David Gavaghan, Chairperson, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) N.I.


Arriving in Enniskerry in early 1973, aged 13, my parents sent to me to Blackrock College in recognition of the prominence of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Kenya, where I was born. I got lucky! The alternative was to be indoctrinated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst where my father and two brothers had gone. Kenya had gained its independence from the British a decade earlier but in Ireland, in 1973, you could still recognise some of the same characteristics of Britain’s former rule in Ireland more than fifty years earlier. Even as a child, you could detect it was more subtle and had many complex characteristics, not least nearly everyone was white, whereas in Africa that was not the case!

It was perhaps particularly present in the garden of Ireland with more than a “fair” smattering of what some people call “West Brits” with the greatest concentration possibly around the Powerscourt Estate! 1973 perhaps marked the year where the already withering umbilical cord with Britain would finally be cut. Ireland’s economic dependence on Britain would gradually erode into something quite different, albeit it did seem for a few decades that Ireland had transferred one form of dependency to another – that was in fact never the case but for a couple of decades many in Northern Ireland and in Britain did not appreciate the radical transformation that Ireland’s new relationship with the rest of Europe (and indeed the world) would bring – with truly lasting benefits to its people.

A critical part of Ireland’s transformation has been its population growth; the changing demographics on the island and of course the New Irish. As a boy of dark complexion (and my German Jewish mother even more so), we seemed to some to be some exotic new immigrant family from Africa or India or Israel with a strange Irish surname that not many could readily pronounce. The family name comes from Mayo and of course is as easy to pronounce as Monaghan! Today Ireland, particularly Dublin, is as multi-cultural as any place in Europe.

In 1971, Ireland was just under 3m people – today it is approaching 4.75m and it is anticipated to grow to some 6m by 2030. Northern Ireland’s population has grown but at a much slower rate from just under 1.55m people in 1971 to more than 1.8m people today. It too anticipates it to increase to 2m by 2030. In 2009/2010, I was lucky enough to participate in a report by Engineers Ireland that looked at the “infrastructure for an island population of 8 million” which we presented to Martin McGuinness at Stormont in February 2010. Well if my arithmetic serves me right, we seem to be on schedule for at least part of that equation – 8m people and before anyone jumps in – yes, I have played a small part (please note the past tense) in helping bring that about with 8 children in our family!

I said that only part of the equation was on track – the infrastructure required to meet the phenomenal increase in the island’s population is sadly not going according to plan. Not only is it not adequate for our needs today but it shows increasing signs of failing us badly as we face the extraordinary growth that is anticipated. In addition, insufficient attention is being given to the infrastructure needed across the island to enable us to compete on a global stage. I will return to this theme a little later.

There are three under-currents to the extraordinary transformation taking place on this beautiful island and each will impact on our future relationship with each other and the globe:

  • the age profile
  • the new Irish/ the new Northern Irish
  • urbanisation and the importance of the Economic Corridor

First, we are right in the midst of this taking place and yet somehow it does not grab our attention in the way that it should. In the Republic it is anticipated that the over 65s will grow from c.600,000 c.13% of the population (total pop 4.65m) to 1.5m c.25% of the population by 2031 (anticipated to be 6m) whilst in Northern Ireland the over 65s are some 17% (c. 300,000) of the population and will be some 23% of the population (463,000) in 2034. The consequences of this change on our society were described last year by a senior person in the Irish government as one of the greatest risks that the country faces: “a certain collision unless mitigating action is taken NOW”. For me Angela Merkel has it right in her farsightedness in recognising that without a huge additional influx of new young blood our western society today will collapse with the level of dependency.

That neatly brings me to the second aspect, namely the “new Irish”. I alluded earlier to the homogenous place Ireland was in the 70s. This is no longer the case. Indeed Dublin is a truly cosmopolitan European city. The benefits of being a multi-cultural international city undoubtedly provide the platform for attracting more global talent and international capital. Today 1 in 8 people in Ireland are from abroad whilst in Northern Ireland only 1 in 18 is from abroad. There are some interesting statistics between the jurisdictions on the split between other EU nationals and non-EU but one stark fact remains that the breakdown of ethnic groups in 2011 shows 98.2% of the population in Northern Ireland was ‘white’. Interestingly, the second largest ethnic group in both 2001 and 2011 is the Chinese. There is a real opportunity for Northern Ireland in general and Belfast in particular to attract global talent. Clearly Brexit is an immediate challenge but we need a devolved government that can wrestle immigration to be a devolved matter. If not, the consequences for our economy and society will be very serious. Insufficient attention is being given to this issue at all level of government across the two islands.

