Interview with Mary Buckley, Executive Director of IDA Ireland

Interview with Mary Buckley, Executive Director of IDA Ireland


BF: Ireland has done extremely well during a period of global downsizing, being the only economy in the EU to grow in 2020 and having a projected GDP growth of 10.1% in 2022. What are the main reasons Ireland has done so well recently, and how much has FDI been a part of the country’s resilience and recovery?

Mary Buckley: FDI has been transformative for Ireland over the past 73 years, and it has been central to Ireland’s economic growth. Ireland’s membership in the EU has also been hugely important. This year we celebrate our 50th anniversary since joining the EU. Ireland is a gateway for U.S. companies to access Europe. Another highlight is our GDP growth. Ireland was one of the best performing global economies in 2021, recording 13.5% growth. The central bank figures highlight the continued strong performance in 2022, with growth of 12%. IDA Ireland targets investments across a number of sectors including pharmaceutical, medical technologies, financial services, and technology activities, and we saw huge export growth in those sectors in 2021 at £315.5 billion, up 9% on the previous year.  In 2022, we brought 242 new investments into Ireland and 167 of them came from the USA. We now have almost 1,800 FDI companies in Ireland and they employ just over 300,000 people, approximately 12% of the labor force. Ireland is seen as a stable business, a friendly environment, and it is being enhanced all the time. Unemployment has been steadily decreasing in recent years.

BF: According to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office, Ireland’s FDI rose by €109 billion to €1.2 trillion in 2021. 2022 was also marked with some large foreign investments, including Pfizer’s $1 billion expansion. Can you outline the top key factors that make Ireland such an attractive place for FDI for our readers?

Mary Buckley: The most important factor is the IDA client base of companies operating successfully here in Ireland. We have almost 1,800 companies located across Ireland with half of them here over 20 years, for example, Pfizer, Citibank, Apple, Microsoft, Intel and Stryker who have been able to evolve their business activities over time. 950 FDI companies are from the USA and with Ireland is an entry point to the EU, which is the world’s largest single market. They also gain access to a highly skilled, English speaking, flexible work force. The business evolution is continuous, supported by government policy which is pro-enterprise, along with a favorable tax environment and government incentives. Half of Ireland’s population is under 34 and a third are under 25 years of age. We have the highest number of STEM graduates between the ages of 23 to 29 in Europe on a per capita basis. College attainment continues to climb among 25-to-34-year old’s and is significantly above the European average. There are no surprises in how Ireland does business, and this gives comfort to existing and prospective investors that see Ireland as a stable location that demonstrated resilience during Covid. Ireland has significant strengths in leading industry and innovation; it ranks as the 6th most innovative country on the European Innovation Scoreboard. We have a well-established research, development and innovation eco-system in Ireland that supports companies with facilities, expertise, financial supports and a talented workforce with skills to enhance, develop and transform businesses.

BF: IDA Ireland has been extremely successful and solidifying the nation’s standing in terms of foreign investment. Recent end-of-the-year figures show that client companies increased jobs in the market by 9% and the government just signed off an increase of 20% in spending on IDA Ireland client companies. How successful has IDA Ireland’s 2021-2024 strategy been so far and what recent milestones has the organization passed to help Ireland meet its investment goals?

Mary Buckley: The IDA remit is to attract investment to Ireland and create jobs for the people of Ireland, and we’ve been doing very well. Our strategy is very strong, with a target of 800 investments, and it focuses on creating 50,000 new jobs by the end of 2024. We have been very successful in winning investments and jobs across the country. More than half of the investments in 2022 went outside of Dublin. Research & Development and upskilling/talent development, sustainability and digitization are core to our strategy for the transformation of our existing client base. We’re now in the end of our second year of our strategy and achieving our targets. In employment, we saw 9% growth in 2021 and the same level of growth the previous year. This growth is across all sectors of focus. There’s a huge confidence in Ireland as a location. 103 of the 242 investments approved in 2022 were new investments, that is companies investing in Ireland for the first time. We’re seen as a stable country that is a strong member of the EU. Our clients demonstrated a huge resilience over the past two years, and we appreciate their ongoing commitment to Ireland.

We of course did not want Brexit to happen, but we have seen FDI growth on the back of that challenge, with over 100 new investments won by IDA from companies mainly in the international financial services sector.

The current global geopolitical and operating environment has been challenging in recent years. Our clients demonstrated that Ireland’s value proposition is strong in 2022 despite the challenges. We’ve seen employment increase by 50% since 2010, going from 150,000 to 301,000 people employed in FDI companies. Our base of companies in Ireland is up to almost to 1,800. We’ve been winning a significant number of investments yearly. Because of global challenges we are expecting a slowdown in new investments in 2023. MNCs will be more cautious in business decisions. IDA Ireland has over 300 tech client companies employing about 116,000 people. We’ve seen a small impact by the global slowdown in technology companies in the last quarter with some job losses, but these companies are committed to Ireland and there will be growth again.

BF: IDA and SkillNet initiated another collaboration in September, this time to accelerate partnerships between multinationals and SMEs in terms of disruptive and sustainable technologies. What kind of synergies are we seeing in the market between large foreign investors and local Irish SMEs and businesses, and how has this relationship helped underline the country’s attractiveness in terms of FDI?

