Last year the CBI and IBEC published a joint report looking at the all-island Irish economy - looking at new opportunities for partnership in transport, healthcare and education to boost prosperity, North and South.
But in a speech at the opening of Trinity College Dublin's new business school, CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn warned this this vision needed a Brexit agreement - and an open border - to work.
"A no-deal Brexit outcome would be a wrecking ball," she said. "It would put this vision of an all-island economy on ice, perhaps permanently.
"One of the biggest tragedies of this suffocating Brexit gridlock is lost opportunity. Let this exciting vision for the Irish economy not be one of them."
But Carolyn also carried the theme of inclusion through to outline the opportunity for business leaders to be champions for inclusion, diversity and fairness in the workplace.
“It is only through inclusion that we protect our ability to operate as businesses," she said.
“Yes, there’s been progress, but we need to build on it now. If we do, there’s a huge opportunity before us – for everyone already in business and for those future generations.”
Thank you very much.
It’s wonderful to be here at Trinity College. In such an incredible new building. In the company of so many young people. Our future innovators and leaders.
And of course following in the footsteps of some truly brilliant alumni: Edmund Burke, Oscar Wilde or, of course, our particular favourite: former CBI President, Paul Drechsler. Very good to see you today, Paul.
The CBI’s ties with Ireland run deep. When I became Director-General of the CBI 3 years ago, one of the very first people to get in touch was Danny McCoy from our sister federation, IBEC.
It was the beginning of a friendship that has helped carry both our organisations through a tricky three years.
Based on a shared and unshakable belief in business as a force for good, not just within our separate nations, but between them as well.
The challenge of Brexit has made our conversations frequent and often urgent.
There are many descriptions of Brexit around but I think it was another famous graduate of Trinity College who has got it right. Samuel Beckett. With his lines from Waiting for Godot…
“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It's awful”.
But actually, I don’t want to talk about Brexit today. Not much anyway. I want instead to build on the great words of Dubliner James Joyce.
Who wrote: ‘I am tomorrow what I establish today’.
Surely no better words for a place of learning. And actually more broadly than that. No better words for business.
About the way the world is changing. And what all of you studying here might achieve in this changing world.
And I want to do so because I do believe we are at an extraordinary moment in history.
It can feel like the best of times, but also the worst of times. The best of times, because we live in an era of opportunity like none before. The way the world is now connected. The promise of technology. The opportunities – especially for young people – to build, innovate and grow.
I have to say it’s a particularly fantastic time to be a young woman heading out into the world. Compared with any other time in human history.
But in other ways, these can feel like dark days with uncertainty around every corner.
In 2007, we had the biggest economic crash since the 1920s. Since then, too few people have seen their living standards rise. And too many feel a sharp sense of unfairness. A feeling that the rewards of the market have been too concentrated at the top.
And, while technology holds huge promise, it is also fuelling unease, as people wonder what it will mean for their working lives.
There have of course been changes to celebrate. Many of them. But there’s no question. These are uncharted waters, where no-one has the answers.
And in a world of uncertainty, ideology can too often fill the void.
We’ve seen it – and not just in the Brexit debate. Populism taking root in many parts of the world, old ideas from the 1970s re-emerging. A return to nationalism, protectionism. Countries turning in on themselves.
And in this business can find themselves in the firing line.
The questions are deep-seated. And, as business leaders of the future, you will be grappling with where to find answers.
And I want to suggest one today. One that is in the hands of business to address. And even more powerfully through partnership with government.
And that is how we build a far more inclusive economy. Prosperity and opportunity that is more widely shared. In my view, all roads lead back to this.
If there is one thing that business must achieve, it is to use its almost unique power to create opportunity and build bridges. To lift people up, to tackle poverty and deprivation. To spread prosperity. Across gender and race. Region and class. Overcoming disadvantage in all forms.
There will never be a better route out of poverty than a good job. And no better way of breaking down division.
I will turn shortly to some thoughts on what this means for the business world of today. But first let me first go back in history to the example of Ireland itself.
What business has done in Ireland
Twenty years ago, when the Irish border was opened, this island’s economy began to change. Political division was bridged by a new economic unity. Business began to link up across the 32 counties. Farming, manufacturing and services became integrated across the island.
Take Baileys liqueur. Made in Dublin. Bottled in Northern Ireland. And returned South ready for export.
And yes, almost a third of Northern Irish milk is now processed in the Republic, along with forty per cent of Northern Irish lamb.
These headline facts and figures say a lot.
But there’s also something deeper, more profound going on here. And that’s the unique power of business to bring people together. To bridge political, cultural and religious divides.
As French philosopher Montesquieu put it so well in the 1700s:
“Commerce is a cure for the most destructive of prejudices”
Business connects people, and creates shared interest among people very different from one another. Employee and employer. Colleague and colleague. Buyer and supplier. Yes, people from different faiths.
The economists and theorists write about it. But in the past two decades, Ireland has lived it.
Business has the answer
And so, back to the here and now. I have a confession to make.
So, I have spent my life in business. I worked mostly in media and finance, picked up an MBA along the way at INSEAD. And thoroughly commend it to every student here.
A career in business is the best, believe me.
But inclusion and diversity always tended to be number 3 or 4 on my list of priorities. Beaten by things that always somehow felt more urgent. The next deal, a new market opportunity.
