Web Summit emails make uncomfortable reading

While the debate rages over whether the Government dropped the ball in letting the Web Summit leave, or if the event’s founders were over-demanding in their requests, what is not in doubt is the embarrassment which elements of the correspondences released this week will cause the cabinet, writes Joe Leogue

Opinions on the summit’s requests are divided. For example it seems reasonable that the authorities implement a traffic-management plan for an event of its size. However, it is a tad ironic that free market entrepreneurs should ask the Taoiseach to interfere with hotel prices, and accuse the hospitality industry of “gouging” when the summit charges €739 for a standard ticket.

However, claims that ministers were “outplayed” on their own doorstep by their European counterparts in terms of their engagement with the tech industry’s best will make uncomfortable reading for a government that has long sought to portray itself as the catalyst that will make Ireland “The Best Small Country In The World In Which To Do Business”.

The Taoiseach has repeated the mantra to the point it has become a parody, a line political correspondents await at each speech with the kind of anticipation matched only by the most dedicated bingo player. Thumbs at the ready, the acronym #TBSCITWIWTDB is tweeted the moment Enda Kenny trots out the well-worn catchphrase yet again.

Repetition is an old communications trick. It creates familiarity with the message and if done right has a positive effect on an audience’s reception of the idea.

So The Best Small Country In The World In Which To Do Business is as much a tangible objective for the Government as it is an image it wants to portray, at home and abroad.

The problem posed by the emails released by Paddy Cosgrave is the suggestion that ministers focused too much on projecting that image and not enough on backing it up when a unique opportunity like the Web Summit arose. An email sent on September 3 takes aim at the Government’s attitude to the Web Summit.

“Somehow, and don’t ask me how, the British government are more active at Web Summit than the Irish,” Mr Cosgrave wrote.

He paints a picture of press secretaries seeking photo ops and speakers’ slots for ministers while their UK counterparts host productive, behind-the-scenes meetings: “But you’re operating in a parallel universe where a jobs announcement or a photo opportunity at Web Summit is the biggest opportunity you see. Meanwhile, other governments are cleaning up under your nose. How can you be outplayed by the British government in your own backyard? Or by the Dutch, the French, the Danes. It’s surreal.”

The email, which goes on for more than three pages, further claims that “no minister has ever attended a meeting yet they all show up for photos at Web Summit” while meetings are delegated to civil servants. The Web Summit accusation that the Irish Government lacked the appetite for real engagement compared to other nations jars greatly with the image this government has attempted to cultivate over the past four years.

The big question posed by the Web Summit emails isn’t “was enough done to keep it in Ireland?”. We should be asking if the Government made enough of it while it was here.

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