David McWilliams

Tuesday 29 July 2014

It's time we tapped into potential of the diaspora's power

David McWilliams

Published 12/03/2014|02:30

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The Saint Patrick's Day parade on New York's Fifth Avenue. AP

A FEW years ago, a reviewer decided to do a hatchet job on a book I wrote. This book was written in mid-2006. It forecast explicitly that the Irish banks were dangerously over-lending, one of the main banks was a wildly speculative "hedge fund" and would come crashing down when the property bubble imploded.

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It predicted the economy would crash in 2007 and out of the wreckage that would follow, the importance to the economy of the diaspora would be recognised and would help recovery.

At the time, the newspaper in which this review was published was buying an online estate agent, MyHome.ie, for €50m-plus, filling its pages with property-porn and arguing editorially that we'd have a "soft landing". The so-called "paper of record".

The reviewer did not appear to have any understanding of "soft power".

Soft power is the power to get others to do things for you by having friends in the right places, who act as your soft persuaders in the ears of people that you mightn't know but who are exposed to your ideas through a third party. It is the power of networks. The diaspora is such a network.

This reviewer said my book's central idea that the economy would crash and that the Irish State would reach out to the diaspora was "risible". Risible is a harsh word.

Well who's laughing now?

New ideas, which are against the mainstream, often seem to go through three phases. The first phase is the "open ridicule" phase.

The second phase is the "violent opposition" phase when new ideas are gaining traction and are therefore, a threat.

Then comes the final phase where everyone pretends they were on your side all the time!

With the banking collapse, the crisis in the economy – and the importance of the diaspora – we can safely say we are at the "everyone pretends they were on your side all the time phase"!

I am in New York the week before St Patrick's Day and the city is getting ready for the biggest ethnic party of the calendar. You can't help feeling the power of the diaspora here.

My interest in economics and the diaspora stems from some time I spent working in Tel Aviv. One of my Israeli colleagues noted that, wherever he went on business – whether New York, London or Sydney – it seemed to him that there were always two people left at the end of a deal, the Jew and Irishman.

Israel would be nothing without international Jewish support, how, he wondered, did the Irish use their global tribe. It was clear that we did not, in any organised way, use the great, untapped resource that is our diaspora.

There were deep, deep links but, as a State, we were half-hearted at best. 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, should open up to 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.

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 more than 11 million graduates.

More than 30 million Irish-Americans have a high school diploma. As 91pc of the total Irish-American population has completed secondary education, our American cousins are considerably better educated than us. Some 40pc of Irish-Americans are either professionals or work in management, and 72pc are homeowners.

Their average age is 37, but more than 10 million Irish-Americans are under 18. This is an extraordinary reservoir of talent. 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.

Understanding this was how the Global Irish Forum came into being. But we could go further.

It's time to re-imagine the country as the guardian of the exiled Irish.

The diaspora Irish are our footprint around the world. And, for the home country, the Global Irish tribe is our biggest asset. Now, we 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.

BY using Ireland as the dynamo, we could transform an emotional and ancestral yearning into a worldwide financial/ commercial/intellectual network. 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. We should also extend the vote to Irish citizens abroad.

There are two broad groups in the Tribe: the "homebirds" who have stayed and the "wanderers" who left.

The homebirds were traditional, the 'wanderers' 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 past and our future and both could be gelled together with one big political leap in the present on citizenship and the vote.

Don't wait for the mainstream to go with you, they'll always be behind "cribbing and moaning" not from the sideline but from the expensive front row seats.

WWW.DAVIDMCWILLIAMS.IE

Irish Independent

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