‘You were a crap player and you are a crap manager. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country and you’re not even Irish, you English cunt.’

Allegedly, with that parting shot, Roy Keane walked out of the Irish team at Saipan in 2002. But Roy had used the word that can never be spoken in polite society. He used the E-word. He called Mick McCarthy English and gin so doing, opened up the debate about what constitutes an Irishman. Is it enough to have Irish blood or do you have to be born here? What about those who live in an Irish area of Queens or London, have Irish parents and relations, feel themselves to be Irish, sing ‘The Fields of Athenry’ yet sound Scouse, Bostonian, Cape-Townian, Cockney or Canadian? Is the Diaspora truly Irish? Have we, the Irish born here, forgotten that these people are the Irish footprint around the world?

The best Irish football teams, the most successful ones, were those in the Charlton era who represented a widest-possible definition of Irishness. At the time many soccer commentators lamented the fact that there were so many of what was termed derogatorily ‘Plastic Paddies’ on the team. But these men were the demographic echo of the 500,000 Irish emigrants who left for Britain from 1949-1961. These were the sons of men and women who were driven out by De Valera’s economic nationalism. They pulled on the jersey and, as far as we were concerned, they were as Irish as anyone else. When Kevin Sheedy scored against the country in which he had been brought up, we didn’t question his bona fides. When Ray Houghon scored against Italy at the Giants Stadium and England at the Nekker Stadium, did we care that he was brought up in Scotland? When Alan McLoughlin’s drive saved us at Windsor Park, Belfast in November 1993 in a night of sectarian madness, we didn’t ask whether his Manchester accent made him any less one of us than Gary Kelly, Packie Bonner or Roy himself.

The sons of exiles added enormously to the potential of the team, giving it options and talents that we would not otherwise have had. This was a post-nationalist, national soccer team, the very essence of globalisation.

Like the football team, if we “want to compete at the highest level”, the Irish economy has to find a unique advantage because globalisation has changed the pace of everything: every time you are ahead of the posse, someone copies you, every time you think you’ve found a new idea, it is downloaded and customised.

When once we thought we had a comparative advantage, we are now only seeing a temporary monopoly. Where once we were the only country at the multinational game, now India, China and Indonesia can photocopy the Irish game plan, implement it and execute it at a fraction of the cost. So what are we going to do?

What can Ireland do that might make us special? Education? That can be copied. EU membership? Not unique. Tax policy? Not unique. Geography? Nope. Capital? No, that’s available to any country with a good idea and trade is open to almost anyone. People? Well, yes and no. Is there anything in our history, our culture or brains that makes us different? What, to use the business vernacular, is our USP or to use the technological term, what’s our killer application?

The most recent IDA advert for the nation suggests that it, too, is self-conscious. Our recent national campaign is not a litany of stats about competitiveness, costs or the like. It is a Louis le Brocquy drawing of Bono under the title, ‘The Irish Mind’. The implication is that we think differently, the Irish have mental agility that others don’t have and even if we are getting expensive, we’re worth it, because we’ll do your thinking for you. But there aren’t that many of us and capacity is crucial.

Now think about the potential economic impact of the Irish Diaspora. This is one thing we have that so few other countries have. This is our biggest and most unique resource and yet we don’t appreciate its value. Like Roy Keane, many of us are, if not hostile, not particularly welcoming to the exiles. But all our great-grandparents are from the same root. Now, four generations after the Famine, it could well be that the history and culture of the Irish people, one of the world’s great clans, is about to fuse with the demands of the Irish State to ensure that we remain one of the world’s most successful economic jurisdictions. This is the next part of the Irish story: a 21st-century economic narrative conceived in the demographics of 19th-century emigration.


Sheila and Eileen Geoghegan turned up at the Irish Embassy in Buenos Aires in 2002, just months after the collapse of the Argentinian economy. The sisters, aged 18 and 20, wanted to claim Irish citizenship through their great-grandparents who had arrived on the City of Dresden with 2000 other Irish emigrants in 1889. They wanted to come home.

Sheila and Eileen have Irish blood on both sides going back to their eight great-grandparents. As far as they are concerned, Ireland is their homeland. They are from a town called Duggan north of Buenos Aires where 60% of the people can trace their ancestors back to County Westmeath. English is their first language. They were taught by Irish nuns and priests. They know the words to ‘Danny Boy’. Their parents still speak with Midlands accents.

They are part of a 500,000-strong Irish Argentinian population. Yet these sisters were refused entry visas. They were one generation too late. Had their grandparents been born here, they would have qualified, but as their grandmother, Mabel Ryan, who speaks with a flat Mullingar accent, was born in Argentina, the family were not Irish enough.

We refused entry to two young women, educated, sophisticated, willing to work, with invaluable ties to Latin America, fluent in the second-most-widespread language in the world and, most crucially, committed emotionally to Ireland. If brain power is soft power, networks are invaluable and people are the only asset that counts in our new competitive world, then surely this refusal makes no sense.

