Emails show events that led to Web Summit leaving Dublin

Emails between Web Summit organiser and Government officials show an increasingly tense relationship

Emails show events that led to Web Summit leaving Dublin

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny ringing the NASDAQ opening bell at the Dublin Web Summit in 2014 | Image: RollingNews.ie

Web Summit organisers have released a series of emails between co-founder Paddy Cosgrave and Government officials that show the events leading up to their decision to move the event from Dublin in 2016.

The correspondence details how sporadic communications and frustration from Web Summit organisers characterised the weeks before organisers made the decision to move the event to Lisbon in 2016.

At one point organisers wait weeks for responses from Government officials as they attempted to negotiate a deal to keep the event in Dublin in 2016. At another, despite an apparent rush to finalise a plan to allow the event to stay in Dublin, Mr Cosgrave takes one week to respond to Government officials.

READ: Emails between Web Summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave and Government officials

A statement released with the documents says: "In releasing this information openly, we want to be transparent about the reasons for moving Web Summit to Lisbon in 2016 and to place on record the issues in question.

"We are doing this not to point the finger but to help everyone focus on the future."

The emails paint a picture of an increasingly frustrated Cosgrave, who admonishes Government officials and politicians for their failure to properly exploit the opportunities available in having an array of international visitors in Ireland – and says British officials, including Prince Charles, made far more use of the event than their Irish counterparts. 

Cosgrave accuses Government officials of “operating in a parallel universe where a jobs announcement or a photo opportunity at Web Summit is the biggest opportunity you see. Meanwhile other governments are cleaning up under your nose.”

Repeatedly insisting the organisers wanted no payment from the Government for staying in Ireland, Cosgrave goes on to make several demands, including: a specific traffic plan, controls on hotel rates during the Summit, a solution to WiFi issues at the RDS, discounted public transport for attendees, and garda escort services for approximately 10 VIP guests. The traffic plan in particular is a repeated request from Cosgrave, and one central to his belief that without solutions from the Government the event “will be too big for Dublin in 2016.”

Civil servants communicating with Cosgrave appear to dither over his requests for clarification on the plan for 2016’s Web Summit, eventually replying that they wish to focus on 2015 before dedicating time to planning for next year.

The emails are sent between Cosgrave and two senior Government officials - John Callinan, Assistant Secretary General, Department of the Taoiseach and Nick Reddy, the Taoiseach’s Private Secretary. The correspondence takes place over the month between August 21, 2015 to September 23, 2015.

Searching for a plan

The first two emails are from Cosgrave, requesting a plan from the Government for Web Summit 2016. He insists the organisers want no financial incentive for staying in Dublin but rather are hoping for a series of infrastructural issues to be sorted out.

In the opening email in the exchange Cosgrave advises the Government he will be announcing the decision on the venue for the 2016 Web Summit on September 23 – one month later.

Cosgrave wrote: “Our absolute preference is to stay in Ireland. We've had an incredibly positive experience over the last five years and I know the Taoiseach is adamant that any offer can be matched.”

There is no Government reply to this email, and Cosgrave follows up three days later, on August 24.

He again reiterates the desire to keep the Web Summit in Dublin, saying: “We want Web Summit to remain in Dublin long into the future. But by 2016 Web Summit will be too big to hold in Dublin without coordination from the State and it's various agencies. 

“We haven't heard from you since last week. We believe it's essential to keep communications open and constant and would be open to a call or meeting at any point.”

Without a traffic plan for the Summit, akin to a major sporting event or the RDS Horse Show, Cosgrave says, “Web Summit will be too big for Dublin in 2016.” In this event, he warns, “We will have no option but to move to a city that has a plan for 2016.”

Nick Reddy, the Taoiseach’s private secretary, responds with: “Paddy, have this and the document received on Friday. Will be back to you. Nick.”

Mr Reddy did not follow this up before, eight days later, on September 1, Cosgrave again contacts him.

“We’re more than prepared to turn down incredible offers that address all of these concerns and more from many other cities around Europe, in return for even an outline of a plan,” he says. 

“But it’s been nearly two weeks since I explained to the Taoiseach that we couldn’t wait any longer and would need to make a decision in early September. I’ve had no response.”

"Any sense of timing?"

