Last St Patrick’s Day, the ‘New York Post’ published an article I wrote for them about the rejuvenating power of the diaspora.
A few years back, it seemed to me that the great Irish tribe was an unbelievable asset to the country. Yet just 18 months ago, when we thought we were invincible, such ideas were ridiculed; now it seems that everyone’s talking about the diaspora.
This St Patrick’s week consider: what exactly constitutes an Irishman?
Is it enough to have Irish blood or do you have to be born in Ireland?
What about those Irish who live in Brooklyn or Boston, who speak with Cockney or Australian accents?
The “Little Irelanders” who are born in Ireland and define Irishness by the “narrow gauge” accident of birth, that is being born either in the 26 or 32 counties, seem to have forgotten the greater Ireland of other Irish people — the exiles — who form our footprint around the world.
For the home country, the global Irish tribe is our biggest asset — and the key to our prosperity.
For years, Irish-Americans sent money back home, invested in Ireland and gave refuge and jobs to successive waves of Irish emigrants who arrived in the US looking to share in the American dream.
This is our history, this is our family and to ignore it, as we have done officially for the past 30 years is not only against our economic interest but is anti-historical.
The challenge for the Irish State is to reinvent the relationship between Ireland and the Irish diaspora.
The next chapter of the Irish story will involve harnessing Irishness and turning our worldwide family into the greatest commercial network the world has ever seen.
Some 3.5 million Irish citizens live outside the country, but the greater diaspora is considerably bigger — 70 million strong.
These are the people who keep the Irish flag flying in the remotest parts of the world, the people who suffered most under our colonial past, who sent money home to Ireland when we hadn’t a bean and who took other destitute Irish into their communities when wave after wave arrived on the docks from Boston to Buenos Aires.
Today the Irish around the world have a great opportunity to re-imagine ourselves, where the island of Ireland is the mothership and the global Irish tribe is the nation.
This will involve copying the Israeli example of actively, rather than passively, cultivating the relationship between the diaspora and the ancestral homeland.
Ireland should see itself as the dynamic battery where Irish Americans can recharge their Irishness.
We could do this by extending passports to people of Irish descent, offering their children the chance to come on exchange programmes and giving them a “sense of place” that links them back to the land from which their ancestors fled.
This would then become networking for the nation — a sort of Facebook for the Irish tribe, with membership open to all of us who are willing and curious.
By using Ireland as the dynamo, we could transform an emotional and ancestral yearning into a worldwide financial network.
This would complete the historical cycle — with a successful modern Ireland reaching out to the sons and daughters of those who were forced into exile.
As the returning Jews have done in Israel — which extends citizenship to every Jewish person around the world — the “linked in” Irish exiles would inject vibrancy and enthusiasm into both our contemporary and traditional culture while opening up economic opportunities all over the world.
In practical terms, the Israelis have created their own vibrant technology industry by fusing together the brains, cash and networks of Jewish people abroad with the technological know-how of Israeli scientists.
Today Israel commercialises more technology than practically any other country. In fact, after the US and Canada, they are the world’s most successful technology entrepreneurs and their global network helps them enormously.
Ireland could do the same. In fact, by embracing the Irish diaspora which is so well embedded in the upper echelons of Wall Street and Palo Alto, we could create the Silicon Valley of Europe in the motherland.
In a globalised world, emigration is no longer a permanent decision.
People come and go — spend time in one country, move home, then maybe head out to another country. This is why creating a global network with the homeland at the fulcrum is so attractive.
The time has come to see Ireland in the 21st century as the cradle of a global nation. We should institute a “right of return” policy and extend citizenship to people of Irish descent, beyond the current cut-off point of two generations.
If we do this, globalisation could be the golden era of the Irish.
For years, the exiled Irish reminded us of our economic failure. They were traditionally the victims of a failed Ireland; in our globalised future they will be the saviours of a successful Ireland.
All we need is the courage to imagine a greater Ireland that transcends the limitations of geography, where being Irish is a coveted global brand.