As I write this, I am travelling on a bus through central Strasbourg in France, from where I have been working all of this week, observing the sessions of the European Parliament and talking to some of the people who will play a key role in the direction of the EU as it hurtles towards March 2019. The trip to the European Parliament is one I have made many times in the distant past. On those occasions, it was difficult to get past the enormity of the issues that faced the institutions. You would return from each trip unsure as to what exactly would exercise the mind.
Not so much on this occasion. The Parliament I visited this week is one that faces an uncertain future; it is one that is trying to conduct its business with an elephant sitting on its trunk in the corner of the room. Fraught with differing tensions, with some people eyeing new roles for themselves, there are also some who are literally casting lots for the cloaks of the British; and others who rightly fear the havoc that future British trade deals will wreak on the export trade for Ireland.
We face a decade or more of change, of a great unknown. What we do know however, is that the new order in the world is one for which we may not be prepared. I spoke to Dutch MEP Esther de Lange, VP of the biggest political grouping in the parliament and she told me of the concern she has for Europe’s role in the future.
Where once Europe and in particular the EU, held sway on the breakdown of population and knowledge, that has slowly been eroded. Now the greater numbers of scientists and engineers will come from other parts of the world. She opined to me the scale of the challenge that faces Europe in upskilling itself in the battle to ensure we can compete in the brave new world of science, engineering, and technology.
In this regard, the two recent announcements regarding investment in Galway - at NUI Galway and at GMIT - are ones that will reap benefit and do much to contribute to the arsenal of technical and scientific knowledge that this country will possess in its battle to attract future investment.
The boost of €200m in the country’s institutes of technology will go some way to redress the imbalance in development they had suffered over the past decade. With many institutes in financial dire straits, the absence of such an impetus would have condemned them to an existence of penury at a time when universities are better placed to win investment. That scenario has now been avoided and the €24million STEM building development at GMIT is to be welcomed.
Equally the provision of a €60m loan from the European Investment Bank (the EU’s non-profit lender ) to NUI Galway to construct not only student accommodation, but also a new building for the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, will go on to provide greater opportunities for students, including those who enter college later than the norm, and also for professionals who wish to upskill.
The provision of such funding follows a decade of development of educational facilities in NUI Galway, creating a hub for learning that plays no small role in the attraction of foreign investors and multinational employers to the region.
While some people are sceptical about Brexit ever happening, even those who oppose it fear that outcome will merely kick the can down the street for another five years, amid accusations of disrespecting democracy.
Let there be no doubt about it, the impact of Brexit on Irerland will be considerable in some sectors. We can only hope to minimise this impact by protecting ourselves by developing our knowledge economy.
Developments such as the Galway announcements and the local digital strategy will only help to make us stronger in the face of such adversity.