THE legacy of TK Whitaker, who died last month at the age of 100, lives on as a cornerstone of Irish economic policy. It was he who started the process of attracting foreign direct investment to Ireland and, by any measure, it has been a huge success.
However, the decision by the US tech firm HP to close its print business manufacturing plant in Leixlip, Co Kildare, should serve as a warning that FDI has its limits.
The company says it is likely that close to 500 HP employees will lose their jobs, delivering a huge blow not only to north Kildare but Ireland as a whole.
We as a nation have much to be thankful for Whitaker’s memory. Credited as the man who, almost single-handedly, dragged Ireland out of extreme poverty and into the 20th century, he was the most influential public servant in the history of the State. His inspirational paper Economic Development in 1958, written when he was secretary of the Department of Finance, gave hope to an Ireland that was haemorrhaging its youth in their tens of thousands.
But the reason he was able to give that hope was as a direct result of a change in American economic policy. The decision in the early 1950s by the US to cut import tariffs gave Ireland the opportunity to forge an export driven economy by attracting foreign investment.
Now, the opposite is threatened by US President Donald Trump. Not only is he intent on reining in American companies operating abroad, but he has also threatened a return to economic tarriffs.
He and his administration are considering the imposition of up to a 10% tariff on imports, aimed at spurring US manufacturing. Such a move would deliver on Trump’s “America First” theme.
Added to that are the dangers posed by Brexit, with the prospect of tariffs operating between the EU and the UK.
The loss of 500 jobs in Leixlip will affect 500 families, perhaps more. The decision to close was not taken here but in a boardroom in California. That, alone, shows how vulnerable we are.
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