He goes on to detail a number of benefits the event could offer Irish companies and attendees, including free stands for the IDA and Enterprise Ireland and free tickets for students and startups.

Two days later, on September 3, Mr Reddy replies, saying: “Paddy, in France on trade mission at moment. I will be back to you. Nick.”

Cosgrave responds, asking: “Any sense of timing? This is the third holding email? It’s been a full two weeks and still nothing.”

He tells Mr Reddy he’s “about to board another flight to Lisbon to meet once again with a number of ministers”.

The Government reply comes seven days later, on September 10.

Mr Reddy writes: “The Taoiseach is confident that a sensible and effective plan can be prepared for 2016 but it would seem wise that this Plan for 2016 be informed, to the greatest extent possible, by the preparation and delivery of arrangements for this year's summit.

“The Taoiseach has asked his officials to put greater attention on this now, as the programme begins to crystallise and the scope to work with you on these aspects becomes clearer. In addition to this work being done at official level, the Taoiseach intends for this be the subject of discussion at ministerial level in the near future.”

He goes on to point out that the Government cannot be involved in every issue, as some are between event organisers and service providers.

"For four years we've requested a plan"

Cosgrave responds one week later, with the deadline for announcing the 2016 venue six days away. It is his first email to Mr Reddy in two weeks. 

He goes through Mr Reddy’s response in great detail, reiterating the need for “a plan for Dublin city” to host the event. He again lists transport, public transport, hotels and Wifi, as the four areas the organisers are requesting Government assistance with.

Cosgrave criticises the lack of urgency in the Government’s responses, saying: “Nearly four weeks ago we raised in the strongest possible terms the need for a plan for 2016. We repeated that we were not looking for a penny. I wrote to you twice, I spoke with you by phone, and I spoke with the Taoiseach by phone.

“Since that time I’ve received a single email, which took nearly three weeks. During that period I’ve had two trips across Europe meeting with other nation’s Ministers, senior civil servants and relevant state agencies. We’ve also been in near daily contact with these countries by phone and email working through detailed plans to potentially host Web Summit in 2016.”

Mr Reddy replies that day and promises to get back to Cosgrave. Three days later, on September 21, having received no reply, Mr Cosgrave contacts John Callinan – the Assistant Secretary General in the Department of the Taoiseach. It is a final request for “a plan.”

“For 4 years we've requested a plan,” he said. 

“In the last 4 weeks, and in the strongest possible terms, we've requested 4 times in writing, and twice by phone to both the Taoiseach and his private secretary, Nick Reddy... Despite all those meetings and conversations, we still don't have even a single page plan for even 2015, never mind 2016. 

“I do hope you can understand how a complete lack of coordination places us in a very difficult situation where we are left with little option but to leave Dublin for one of the many cities that has presented us with a plan,” he said.

Mr Callinan responded the following day, September 22, telling Cosgrave:

“As indicated in Nick Reddy's recent email to you, we felt it made more sense to focus on 2015 as best we can before mapping out for 2016, not least as there would undoubtedly be useful learning for all from the 2015 experience. As you know, various people have been working on different aspects for 2015, so it is simply incorrect to say that "many meetings have produced nothing in the past."

Attached to this email is “a draft framework for engagement which could be the basis for further discussion.”

Mr Cosgrave replies on September 22, saying he believes Mr Callinan’s previous email “is misleading, and deliberately so.” 

The following day Mr Callinan replies, saying: “By the time you sent me this email I had already been informed of the decision to move to Lisbon and that you would be announcing it with the Deputy PM of Portugal in Lisbon the following morning.

“We will continue to work with your team in relation to this year's event - assuming that such assistance is still wanted - and I hope Web Summit 2015 will be a big success notwithstanding the decision to move next year.”

Following the announcement of the decision to move the Web Summit to Lisbon in 2016 there were calls for explanations on what had led to the decision. Fianna Fáil spokesman on tourism Timmy Dooley said the Government need to explain the “inability to hold onto a major event that was born in Ireland.”

“The Government has some serious explaining to do. We know the Web Summit has genuine concerns about wi-fi at last year’s event and other issues have arisen in previous years,” Mr Dooley told The Irish Times.

At the time the Taosieach described the decision as “an individual choice”, and that the Government had not failed to meet demands of organisers.