Isn’t it curious how quickly the world changes? A few years ago, I argued that after a coming dreadful economic crash, Ireland would be well advised to look to its diaspora in a totally different way and if Ireland could see itself as the recharging battery for the Irishness of the Global Tribe, we could achieve great things.
At the time, this notion was dismissed by many as fanciful and why, some asked, with the economy going so well, did we need to be concerning ourselves with emigration when immigration was the issue?
Suffice to say, it is not that fanciful anymore.
But the relationship with the tribe is not about a “shake down”. If it is seen as a one-way opportunity to “stroke” a few quid from our cousins, it will rightly fail and should be excoriated.
In contrast, a thorough reinvention of the country’s relationship with the greater Irish family and a comprehension of the power of the Irish footprint all over the globe could be a truly holistic enterprise, if governed, like all good relationships, by give and take.
The crucial new ingredient, which hasn’t always been there, is give and take. New technology allows people to be connected like never before and this changes forever the relationship between the homeland and the tribe.
We could give them a sense of home that many of them yearn for and they could give us an extra cultural, economic and political dynamo to help not just kick-start the recovery but help re-define the entire “national project”, liberating us from the limitations of geography and helping us re-orientate the island in an increasingly globalised world.
In short, the tribe gives us something we have never used and which is now more powerful than ever: soft power. This is the power of persuasion, the power of memory and the power of branding. This is the kind of power that persuades them to switch from thinking, “oh, I like that” to “oh, I am like that”.
This is the power of belonging and, if we deploy such a power properly, we give them an extra identity, a shared history; we give them that most deeply evocative and emotive of feelings — we give them roots.
In return, they don’t give us their money; they give us something much more valuable, their networks. In a globalised world where people are constantly trading, exchanging and connecting with each other, the person, company or indeed country with the best networks succeeds.
So Ireland has both attributes: we have the brand, built in the minds of millions of years, and we have the global connected network to market that brand. But we have to be careful not to destroy the brand or abuse the network that maintains and enhances the brand.
The relationship with the Great Irish Tribe is complex and, like any extended family, not without its elements of dysfunction. There are many hurts and scores that haven’t quite been settled. The diaspora comes in many shapes and sizes and the Irishness of the tribe has mutated over the years.
But its influence remains far and wide.
For example, I am writing this while flying on Etihad Airways to Sydney to give two lectures. Bored with the movies, I am listening to the CD collection and reliving the 1990s with Oasis’s ‘What’s the Story Morning Glory’. So here I am listening to one of the world’s biggest selling music acts in history, yet the Gallaghers are Manchester Irish, sons of Irish emigrants, and the man who runs Etihad, one of the best global airlines with worldwide reach, is an Irish Australian, James Horan, the great-grandson of Tipperary people.
It is hard to underestimate the potential power of our network in a globalised, connected world. The Irish footprint is an emotional one, which actually transcends Irishness. For example, the other week I was chatting to two Indian friends who were waxing lyrical about their affection for Ireland, because they had fond memories of being taught by Irish priests in Bangalore in the 1970s. We have touched millions of people, created a place in people’s minds — some of these people have Irish genes, others don’t. Now we have an opportunity to build on that brand.
In narrow business terms, to use an American business expression, Ireland is a franchise. It is known and it is worldwide and is viewed positively. Few other small countries punch above their weight in the minds of others like we do because few others have such a tribe.
The diaspora is a vast, global sales force, which can be deployed to expand this franchise in all sorts of as yet unknown ways. With technology, this can be done at zero cost. But in order for this to become a self-reinforcing, positive force, we should not abuse trust because all franchises and brands are based on trust. If we abuse our Global Tribe for our own, narrow, 26-county ends, we will destroy it.
The Gathering is a step in the right direction but so too are many other much less high-profile local initiatives such as Ireland Reaching Out, which has the potential to track and find people whose ancestors left tiny parishes all around the country.
The Gathering is a fine tourist product and it will go some way to building the truly nation-defining enterprise of re-imagining Ireland in the 21st Century, where the country becomes the recharging battery for the Irishness of the Global Tribe. That is the prize. We are only at the beginning.
David McWilliams new book,Â The Good Room, is out now