Mary Buckley: SkillNet is one of many institutions we have in Ireland that work with both the multinational and the indigenous companies on talent development. It’s an important advantage for Ireland which, as a country, has always depended heavily on a well-educated workforce for the future success of FDI and indigenous industry. We engage widely on the future of work, particularly around upskilling and reskilling existing employees and companies in digitization and sustainability. They’re the areas where we’re going to see so much change as technology permeates all sectors. We are keen to ensure our workforce is ready and able to adapt to different environments and new business models. Our education system is very strong, with excellent technological and academic universities in Ireland. Many students spend time in industry as part of their curriculum. Employers spend time in academia explaining trends, sectors and what their companies do. That collaboration is strong.

One example is in the University of Limerick, which has a new degree program in immersive software. That program was originally started with Stripe and many other multinational companies have since contributed to the content.  We’re also engaged with Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) which is similar to the NSF in the U.S.; it has 16 research centers in, for example, pharma, big data, software and medical technologies. We have a very close working relationship with our sister agency, Enterprise Ireland, whose Irish companies employ over 100,000 people in the U.S.  The Government’s Disruptive Technologies Investment Fund of €500 million seeks investment in the development and deployment of disruptive innovative technologies on a commercial basis, targeted at tackling national and global challenges. The fund is driving collaboration between our world class research base and industry (Irish and FDI).

BF: Green investment in the region is on the rise, linked to the EU Green Deal and Ireland’s net-zero commitments. IDA’s recent labor polls released in December showed that green jobs in Ireland almost doubled between 2016 and 2021. What impact has the green investment trend had on Ireland’s business environment, and what new niche sectors is Ireland currently cultivating under the sustainability umbrella?

Mary Buckley: Sustainability is tremendously important for Ireland. A new white paper on enterprise was recently launched by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. A key priority is decarbonization and technological change. A key pillar of IDA Ireland’s organizational strategy is sustainability, both for client companies that are operating in Ireland and for new business. We won 21 sustainability investments last year focused on decarbonization and a broadly similar number the year before, and we expect the number of investments to increase in 2023. In Ireland, renewable energy and offshore are very strong. Wind power accounted for about 36% of Ireland’s electricity in 2020. Ireland has a strong national development plan that commits to increasing the share of renewable energy and electricity by 80% by 2030. Ireland is focused on supporting companies in this area and that will only grow stronger in the next few years.

BF: American FDI in Ireland stood at $390 billion in 2020, more than the U.S. total for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa combined. Out of the more than 950 U.S. subsidiaries in Ireland, most are based in the country’s strategic growth sectors, such as biosciences, medtech, ICT and financial services. How significant is the U.S. in terms of IDA Ireland’s target markets, and what kind of new trends are we seeing that might present potential investment opportunities for American investors?

Mary Buckley: There are 210,000 people employed in U.S. companies in Ireland, about 69% of the IDA portfolio. We won 167 U.S. investments out of 242 investments in 2022. Ireland is a very attractive European location for U.S. companies. Many of the companies in Ireland are constantly changing and adapting. For example, cell and gene therapy is a new area of focus. MeiraGTx, a U.S. company based in Shannon, County Clare is focused on gene therapy. The National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training is a key piece of infrastructure in Dublin involved in the development and training of people in the pharmaceutical and biotech sector.  We also have Digital Manufacturing Ireland in Limerick, focused on supporting manufacturing companies to adopt and accelerate new digital technologies.

BF: You stepped up as interim CEO in October after being executive director for more than seven years at IDA Ireland. It’s a really interesting time to be leading business development in the country! What are your current top three priorities as the leader of IDA Ireland and what kind of vision do you have for FDI and the Irish economy into 2023 and beyond?

Mary Buckley: To successfully execute on our organizational strategy: “Driving Recovery and Sustainable Growth 2021 -2024.”  It is imperative that we achieve all our targets for the strategy as we prepare for the next strategy post 2024. To further embed our client companies in Ireland through a focus on RD&I, digitization, sustainability, upskilling and reskilling the workforce is a key requirement for 2023 and beyond.

Ireland is a terrific location for FDI investments and has been for the past 70+ years. We never take FDI for granted. A priority is to continue to focus on ensuring our proposition for companies investing and operating in Ireland remains strong, and that we offer a highly skilled workforce in a stable, pro-business environment with access to the EU. It is my vision that Ireland will continue to be one of the most successful and competitive locations in the world for FDI.

BF: What is your final message to the readers of USA Today?

Mary Buckley: With the global environment constantly changing, Ireland has been able to adapt and capitalize on the opportunities that arise as business models shifted and new growth areas emerged. This is reflected by the country’s historic success in winning a far higher share of FDI than warranted by its size. With the upcoming period once again characterized by accelerated change, IDA Ireland continues to respond to this changing environment by supporting companies to locate and grow in Ireland, create jobs and invest in R&D, in digitization, in training and upskilling their people, and in sustainability.

We truly appreciate and value the investments made by U.S. companies in Ireland. We stay close to our U.S. companies to ensure that Ireland is core to their business solutions. We see Ireland as the prime location to expand within Europe. We have 73 years of experience partnering with companies operating in Ireland. As already mentioned, Pfizer just announced a $1.2 billion expansion investment in advanced manufacturing in Dublin. Eli Lilly is going to establish a new biologics manufacturing plant in Limerick with 400 jobs and a €300 million investment. Siemens Healthineers just announced a significant investment creating an additional 100 jobs in Dublin, and, last year, Workday announced it would construct its new European HQ adjacent to a third level college, DCU, and create 1,000 jobs. We’re seeing new investments across all sectors of focus that demonstrates the ongoing attractiveness of Ireland as a location for U.S. companies to invest.