But I think I was wrong.
I think that for every business it should be at the top of the list. And for three important reasons:
First, it is only through inclusion that we protect our ability to operate as businesses. Unless we strive for profit with purpose, use what we have to create fair opportunity, business will lose its voice and public support.
Second, inclusive businesses are better businesses. More innovative, better ideas, closer to their customers.
Third, and I think this drives many of us, it is simply the right thing to do.
I had a particular wakeup call on the challenge of making leadership of business more diverse in my first week at the CBI.
When I was appointed as Director General, I was asked how much I wanted to make of being the first woman in the role. My answer was – not too much. I felt the reason I was there had nothing to do with my gender so why was it relevant.
But in my first week at the CBI I had the privilege of attending many meetings with the top leaders of UK business. And I was often the only woman in the room.
I realised how far we still have to go to have female leaders in all walks of life, and I changed my mind. Since then I have talked proudly of being the first woman because it does matter.
People are watching – our daughters are watching - and if even one young woman sees this and thinks – I can lead too – it’s worth it.
So now let’s get practical. It is in the hands of business to change things. To close the gender pay gap. To stamp out sexual harassment wherever it exists. To end discrimination on grounds of class, background, race, sexuality, religion, disability – or any other inessential characteristic.
Yes, there’s been progress. To take just one set of statistics, in the UK the employment rate among working-age women, is at a record high.
Over the past year almost 60% of the additional workers in Britain have been women.
And, incredibly, over the same period the number of disabled people in work has increased by 178,000.
This is progress. But we need to build on it. And if we do, there’s a huge opportunity before us. An opportunity for everyone already in business. And for those – many of you here today – who will be in business in future.
Not an opportunity merely to increase shareholder value. Or increase profits. Which will continue to matter of course. But to put business to work at what business does best.
Business with a purpose. Business that builds inclusion.
One of the most powerful ways to do this is through how business works with schools.
Disadvantage can start very young, and contact with people from the business world can make a great difference.
By inspiring, by motivating, by showing rather than telling young people what business is. How exciting it can be. Why learning maths and science is a great idea.
Powerful research shows that students who have at least 4 interactions with business while at school are 5 times less likely to be unemployed when they’re older.
So at the CBI we’re working with all our members across the UK to help them get more involved with their local schools.
One example of business stepping up in practical ways.
Partnership of the century
And there’s even more that can be done if business works hand in hand with government. Let me take one of the biggest challenges facing modern economies.
How to retrain people for a completely different world of work.
I don’t buy the theory that robots will leave millions unemployed. But I do think jobs will be different.
Look at the impact of new digital technologies like AI. Most estimates say that between 10% and 30% of jobs will be affected by automation. But that’s beginning to look like a wild underestimate.
The CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, said that it won’t be 10% – or even 30%. But 100%. Every job will be affected by automation in one way or another.
In the UK, even if you take the 30% number, that is 10 million people already working who will need a different set of skills. Digital, coding, problem solving, communication. Just some of the skills we will need more of.
It is an opportunity for building greater inclusion. But there’s is also a real risk of going backwards, if people are left behind with the wrong skills.
So we need a partnership between government and business to tackle this before it’s upon us and too late.
You might even call it a partnership of the century.
Get this right, and technology can be used to make our world fairer and better, not more divided and excluding.
And in the UK we are in the foothills of this partnership – unions, business, government, academia – forging a National Retraining Partnership.
But there is a long way still to go.
Everything I have said so far I believe applies to the majority of modern nations. But in my closing words, let me come back to Ireland.
Last year, IBEC and the CBI published a joint report. Looking at the all-Island Irish economy, north and South.
I’ve already touched on how powerful business in the past has been in helping build peace and prosperity. This report was about how much further we can go in the future.
New opportunities in transport, healthcare and education. Extending transport – road and rail – across the whole island. All supporting a population of 10 million people by the middle of this century.
A compelling vision that’s all about economic inclusion: connecting the regions of the island of Ireland, enterprise-led. Improving lives and tackling deprivation in all its forms.
But it won’t happen without some key ingredients.
It needs governments working together in partnership with business.
It needs a clear plan for infrastructure linking north and south.
It needs a focus on skills imbalances and great learning institutions like this one, ready to address them.
And – in the here and now – it needs a Brexit agreement that enables an open border and frictionless trade to continue.
A no-deal Brexit outcome would be a wrecking ball. More than short run disruption. More than a temporary bump in the road. It would put this vision of an all-island economy on ice, perhaps permanently.
One of the biggest tragedies of this suffocating Brexit gridlock is lost opportunity. Let this exciting vision for the Irish economy not be one of them.
And so, let me wrap up, and end on a note of optimism. Very much inspired by all of you, young leaders in the making. These are truly exciting times to be heading out into the world.
Change always brings great opportunity.
And that brings me back to this business school, Trinity College Business School, and the promise it holds. And as I stand here today I can’t help but feel a profound sense of hope. That this building will be the beginning of so many great things.
And as you go about achieving them, I hope you will embrace inclusion and champion diversity in all its forms. I hope you will talk about it. Teach it. Act on it.
To return to the words of James Joyce: You are tomorrow what you establish today.