About ten years ago, while I was working in Israel for a Swiss investment bank, one of my Israeli colleagues asked me about the Irish diaspora.
He noted that, wherever he went on business – whether New York, London or Sydney – it seemed to him that there were always Jews and Irish involved in the business deals. He continued that Israel would be nothing without international Jewish support. He wondered how we, the Irish in Ireland, used our own global tribe.
It was difficult to give him a concrete answer because it was clear that we did not, in any organised way, use the great, untapped resource that is our diaspora. On an ad hoc basis, there were deep, deep links but, as a state, we didn’t embrace the Irish abroad at all. The Israeli thought this was a missed opportunity, which we might regret.
The diaspora want to be part of our story and we, the homeland of the tribe, seem to turn our backs on them. With so many prominent Irish people in positions of power around the world, this is quite an oversight. The Israelis got me thinking about how the economy – and business – works.
Three years ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos high up in the Swiss Alps, it struck me again just how many people of Irish decent – not just from the US, but also from Britain, Australia and even Argentina – were movers and shakers in the world of business. The annual Davos conference gives many of these people a chance to meet up, exchange ideas and make deals. Watching how this worked, I thought that an ‘Irish Davos’, using the power and network of the tribe for the benefit of the homeland, would be a concept worth exploring.
After discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Global Irish Economic Conference at Farmleigh on September 18 will be this Irish Davos conference. It is aimed at harnessing some of the ideas and networks of the diaspora, to come up with plans for the long-term recovery and positioning of the country. I say long-term because it will not solve the banking crisis, the property market collapse or the fact that we are now facing a period of debt deflation, but if we really listen to those who have been successful abroad, we can only gain.
In fact, one of the reasons Ireland is in this mess is because we thought that we knew best. We thought that we were the smart ones – to use that nauseating phrase which was bandied about in the mania years, ‘‘the envy of Europe’’.
The narrow sectoral influences of vested interests got us into this predicament. The conference is trying to change that, to make us look at issues more globally and to do so with people who are familiar with us and emotionally bonded to us. They are our networks, our sales force, the people who maintain our brand – and they can be of great service to us, if we let them.
Because they want to be part of our story, we can fill a gap that they feel in terms of their heritage. The time has come for Ireland to be the recharging battery for Irishness around the globe. If the recession makes us think seriously about our role in the world, if it serves to help us re-imagine and reinvent the country, then it might not all be bad news.
And re-imagining is what we need.
Think about the potency of a global tribe in a world where communication is so easy. Today, we can keep in touch instantaneously and we can Skype each other for free. Immediately, your contacts and experience become my contacts and experience; and if you don’t know someone who can be of benefit to a certain project, your network does.
In a globally interconnected world, the country with the best network has a huge comparative advantage. Think about the power of the diaspora in a world where communication is immediate. The world is undergoing a communications revolution that will obliterate national power as we have come to know it. It will mean that a nation’s message becomes blurred, and the power of being sociable – sometimes in the past portrayed as a weakness, and the antithesis of the stoicism and aloofness of power – will dominate.
The world has 1.4 billion plugged-in internet users – and that number is growing by 250million a year. There are three billion mobile phones in the world, with another billion coming in the next three years. Ten hours of video are being uploaded onto YouTube every minute of every day.
This connectivity revolution, where the best salespeople for ideas will be individuals playing a giant game of ‘pass it on’, is ideally suited to dramatic initiatives, and the diaspora is a natural sales force for the country.
The winners will be those countries which have access to the best brains, are open to ideas and allow individuals to travel freely. We should be promoting much freer travel between Ireland and America for people of Irish heritage; we could see our potential workforce increase from four million to 70 million.
These people would not have to move here – although some undoubtedly would – but by telling them that Ireland is open to them and vice-versa, you create the network necessary to compete.
If we just consider the Irish in America, the commercial power of the diaspora is irrefutable. Of the 34 million Irish-Americans registered in the 2005 census, a third have bachelors’ degrees or higher. That’s over 11 million graduates.
More than 30 million Irish-Americans have a high school diploma. As 91 per cent of the total Irish-American population has completed secondary education, our American cousins are considerably better educated than us. Even today, only seven out of ten Irish children finish the Leaving Cert. Some 40 per cent of Irish-Americans are either professionals or work in management, and 72 per cent are homeowners.
The average income of an IrishAmerican household is $53,000.This puts them at the top of the ethnic league after the Jews, in terms of education, income and social class. Close to 900,000 English speaking Irish-Americans speak a second language. Their average age is 37,but there are over ten million Irish-Americans under 18.
This is an extraordinary reservoir of talent. The Irish-Americans define themselves as Irish; and while they are American, they also have a deep affection for, and affiliation to, this country. The 3.8 million Irish-Canadians, the 1.9 million Irish-Australians and the half-million Irish-Argentines have similar profiles in terms of education and income.
It’s time to re-imagine the country so that we become the guardian of the exiled Irish. This is why the Global Irish Economic Conference in Farmleigh on September 18 is a great start to what could be the next phase of our country’s development, where by Ireland reaches out to the diaspora. In the midst of the present despair, we should try to imagine a greater Ireland that transcends geography.