Martin Hannan: Look out for the pluck of the Irish

(The Scotsman, 8th January 2013)

The true curse of Scotland is not the nine of diamonds playing card but the fact that for centuries, we have invented things that have made other countries rich. Everything from ships to medicines that were created here in Scotland were “borrowed” by other countries, making foreign individuals and firms rich on the back of Scottish know-how.

These days, there is proper patent protection which is more or less recognised worldwide, so the old problem of people and companies stealing Scottish inventions and “improving’”them is no longer such a difficulty.

Usually the “improvers” had something which Scotland just isn’t very good at – the ability to properly market a product and maximise sales, something that, with few exceptions such as the whisky industry, we Scots were not very good at doing.

Last week in Ireland, I saw another Scottish “invention” come under threat and it spells bad news for Edinburgh’s winter tourism market.

Having been privileged to be one of the international press corps invited to attend the opening of The Gathering, Ireland’s year of attracting Irish-descended people to their ancestral homeland, I was stunned by the New Year’s Eve Festival hosted by the City of Dublin.

Having been slightly involved at the beginning of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in the mid-1990s, I watched as Dublin took the original concept pioneered by Scotland’s capital city and did it so, so much better. Torchlight procession? Check. Fireworks display? Check. Open-air concert? Check. Countdown to the bells on live television? Check.

Yet it was all done with so much more brio, so much more joyous partying, not least because whole families got involved, something which our Winter Festival again pioneered. Is that still the case in Edinburgh?

Some 55,000 people took to the streets of Dublin for the event, led in spectacular style by the city’s ebullient young lord mayor, Naoise O Muiri. The 343rd lord mayor of Dublin is what the Irish call a broth of a boy, just 40 and so energetic and enthusiastic that his own officials could barely keep up with him.

Donald Wilson is a decent fellow, by all accounts, but while I may be wrong in this, I just cannot see our Lord Provost being an advert for Edinburgh in the way that Naoise O Muiri is for Dublin. Swaying atop his own float in the procession and dressed in blue and gold flashy robes, the lord mayor exemplified the spirit of Dublin, a city which has given itself a good shake after the well-publicised collapse of the Irish economy and has come out fighting.

“Dublin is holding its own and we are a resilient city,” the lord mayor was happy to tell a columnist from another capital city. “We are in recovery, we’re not fools and we know there’s a long way to go, but we are going to keep going.”

His next words should seriously worry VisitScotland and those in charge of marketing Edinburgh’s Christmas and especially Edinburgh’s Hogmanay.

“We started last year with a small event, and nothing like the scale we have had this year. I was in a carriage at the back of the parade and I looked behind me and couldn’t believe the number of people joining in – there were tens of thousands enjoying themselves. We have plans to make this an annual event. Dublin needs a New Year’s Eve Festival and we have seen a great one today so let’s go on from here.”

To go from zero to 55,000 participants in two years is phenomenal progress, and the lord mayor and Dublin’s council are determined to build on the success they have already enjoyed. I can only predict that Dublin’s New Year’s Eve Festival will get bigger and better, and as the nearest such event to Edinburgh, this city of ours better look to its laurels.

We have a new competitor in our vicinity and Dublin doesn’t do second best to anybody – it is a true European capital, more than twice the size of Edinburgh in terms of population and with a history that dates back even longer than ours.

One thing which struck me was that at lunchtime on January 2, Dublin was still full of foreign visitors, with a queue 100 yards long to see the Book of Kells in Trinity College Library, and many thousands of tourists soaking up the vibrant atmosphere in Temple Bar, which these days makes our own venerable Rose Street look terribly tatty and old-fashioned.

Flying back to Edinburgh that afternoon, the streets were largely empty, as if people had turned up for the bells and then got away as fast as they could.

One columnist in another Scottish newspaper has even suggested that Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is not even in the top ten of places to see in the new year. I can’t agree with that – the original idea is still sound and 75,000 people enjoyed themselves in the city.

But contrast the success of Dublin’s New Year’s Eve with the fiasco that was the laughable “incredinburgh” campaign and you see where the problems lie ahead. Dublin will slickly market its Hogmanay equivalent with much more skill, and once again a Scottish “invention” will be sold better by our competitors.

Edinburgh needs to give its Winter Festivals and marketing generally a good shake-up. We could start by checking out the competition across the Irish Sea.