesday, January 7. Luckily, I was not an Arab sheikh seeking to do business. Sheikh this or sheik that might not have been too impressed by EI’s cavalier attitude to minor matters like the day of the week.

A little later I rang again, on the main number. Another voicemail: “This is Enterprise Ireland. Our office hours are 8.30am to 5.30pm…”

Small problem: It was 5.19pm and the office was closed.

Apparently they know not the day nor the hour at Ireland’s quango for would-be entrepreneurs. Somehow they know how to be nine-to-fivers at home and how to party abroad.

Last week Enterprise Ireland was focusing on Saudi Arabian sheiks. Enterprise Ireland had pulled one of its annual strokes: it had kidnapped a willing Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton and whisked them out to the Middle East for a series of photo opportunities.

A classic EI media stunt. Similarly in 2013, it had issued an end-of-year statement to steal the headlines. It had drummed up an unholy razzamatazz during the annual slow news period. This year it excelled itself, organising for Enda and Richard to throw shapes in the desert alongside mega-rich oil sheiks. Pictures galore of the two boys extolling the virtues of Ireland were despatched home to the Irish media. Enterprise Ireland, Enda and Richard were creating jobs.

Perhaps they were, but the five-day jaunt to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates was geared for home consumption. Hollow boasts were made that they had signed €25m of contracts while on their mission, but it is a racing certainty that nearly all the deals were done and dusted months ago. The formal signings were delayed for the Taoiseach’s visit. And for the pictures destined for home.

Enterprise Ireland basked in the reflected glory as the Taoiseach and Bruton lauded the hapless quango for the mission’s “successes”. The politicians took it in turn for the soundbites. They even brought along 87 favoured Irish companies as cheerleaders. All 87 were meant to be on-message, proof that Ireland’s best businesses are behind Enda.

One outrider broke from the pack. On Monday, one of Enterprise Ireland’s prize prodigies got a rush of blood to the head and decided to do a solo run. Perhaps it was the hot sun, but Angela Kerins, the chief executive of Rehab, offered herself to RTE’s Morning Ireland — all the way from Saudi.

Angela wanted to relay how she and Rehab had brought pre-employment programmes for disabled people to the Middle East. She decided it was time for a few plaudits for Rehab. Not to mention for Angela.

Interviewer Gavin Jennings let her rabbit on. Citizens all over Ireland listened, agitated: when was he going to ask her about her salary?

For a moment she seemed to have escaped. Then with those lethal words — “I cannot let you go without asking you about…” — he detonated the salary explosive.

Angela waded in so deep that she may soon find herself in front of the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee.

It was car-crash stuff. The spinners from Enterprise Ireland must have torn their hair out. The nation was suddenly making the connection, asking: Is this where EI’s money is going? Was Angela drawing her vast pay cheque from the grants lashed out by EI?

The head of Rehab brazenly demanded transparency from the charity industry. And promptly refused to reveal her own salary. The head of Rehab claimed that charities must attract “the best people”. And clearly implied that she herself was top of that elite intelligentsia. The head of Rehab maintained that she had frequently been open about her salary in the past. (The last figure mentioned — two years ago — was €234,000). And promptly refused to give us an update. Her evasion has persuaded many observers that her pay cheque is now far higher. Her hubris was breathtaking.

Rehab sent the largest delegation of all 87 companies travelling to the Gulf. Someone has a few bob to spare. EI needs to be asked how much it has given to Rehab.

While the images of Enda, Richard and the sheiks from Enterprise Ireland’s circus were colourful, the quango’s figures back home are dull.

Its own cost-per-job measurement rocketed from €4,463 in 2000-2006 to €12,597 in 2006-2012 — just a whisker below its all-time high. It receives an incredible €293m in Oireachtas grants. It is gifted another €23m from taxpayers or European subsidies, making a total of €316m. It only manages to disburse €186m of that to support industry and create jobs. It spends an inexplicable €86m on “administration, operation and promotion”. It spends €80,000 a week on travel; €40,000 a week on professional fees; and over €1m a week on staff pay.

A quango for entrepreneurship is not the answer to the jobs crisis. EI is an oxymoron. Enda Kenny must have been startled by the number of real Irish entrepreneurs he discovered in Saudi last week. Many have moved to the Middle East permanently, where they are making millions and creating jobs. Perhaps he asked himself why they are not using their entrepreneurial skills in Ireland.

A quango-infested Ireland is a cold place for entrepreneurs. If Enda were to begin by abolishing Enterprise Ireland he could save an overnight €300m. He could then reduce taxes for entrepreneurs; offer tax breaks to the disillusioned, thrusting young businesses which have upped sticks and headed for Saudi. They would create jobs by the bucketful, jobs that would not need propping up with further subsidies, year after year.

A quango would be exorcised; but so would all those happy-new-year picture opportunities.

Perhaps the Enterprise Ireland model is a lean job creator? We will never know as it has no competitors and is painfully shy with information about its activities. Last week, spokespeople were refusing to reveal how much the trip to the Middle East cost.

They were happy to reveal that Rehab and others were paying for themselves, but when it came to specifying the numbers of officials and EI staff on the jaunt, they closed up like clams. The Taoiseach’s office was equally unhelpful in providing any detail about the trip.

But the quango did answer one question: it proudly sent me a full list of the cheerleaders, the participants on the trade mission with a few intriguing details. I was pleasantly surprised, but not quite a convert.

Just as I finished this article, I received a bombshell, an urgent email from Enterprise Ireland: “The other day I sent you a document listing the participating companies on the trade mission. That version was confidential and I am sending you now attached the appropriate summary listing.”

Happily, I still have the confidential, accidental leak. Over this weekend I shall examine it in more detail and bury the sanitised version. Why did I ever doubt, even for a moment, that the semi-state was infested with a culture of bunglers?

Irish Independent