Friday, July 11, 2008

Our Knowledge Economy, 100 years ago

I happened to be in Clifden this week. With a couple of hours to kill I went for a spot of sightseeing. After pottering around the village and taking the car on the Sky Road Drive I headed back to Dublin.

Just on leaving the village there was a small sign pointing down a lane for the Alcock and Brown Landing Site. The lane turns into a eight foot wide raised unpaved trail, with rain flooded bog on either side and goes on for about 2kms. At the end of which is a large whitewashed obelisk to commemorate the flight.

Oddly this is one of two memorials to the flight, another lies on the other side of the main road. Just beside this was what looked like a council built urinal wall, but with a plaque. The plaque commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first message sent by Marconi's transatlantic station.

I was surprised, I knew about the significance of Marconi's station, but just presumed that the area would be preserved, with an interpretative centre, car park and the OPW charging an arm and a leg for access. But here it was in the middle of a desolate bog with sheep shearing pens as neighbours. It was both delightful and a little shocking that the area hadn't been manicured, pruned and plucked into a pristine tourist hoover.

From where I was standing I had a good look around and it became apparent that this had been an enormous industrial complex. There was the foundations of dozens of building over a mile radius, the remnants of a narrow gauge railway and the stumps of mast anchors. The main building 200 metres across the bog was fenced in, to control sheep, and was littered with the machinery of the wireless station. The station at its peak employed over 300 people. It was the Microsoft and Google of its day.

On the way home what had me thinking was not so much that the site was unexploited but that 100 years ago Clifden was host to two major technological developments that would transform the global economy; namely cheap realtime long distance communication and long distance air travel. Clifden, and the west of Ireland was literally one end of the bridge between two empires; one decaying and one emerging.

Yet somehow we ended up in the 1930's as an absolute economic and cultural basketcase. What should have been a dynamic, export led, knowledge based economy became a peasant holding, conservative, clergy controlled and isolationist island on the bit end of Europe. The Marconi station ceased operations in 1922 due to the war and plans for a Clifden airport are still ongoing.

There has always been assumption that our geography has cursed us. My Leaving Cert books both apologised and excused Ireland's underachievement and poverty, hinting that with no natural resources and sitting on the edge of Europe weren't we doing grand anyway. An underlying, almost chronic, shoulder shrugging is our most destructive political trait. Look at the latest reaction by the Government to the appalling shortfall in the public finances, its all "what can we do, its all bad everywhere".

But.....we had the opportunity a century ago and seemingly blew it and we have (had) an opportunity now, we can still straddle two empires, one European the other Americans and exploit the benefits and association with both. For that to happen we need more than ever to examine the madness that is our electoral system.

It needs reform so that intelligent, professional, specialists unencumbered by short term parochial issues can input to state policy. We need to dump the STV-PR system, weed out the Willie O'Dea's from cabinet and introduce a partial List System so that brains and experience not cutehoorness is what qualifies you to sit on the top table in Ireland in charge of a €60 billion budget.

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