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Wired with Whelan: Forget about the IDA … they have gone away you know

Politicians and local community leaders pictured at the closed down ESB power station in Portarlington. Laois has never properly planned or transitioned out of sunset industries in semi-State companies like Bord na Mona, Coillte and the ESB

I got a job working construction
For the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work
On account of the economy

(The River, Bruce Springsteen)

On June 26, 1978, the Monday after I finished the Leaving Cert I started working in the Leinster Express.

As a cub reporter, which I abhorred being called, one of my weekly tasks was to go to Mountrath to gather up the local news. It was a Monday morning ritual which I loved.

To John Mulhare’s house for the golf results; Mai Dooley’s shop for bits and pieces of notes jotted out on every available scrap of paper from copy books to a torn off piece of a Kellogg’s Cornflake box flagging forthcoming fork suppers, fundraisers and field days; to Tom Moloney’s undertakers for the deaths, with Eddie Kirwan sitting up on the counter to help out with the details and to make sure I spelled the names correctly; up to the top of the town to Mr Farrell the blacksmith who always had some more news before heading across the road to the Garda Station.

By today’s standards what passed for crime seemed harmless enough generally. Myself and the guards usually ended up talking about the GAA and Laois’ chances in the championship.

With all the tit bits of news and a fair bit of gossip on board it was back to base on the Dublin Road where I banged it up on an Imperial typewriter. I turned it into the guts of a page of Mountrath notes accompanied by a picture from some dinner dance by Jim Yorke, with Mai Dooley usually in the snap showing off her latest gúna nua.

Under the watchful eye and red pen of my News Editor, Tony Dunne, I was gradually entrusted with other tasks – other than being sent on an errand into town for cigarettes for Tony and the standard order of the famous doorstop of a ham and cheese sandwich from the Welcome Inn, an order which was occasionally changed up to a chicken sandwich from Bradbury’s, to which I’d add my own favourite cream doughnut or éclair on Tony’s account.

Tony minded me, as best he could. Once, when a reporter from a rival title tried to land me in it over a mistake in a report, Tony called him and coined a classic which I have never forgotten: ‘If you don’t leave the young lad alone, I’ll have your f****n guts for garters’, before lighting up a fag and tucking into his sandwich.

After being chaperoned to a season of Council meetings by courts and council reporter Dymphna Bracken I was gradually allowed out on my own.

One such dispatch was to Mountmellick. The legendary Oliver J. Flanagan had called the newsroom and had an important statement which had to be collected.

I headed for Irishtown to meet the great man, only to be handed a sheaf of paper at the front door, instructed that Oliver J. was busy and to make sure to close the gate behind me.

I didn’t get to meet Oliver J. that day but the statement I had been handed was pure gold. Typed up in neat, well-spaced paragraphs Oliver J. wrote how the country was gone to the dogs, going down the tube, no regard or respect for law and order and it was only through extreme discipline and their proud tradition that the army didn’t mutiny to keep things from going to hell altogether.

Oliver J Flanagan and Paddy Lalor arriving for the official opening of a new Advance Factory in Abbeyleix in the early Eighties. Politicians love job announcements but actually have very little to do with them. (photo by Jim Yorke)

I was beside myself with excitement as I headed back to Tony in the newsroom. I had a great scoop.

I wasn’t in the door when Tony cut me off at the pass: ‘Did Oliver J. warn that the army would mutiny if we don’t get our house in order?’

It was great copy. But it was also August, the silly season for newspapers. Oliver J. issued the same statement every summer, and every year the Leinster ran it all the same, usually on the front page. It’s what’s known in the business as a hardy annual. As my mother would say, ‘paper never refuses ink’.

Not long afterwards I got to meet Padraic White the dynamic and direct CEO of the IDA at a press briefing on jobs in the Killeshin Hotel, which at that time was deemed to be the only ‘proper’ hotel in the town. White led the IDA through a purple patch for attracting foreign investment into Ireland, usually from the States. He was impressive and influential, but also candid.

Just like now, 30 years later, the conversion about IDA jobs in Laois back then was always about the lack of them.

White said that one of the main difficulties in getting industrialists to visit Portlaoise was because it didn’t have a decent restaurant. He also pointed out that the schools in the town were in old buildings and practically falling down, with playgrounds covered in prefabs.

It turns out that it’s not always industrialists who decide where to locate a firm or a factory but their wives – who want to know what the town is like, where will they socialise and where will the children go to school.

Fast forward to today. While things have improved remarkably on the social and schools scene in Portlaoise and Laois, shortcomings still remain. There is no credible and representative Laois Chamber of Commerce; we have a tourist office that is closed more often than open and broadband across the county is brutal.

There have been some worthy and worthwhile initiatives to address the gaps in what Laois has to offer in many towns like Portarlington, Abbeyleix, Durrow, Mountmellick and most recently in Portlaoise and Mountrath. But most strategies have lacked cohesion and continuity for long enough to prove effective and we still don’t pull together as a county or for the county.

Politicians have always been obsessed with jobs announcements and taking credit for them; or the lack of jobs announcements and laying the blame for them. Truth be told, most politicians have little or no say in job creation anyway.

The lack of IDA jobs in Laois is just another hardy annual story, and paper never refuses ink.

It’s business people and entrepreneurs who create jobs. Certainly governments, the IDA, local authorities and communities can help create the climate and conditions that are conducive to those decisions. A bit of political clout would certainly do no harm.

Back in Padraig White’s time our biggest employers in Laois were the prison, the hospitals, the ESB, Bord na Mona and Coillte. We still haven’t learned to transition properly from those sunset industries and tap into the vast potential and advantages Laois most definitely has to offer.

We are an hour from Dublin Port, the same to the airport and over 30 train rides a day from two of Europe’s top universities, where a Portlaoise man via Cambridge, Paul Ryan, is the Professor of Entrepreneurial and Business Studies at Trinity College. Housing is far less expensive here than in the Dublin region and quality of life so much better. Laois has lots to offer, we just have to get the finger out and play to our strengths.

We never developed an industrial base or incubated innovation leading to the establishment of local companies, a cluster of enterprise which would in turn spread out through fostering expertise, spin-offs and supply chain support.

When Internal Results decided to establish in Portlaoise, it was thanks to the industriousness and initiative of two Laois men Seamus Delaney and Noel Hooban, yes with the help of the IDA. There is plenty of other entrepreneurial talent and significant investment out there, largely unsung and unseen, but getting on with the job of creating jobs in Laois.

Yes, Laois is the worst performing county in the worst performing region in the country in terms of IDA job creation, 58 in the entire midlands region last year compared with 5,641 in Dublin.

There are rumours of an imminent announcement by the IDA and it will be welcome too. But remember that out of a two million workforce, 199,877 are employed in IDA supported overseas companies, or about 10% of the workforce.

The rest are employed in Irish firms, many small and medium enterprises, often family run businesses.

Portlaoise is now officially the largest town in the midlands. Forget about the IDA.

They have gone away you know, or in truth never really came to Laois

Let’s crack on and do it for ourselves.

SEE ALSO – One of Ireland’s leading retail experts to team up with Laois businesses

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John Whelan has been a journalist, commentator, columnist, political analyst, campaigner, politician and publisher ever since he was 17. Having been Editor of the Leinster Express, Offaly Express and the Leinster Leader he has also contributed extensively on a number of issues to all of the country's flagship titles and programmes including the Irish Press, The Irish Independent, the Star, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday Business Post, The Sunday Times and Prime Time. He is founder of Communicate Ireland a PR, public affairs, event management and media services company. He is the author of the popular camping blog, Vanhalla - Camper Heaven.