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Some Questions for Your Country Your Call

*This article was first published in the Irish Times on April 23rd 2010*

The Your Country, Your Call competition has a week to go before submissions close and the judges start to consider which of them will be awarded €100,000. The stated aim of the competition is far reaching and radical – nothing less than to “create prosperity and jobs at an entirely different level from what currently exists”, as Pádraig McKeon, Drury Communications managing director and Your Country steering group member, has said.

It has been supported by many of the pillars of the establishment. However, it is surprising given the scope of this ambition – and access to specialist knowledge – that there are still plenty of questions unanswered since the competition was launched.

Firstly, is the competition equitable to participants?

Under section 7.1 of the terms and conditions of the competition, every participant grants a “worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable, unencumbered, royalty-free, fully paid-up, non-exclusive licence” to An Smaoineamh Mór, the limited liability company running the competition.

For the winners, the consequences are total loss of ownership of their idea. Section 7.2 says that the winner (or winners) “shall irrevocably transfer, convey and assign to the promoter (or such party that the promoter may direct) all right, title and interest in and to the winning proposal and all intellectual property rights therein.”

After they pocket their €100,000, they lose all interest in an idea which will, by the organisers’ own description, “create prosperity and jobs” to an unprecedented degree. That’s a return on €100,000 of which any private venture capital company would be proud. We can imagine the winners might, as that prosperity grows in An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd’s bank account, come to feel rather like the creators of early comic book characters: cut out of the fortunes their imaginations summoned into being.

Secondly, where is all the money for this competition coming from and why?

At first glance this question seems to have been answered quite clearly. McKeon told the Value Ireland blog on March 6th: “A cash fund of just under €2 million has been accumulated via donations from 13 parties (companies and individuals) which has been lodged in the accounts of the company, An Smaoineamh Mór . . . the promoters formally presented the project to Government late last summer and asked for support in three ways – a contribution to the fund referred above; a request that the competition would have access if it needed it to the services of the State enterprise agencies in the evaluation process (if such help were required); and a commitment that Government would engage with the process of developing the two winning proposals, particularly with reference to any legislative issues that might need to be addressed. It agreed to all three requests – it will be contributing 15 per cent of the fund.”

But on March 23rd, in response to a parliamentary question from Ciarán Lynch who asked the then minister for enterprise Mary Coughlan whether she had “given or [had] undertaken to give public money” to the project, she told the Dáil: “My department is currently examining a proposal to provide funding of up to €300,000 to the Your Country, Your Call initiative from within existing resources. No funding has yet been paid by my department in respect of the initiative.” And she went on to say that “if funding is made available” she would want to ensure that it was accounted for properly.

Which is odd. Because it shows (a) the minister hadn’t made a decision to give An Smaoineamh Mór any money and (b) that the amount of money she was considering paying is any figure “up to” €300,000. It also raises questions as to what conditions may be placed on any funding. So, has An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd got €300,000 of public money in a bank account? Or not?

When I posed that question online, McKeon showed a new reticence compared to his earlier statement: “As to the status of the account today, we will not be publishing that detail during the competition.”

Actually, there are lots of “details” we don’t know about An Smaoineamh Mór’s accounts. We don’t know who those earlier-mentioned 13 parties (companies and individuals) are. A list of 87 names is provided on the Your Country, Your Call website as a non-exhaustive indicator of contributors, but not all have given money. We don’t know which of the named and unnamed contributors have provided money and if so, how much. We don’t know what the financial contributors’ relationship with the State is, though we do know from public records that two of the State-supported banks, AIB and Bank of Ireland, are in there somewhere. We don’t know, therefore, how much public money is in that €2 million “cash fund”.

That’s a lot of don’t knows. We’ve been promised since February that they would all be revealed “in the coming weeks”. Those weeks are still coming.

Finally, is the competition equitable to taxpayers? An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd is recognised as a charity by the Revenue Commissioners on the basis of its memorandum and articles of association. But those same documents allow for the company to establish for-profit subsidiary companies.

As already mentioned, it will own all the intellectual property in the winning entry or entries. It intends to establish a vaguely defined “something” to create jobs, and prosperity. But jobs and prosperity don’t occur in the abstract. They are the happy side effect of a highly profitable business.

Under what statutory power is the Minister considering funding a privately owned company (backed by undisclosed persons) with public money – completely outside the normal enterprise support institutions and structures – with the intended aim of developing a vastly profitable business or industry without any known provision for a return on that investment for the State?

And if there is such a power, how could it be in the public interest to use it?