Comment: It took a pandemic to boost the regional economy – let’s not squander this opportunity

Sometimes it takes a crisis to tap into your inner entrepreneur – there are increasing examples of plucky start-ups spotting a business opportunity and they need support

Peripheral regions, such as Donegal (above), Leitrim, Clare and Mayo, which languished during a decade of austerity, experienced double-digit house price inflation in 2020. Picture: Getty

For decades we’ve battled with the challenge of how to make entrepreneurship more attractive, running initiatives such as Young Enterprise, Dragons’ Den and countless other initiatives to “big up” the guy (sadly it is usually a guy) who “made it”. There are also plenty of supports available, such as the New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development Programme, to guide and coax would-be entrepreneurs.

These myriad initiatives are based on an idea that being an entrepreneur is an alluring prospect that people can be pulled towards.

On the other hand, sometimes it takes a crisis to tap into our inner entrepreneur and push us into action. Across the country, there are increasing examples of plucky start-ups spotting a business opportunity amid all the confusion.

With more staycationers rediscovering the country, we have spotted lots of coffee vans and pop-up stalls beside beaches and beauty spots, typically run by young people who had never done anything in catering before.

We have seen thrift/charity shops pivoting to the high-margin PPE business or the DIY space offering paint, gardening and cleaning products for the bored locked-down generation. And there are lots of “underground” examples of hair and beauty therapists making home visits to maintain income and their client roster.

In the hospitality area, many people signed up as Airbnb hosts to increase bed capacity in a nation that has never experienced such numbers of domestic tourists, while it was impossible to source wetsuits, camping gear or canoes at the height of the summer.

What this shows is that the entrepreneurial seed is not far from the surface in the Irish psyche, especially when the proverbial back is against the wall. A ranking of fourth in Europe (of 15) and tenth across the OECD (of 24) in the entrepreneur stakes bears this out.

And so it is with regional planning. What seemed like a relentless concentration of economic activity in the capital showed no signs of abating as the lure of the biggest global employers in top-end offices remained a constant draw for the best talent. Until, that is, we were all forced to work from home. We pushed our technology to the limit, forced ourselves to smile for the camera, unmuted our mics and then had a realisation: the five-day-a-week commute was all a bit of a folly.

Yes, we are missing the social interaction and relationship-building, and sure, home working isn’t for everybody, but for many the benefits of working away from the office, outside Dublin, are outweighing the downsides. And therein lies the opportunity for our regions and their budding entrepreneurs.

Overlooked by the Celtic Tiger, peripheral counties such as Donegal, Leitrim, Clare and Mayo languished during a decade of austerity but experienced double-digit house price inflation in 2020, according to With national average increases at 7.4 per cent, Donegal topped the chart at 13.8 per cent, followed by Longford at 10.5 per cent and and Sligo at 9.1 per cent.

Paradoxically, these locations’ very remoteness and isolation have driven values up, while prices in densely populated urban areas have stayed the same or marginally reduced – an unexpected and welcome “levelling up” economic impact.

For the regions, the bigger the audience, the greater the entrepreneurial creativity and ingenuity to capitalise on it.

Longer term, it will be important for the government and its regional partners to foster and harness this bloom of entrepreneurialism, independent enterprise, and re-engagement with our regions as places to live, invest, study and visit. Planned legislation to give people the legal right to work from home is a good start.

We will need intervention, however, in respect of infrastructure, both digital and physical, as well as incentives to encourage local enterprise, not just foreign direct investment, co-working hubs, more centres of excellence and more structured “visit” programmes building on the success of the Wild Atlantic Way and the greenways.

Ironically, after years of failed or semi-effective regional policies and a gravitational pull of investment and talent towards the cities, an unexpected act of God has given our regions an economic boost the likes of which we have never seen. Let’s not squander the opportunity.

Mark O’Connell is chief executive of OCO Global, which provides trade advice to Enterprise Ireland, the British Department for International Trade and a number of private organisations