We’ve lost people’s trust, says business chief

The government, big business and key institutions of the state have to restore trust with the electorate or populism could threaten the stability of the political system, according to one of the country’s leading business figures.

Patrick Coveney, chief executive of Greencore, said that Irish people, in common with those in many developed countries, feel “beaten up and dissatisfied” and that the electorate “operates with a low level of trust” towards government, big business and bodies such as the church and gardai.

Part of the reason that the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition fared so badly in the general election in February was that its message about the recovery did not chime with voters who had weathered years of austerity, Mr Coveney argued.

He said that the election was lost because of complex issues beyond the health of the economy. “You had an outgoing government, which by any conventional economic metric had done a remarkable job of leading the country through a period of extraordinary difficulty. The performance of the economy at a macro and micro level has been nothing short of phenomenal,” he said.

“I think we should genuinely celebrate what we achieved over the past five years. I would go as far as to say that very few commentators five or six years ago would have expected Ireland to be where it is now.”

However, he said that it was necessary to “separate the performance of the economy from whether the economy is performing for all stakeholders”. He said that the forces that pushed British voters through the EU exit door and are fuelling populist movements throughout the bloc are also prevalent in this country.

“The common point is that the ‘world is not working for me’. This view is held not just by a small minority of people but a large section of the community.”

The challenge is for the economy and society to become more inclusive, he said. “I think it is about establishing a better connection between the economy and society. It is about re-establishing trust between government and citizens and some of that is about communication, but not in a superficial way. It is about engagement and solidarity between different parts of society.”

Mr Coveney said that big business must play its part. Even though he is chief executive of one of the country’s biggest companies, politics is in his genes. His brother, Simon, is the minister for housing and his late father, Hugh, was defence minister in the Fine Gael-led rainbow coalition from 1994 to 1997.

As a former president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, Mr Coveney retains a keen interest in the fortunes of the wider economy. A few years ago the main focus of the government was staving off economic collapse. The improvement in the national finances means that the debate is now about how government spending should be redistributed.

“Once that argument opened up, people from across the political spectrum came in with opinions on what to do,” he said. “These ranged from localised political representatives to the ideological left or hard left or the resurgence of Fianna Fail, notwithstanding their connection to the problems that Ireland had.”

“New politics” has been the leitmotif of political parties of all hues in the aftermath of the inconclusive general election.

“I don’t buy this new form of politics as I think that implies a more transparent choice than what actually happened,” Mr Coveney said. “What is described as new politics is an attempt to figure out what to do in an uncertain political environment as opposed to a conscious decision to do things differently.”

He said that it is too early to say whether the government would be effective “but there are some encouraging signs”. The decision-making process is much slower than would have been the case with a majority government, he added. “I don’t detect any great appetite among the electorate for another election. I think people would be enormously irritated if that is what the government chose to do.”

Over the past month there has been uncertainty over the future of the taoiseach, with speculation that a heave was looming last month. Mr Coveney’s brother is rumoured to be in contention should a vacancy arise but he remained tight-lipped. “All I can say is that the taoiseach has been clear that he is not going to run for re-election again, but he will lead the government up to that point. Anything other than that is speculation.”

An academic high achiever, Mr Coveney, 45, was graduate of the year when he completed a commerce degree at University College Cork. This was followed by a scholarship to Oxford where he completed a PhD and played rugby for the university. From there he joined McKinsey, the management consultancy, before being poached by Greencore, the former national sugar company, in 2005. He lives in Dublin with his wife and four children.

Greencore had revenues last year of €1.3 billion and has just under 11,000 employees and 22 manufacturing facilities, mostly in the UK and Ireland. Mr Coveney was a vocal supporter of Remain in the Brexit referendum.

The result will affect Ireland badly because Britain will grow less strongly outside the EU, he said. Ireland will also miss the UK’s influence in Brussels as the two countries had closely aligned interests. “But we have to change our mindset. We have to embrace the fact that this has happened, and while there are some risks, there are also some opportunities,” he added. He cited the potential for financial services companies relocating to Dublin and “there are opportunities at the margin for incremental foreign direct investment that might have otherwise gone to the UK”.

The main challenges stemming from Brexit are to tourism, on the back of a weaker exchange rate, and to agri-food, owing to cost competitiveness.

There is a danger that Brexit is presented as a binary choice under which Ireland ties its future either to the UK or the EU, he said. The country’s economic prospects hinge on being a fully paid-up member of the EU offering unfettered access to the single market, he added. “We really need a good relationship with the UK and the EU.”

Even though Greencore is headquartered in Dublin, it is listed on the London Stock Exchange. It delisted from the Irish Stock Exchange in 2011. Mr Coveney said that the “door is open” to discussions about whether the food giant would seek a listing in Dublin again.

“We have made it very clear over the past few years that if there was a demand among shareholders for us to have a secondary listing in Dublin, we would be open as a board to doing that,” he said. “As we see different elements of Britain’s exit from the EU unfold, we need to keep that under review. But at the moment we don’t have any plans to set up a secondary listing in Dublin.”