These people are potentially pioneer immigrants who want to come home and have a deep, vested interest in our culture but we snub them. 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 in Argentina. They are emotionally drawn to us, they are our history and yet modern Ireland gives them the finger.

There are 3.5 million Irish citizens living outside the country. But the greater Diaspora is considerably bigger. In economic terms, the 70 million-strong Irish tribe is the 21st-century equivalent of a huge oil deposit. In the same way as oil guarantees Saudi Arabia’s future, the Irish tribe could be the key to Ireland’s prosperity in the next century. Unlike oil, because the tribe exists inside the minds of millions of Irish people around the world, if we cultivate it properly, it is a resource that won’t run out.

It is time to see the island of Ireland in the 21st century as the cradle of a global nation. This nation extends all over the world, gelled together by the shared experience of previous generations. We should institute a “right of return” policy and extend citizenship to people of Irish decent, extending beyond the present cut off point of two generations. This would create a strong bond between the tribe and the mother country. The exiles could boost our labour force and in the new, soft world, their brains are invaluable. There is a feather-light economic army of grey matter and these people could be at our disposal. All we have to do is imagine a New Hibernia.

The Generation Game

One hundred years ago, Irish writers, academics and dreamers imagined a New Ireland. This New Ireland would be free from English domination, free to do as she pleased, free to express herself and to frame her own destiny. But the achievement of geographical and political sovereignty should be looked at as only the first chapter of independence for the Irish nation.

In the first phase of Irish independence, Ireland was a narrow-gauge 26-county concept. For the first 70 years of its existence, from 1922 to 1992, the limits of this ambition were not so evident because the world was a place of fixed borders, territorial wars, managed trade, ideological power blocks and very little international migration. Given the global background noise, such a limited geographic definition of Irishness was understandable.

In contrast, the modern world is a nomadic one, of free movement of practically everything. People are on the move constantly. Quite apart from the new global reality, which should of itself get us thinking, the coming slowdown in Ireland should focus our minds and be seen as a chance to go back to the drawing board. A house-price collapse is not a long-term disaster; it is an opportunity to re-prioritise. For example, in 1990, Finland suffered a dramatic house-price slump. The Finns reacted to this positively with a root-and-branch reform of their society. They realised that land and land speculation were fool’s gold, so they invested heavily in technology and education. They even went as far as improving the health of the nation by successfully changing the national diet. They re-invented themselves. Today, Finland tops almost every index of political, social and economic achievement. Ireland should do something similar–not by copying the Finns, but by playing to our own strengths.

We need, once more, to re-imagine Ireland and to use all the resources at our disposal to take advantage of the new globalised world. In a sense, we need a post-nationalist, national project.

In years to come, the big political battleground will not be the 20th-century set-piece battles between Left and Right, capitalism and socialism, coloniser and occupier or rich and poor. Free-market capitalism and its handmaiden, liberal democracy, have produced unassailable results in terms of political freedom, economic self fulfilment and societal sophistication. This is likely to remain the template for successful countries such as Ireland.

The next battle will be framed by the enormous movement of people around the globe and particularly, migration from the poor South to the rich North. Therefore, the new fault line is likely to be between the demands of the market state and the foundations of the nation state. Mass immigration and multiculturalism, which might be necessary to create an efficient economy, will not be tolerated by people who value the uniqueness of the nation. There is a trade-off between culture and economics and in the years ahead, culture will matter at least as much as economics. Whether we like it or not, mass global migration threatens cultures in the same way as mass global communications do. If people begin to feel alienated in their own country, they will wonder what the point is of having a successful economy when the long-term cost is that Ireland turns into
Connecticut with bad weather. The dilemma for modern nations will be how to remain flexible and open without threatening the traditional culture that makes them different.

Too much Cosmopolitanism dilutes the very Hibernianism that makes us Irish. Finding that particular sweet spot, where we get the best economic performance point without undermining our culture, is almost impossible and the lesson from the rest of Europe is that it is easy to get the balance wrong.

Culture Matters

Now that Ireland has become an immigrant nation and we have seen that the country can absorb considerably more people than any of us imagined possible a few years ago, we should consider what type of immigrants we want because in our successful economy and tolerant society, we have created something of value, something that has a price on it, something which should be cherished, not given away cheaply. A successful economy and society is like a well-tended garden. The gardener spends time and effort thinking about which plants to plant, which will flourish, which will allow others enough light to blossom and how the entire ecosystem works. This doesn’t happen overnight, but via a process of trial and error that, in most cases, takes years to perfect. The gardener will be cautious about introducing new plants which might overshadow some of the existing varieties. He is always weighing up, assessing and imagining what fits where. Societies and immigration policy are likely in the future to be similarly selective and planned.