The third extraordinary transformation has been the increasing prominence of Dublin on the island. In 1971 Dublin City had a population of some 568,000 with just over 1m population in Urban Dublin. Today it is more than 1.3m people representing some 28% of the country with Urban Dublin approaching 1.8m. It is anticipated that by 2031 Dublin will be at least 1.5m people with a Greater Dublin conurbation of 2.2m. There is no other city on this island that competes with the scale of Dublin (albeit fifty years ago the story might have been a different one). Today Belfast is the second largest city with 0.33m (and Urban Belfast 0.48m) whilst Cork 0.13m (Urban Cork 0.2m). Simply put Dublin is the only city on the island that is currently in a position to attract significant global capital and compete in a global market across a broad swathe of activities. When addressing population anywhere it is worth setting in the context of the planet’s population – and I should dedicate this to the most inspirational Hans Rosling who died this year. In 1971 3.7bn lived here – today 7.5bn and by 2031 more than 8.5bn. Today, there are already 31 megacities (more than 10m people) and about 500 urban areas around the world with a population of one million people or more. By 2030, China is projected to have 148 million-people cities, out of a worldwide total of 663. In addition there will be over 700 cities that have a population between 0.5-1m people.

Having two cities on this island that fall into the latter two categories will be critical to our future prosperity (and peace) across the island. I believe that this should be at the heart of our new relationship on this island. There has never been a better time for Dublin and Belfast to forge a new symbiotic relationship enabling both cities on this island to combine their resources to compete in an increasingly competitive global market. In 2016, the Irish Academy of Engineering published a sequel as it were to the paper I previously mentioned but with a particular focus on the Economic Corridor. In 1992, Sir George Quigley, one of the island’s great mandarins of the modern era, addressed the annual Conference of Irish Industry, and spoke about the development of a Dublin Belfast Economic Corridor. 25 years later we can now see the great progress that has been made. To cite one physical example, coming North as a child, few would have envisaged the journey that all our citizens enjoy today, at least by car. Also in 2016, Ibec and CBI, published the ambitious Connected Report that looks at the requirements for the island with a population of 10 million by 2050! Hopefully the next generation of the Gavaghan/O’Malley clans will contribute to this equation too!

The challenge now is to reset and raise our goals. For me a high-speed rail link between Belfast and Dublin in an hour (preferably faster) running at least 30 times a day is top of my list. Currently we suffer a journey time of 127 minutes (on a service that is mistakenly called The Enterprise!), which only runs 8 times a day – Edinburgh-Glasgow enjoys a frequency of 49 times daily as does Manchester-Birmingham and Munich-Nuremberg. Perhaps we should aspire to Brussels–Liege that excels with 60 journeys a day. Regardless of Brexit, the need to address this major connecting infrastructure is something that will be at the core of our new relationship on the island – transforming both hearts and minds and creating hundreds of thousands of new connections – commercial, cultural and social.

It has been my experience both as a project financier and as a promoter of infrastructure in both the public and private sectors that nothing knits people together more than a Big Hairy Ambitious Goal (a BHAG). Last week when Thomas DiNapoli, the New York State Comptroller (who oversees pension assets of $192 billion dollars) was in Belfast and Dublin (and Derry), he was very interested in the potential for this project. Last month I met the China Development Bank in London with Arup to explore their interest in what would be the largest single infrastructure project on this island, certainly in recent times.

Perhaps our Chinese community on the island can help us adjust our thinking – in China the “short” journey from Beijing to Shanghai takes just under 5 hours travelling at an average speed of just under 200 miles per hour. Extrapolating from this, then our journey time could be around 30 minutes so let no-one dampen this modest ambition by stating that 90 minutes would be sufficient. 60 minutes in my view falls into the classification of the “the best is the enemy of the good!” – let’s get this project onto our agenda with a clear timetable for its delivery before 2040. In China it would be built by 2025. So 25 years from now I just hope that I might be alive and can travel with that same feeling that I do today as I drive effortlessly to and from Dublin to Belfast and my children are bemused to hear that it was so different when I was young. Many men (and I am being sexist here) love a new train set – for me this is not about a shiny new status symbol but simply it is the tool that will ensure that we have capability to compete in a global market.

There are of course a myriad of other things that I would like to address in the new burgeoning relationship that is already taking root on this island. The Blessed John Henry Newman wrote over a century ago: “I contemplate a people which has had a long night, and will have an inevitable day. I am turning my eyes towards a hundred years (slightly out!) to come, and I dimly see the island I am gazing on become the road of passage and union between two hemispheres, and the centre of the world”. As we on this island bid for the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and Belfast and Derry combine forces for the European City of Culture also in 2023, there has never been a better opportunity for us to forge more trusting and caring relationships across this island and between these islands.




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