I am writing this from Boston. Boston, ‘the next parish over’, is home to the Boston Celtics, JFK, Southie, the Dropkick Murphies, the Red Sox and possibly the finest collection of high-tech companies, the most impressive cluster of top-grade universities and the most active venture capital community in the world.
In this State of Massachusetts, 28pc of the population regard themselves as Irish American. The Boston Irish are no longer exclusively the Tammany Hall politicians, fire-fighters and cops of old.
They are chief executives, professors, financiers, lawyers and entrepreneurs. The Irish Americans are the second richest ethnic group in America. A total of 900,000 speak a second language and more than one-third hold university degrees. They are the demographic echo of our past and they are also Ireland’s best global asset.
Boston is also the home of the internet phenomenon of the past few years — Facebook.
Facebook is at the heart of a new economic concept called social networking. Social networking is a dynamic form of communities, usually online, where ideas and groups bond via common ideas and common interests.
These can vary dramatically but they all bring people together. Bebo is similar, as are a variety of other social networking sites. Facebook is the most dominant of these and its market value (ie, the value of the network that it has facilitated) if based on the price Microsoft paid for 1.6pc of the company last year, could be close to $18bn (â‚¬11.5bn). This company was started in 2004 by a Harvard student.
However, what Microsoft is paying for is access to this network. It is paying for what economists call soft power. This is the power of networks, contacts, emotional ties and shared interests. The driver of the service economy is soft power and social networking is one of the key examples of this.
Now put these two things together: Facebook and the Irish diaspora. Think of the Irish diaspora as a large multinational social network for Ireland. Regard the Boston Irish and the Irish Americans as a potential “Facebook for the Irish Nation”, where a huge tribe of 70 million are bonded together by a common history and infused with a common purpose to connect, chat and network with each other.
In the past, information was power so that those with access to information hoarded it as a sign of power. Today the dissemination of information is power.
Open-access systems which allow the greatest amount of people to focus on problems, ideas, products, services or initiatives, will, like Facebook, be invaluable.
Now look again at the power of the Irish diaspora and their potentialto expand the brain power of Ireland and even more importantly, to put Ireland at the nexus of a global network.
When you look to the future, the diaspora is the only common denominator that Ireland has. When you talk to Irish American chief executives, they are fascinated by what has happened to the homeland and are keen to contribute to the next phase of Irish history. They could be a profound source of financing, know-how, contacts and influence.
Contrast the obvious implication for Ireland by the likes of Facebook, with the pathetic whingeing we experienced this week over the government’s plans for St Patrick’s Day.
Networks are facilitated and re-invigorated by these events. Ministers going to the farthest parts of the globe, to celebrate with the diaspora is an event that most clubs would die for.
Yet here we are back home, with our small -minded, 19th-century, penny pinching attitudes trying to make a negative story of a great economic opportunity.
There are two Irelands. There is us, the marooned Irish, and there is them, the wandering Irish. The diaspora are the exiles who paved the way for us. Without them Ireland wouldn’t be a global brand, we wouldn’t have the disproportionate footprint we have, nor would we get the welcome we do in every small town in the US, Australia, Canada or South Africa. We may be different but we are part of the same family.
Where we, the ‘marooned Irish’ were traditional, they, the ‘wandering Irish’ were modern; we were atavistic, they were progressive; we were closed, they were open; we were a failure, they were a success; we were definitive, they were mercurial; we were rooted, they were free; we were rural, they were urban; we were narrow, they were broad; we were fixed, they were nomadic; we were protectionist, they were free-marketeers; and above all, we were exclusive, they were promiscuous.
They are our alter-ego. We need them now as much as they ever needed us.
In the next 20 years, the countries that secure the best brainpower and contacts will be pre-eminent. We should realise that the diaspora are our trump card.
Today, we need the vision to fuse them to us. If this means actively giving them passports, encouraging their children to come home for subsidised holidays to recharge their Irishness or creating a world Irish forum, let’s do it.
To cynics who say that we could not transcend the limitations of geography and demography by leveraging the diaspora, fine if you don’t want to be part of it.
No one compels people to sign up for Facebook, yet it has over 70 million subscribers, chatting and networking away all day, everyday. Social networking is based on “the willing” not the unwilling.
The last thing we need is the chorus of naysayers, questioning the wisdom of international social networking, sneering about junkets and generally begrudging. The diaspora is our best resource: we should be spending more on it.