There is nothing new in this contention. Most mature countries have arrived at this conclusion. So Canada and Australia have an exclusive immigration policy based on qualifications. If you have a skill that these countries are lacking, then you can acquire the requisite points for entry. This is a highly restrictive and discriminatory policy, but it works. At the moment, free travel within the EU, a community of 456 million people, means that Ireland–given that we are a magnet for immigrants and that we make up only 1% of the total EU population–
could find its culture diluted quite easily. When you are small, it doesn’t take a lot of people to alter the social balance.

So Ireland’s dilemma, of getting the best economic performance, while at the same time not jeopardising the culture significantly, will not be solved by current EU policies. But if we look at the difference between us and other EU countries, we see that they do not have an ace up their sleeves–they do not have a literate, urban, global tribe of exiles. The exiles are precisely the soft power that countries yearn for and most importantly, if we cultivate them, our exiles will give us that competitive advantage while reinforcing Irishness. This appears to be a win-win situation where both the economy and the traditional culture are strengthened at once.

Do the Right Thing

Not only does this make sense from a future economic perspective, it is also the right thing to do. For years Ireland survived on emigrants’ remittances. If you examine the Irish balance-of-payments figures in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and into the late-1960s, you’ll find that the cash inflow from emigrants sending money home kept this country afloat. It is only right that we repay the children of these people who gave so much to us while in exile. In addition, embracing the prodigal sons would be a true sign of Irish economic success and maturity. In 1990, Germany extended its financial generosity to 100,000 ethnic Germans living in Russia–the Volga Germans. By doing so, the large paternalist German State was throwing its arms around people of German culture, even though their ancestors had left Germany four centuries previously. The German State repatriated tens of thousands of these people. It was a generous gesture that arguably, only a rich State at ease with itself could have carried through. Likewise, the Finnish government extended passports to Finnish communities in Kerelia, Northern Russia. This is another example of the home State taking responsibility for the tribe.

As the returning Jews have done in Israel — who extend citizenship to every Jewish person around the world – the returning Irish exiles would inject vibrancy and enthusiasm into both our contemporary and traditional culture while at the same time opening up economic opportunities all over the world. Anything that makes the tribe stronger makes the homeland stronger. In time the relationship becomes symbiotic. The brand gets deeper and ultimately, we could turn the Irish tribe into the largest sales force in the world, selling Ireland first to themselves and then to others. Think about the opportunities for trade alone. By building a worldwide community, we open up opportunities in the remotest parts of the world with people who are equally at home here and there. This is like having a global network of ambassadors for Ireland, Irish products, Irish culture and Irish know-how.

Internationally, we would be pushing on an open door because, unlike the Israelis, we have no enemies. We are neutral, we didn’t take anyone’s land and we didn’t invade anyone’s country. We have no need for brute strength. Who could object to the Irish State seeking to look after the global Irish tribe who supported us for so long? This idea threatens no-one. Our present EU commitments mean that the door would still be open to European workers. It is not an “either or idea”.

The driving force behind this type of Irish Renaissance would be primarily an economic policy, with positive cultural spin-offs. This makes it the opposite of the old-fashioned nationalist initiatives which put culture first and economics second. This idea is open-armed Hibernianism for a Cosmopolitan age, rather than closed-shop nationalism for an Imperial age.

It is often said that Ireland punches above its weight on the international stage. Others marvel at how such a small country can grab a disproportionate share of the global limelight. Well, it’s not so much that the Irish punch above their weight, but that the Irish State lets us all down, all 70 million of us, by the paucity of its own ambition. The State is the custodian of the tribe. Ireland has a responsibility to the Irish. Without active guardianship from the home country, the tribe will not flourish and, in a few generations, this extraordinary opportunity will dissipate. For generations, Irish communities abroad have been replenished by new migrants, new exiles who constantly topped up the Diaspora, ensuring that the cycle of emigration, settling down, passing on and resuscitating the tribe repeated itself. This is no longer happening.

We appear to punch above our weight because up to now we have not told anyone, ourselves included, how substantial we actually are. Ireland doesn’t realise how strong the Irish brand is. Irishness has been constructed inside the minds of, and propagated by, the Diaspora since the Famine. It is time for the Irish State to live up to its responsibility to be the dynamo behind an Irish Renaissance that transcends borders. We can re-imagine Ireland and reposition ourselves for the 21st century.

Globalisation could be the golden era of the Irish. We can turn our historical defeat into a future victory. In the successful Republic of Ireland we have the platform, in the peaceful Northern Ireland we have the symbol and in the Diaspora we have the unique resource. For years, the exiled Irish reminded us of our economic failure back at home. 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 geography, where the country is the mothership and the tribe is the nation.

There is nothing particularly new in this generational idea. The Irish Constitution aspires to it. As Article 2 states:

… the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.

Let’s make this ‘special affinity’ a reality by calling them home.

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