The diaspora is a rich resource, not just a cash cow
Published 21/08/2015 | 02:30
This week, the Government abandoned its Certificate of Irish Heritage after it turned out that fewer than 3,000 people had taken it up. The certificate was given to foreigners who did not fully qualify for Irish citizenship and an Irish passport. The State had tightened the rules on Irish passports and so this was seen as a consolation prize.
But there was little interest, and one can see why. For €40, the applicants got just a sheet (admittedly, of posh vellum) with their name on it and a fancy design. The applicant's lineage was loosely described: too loosely, according to genealogists, and this was part of the problem. But the whole scheme got little or no promotion and there was nothing behind it, such as membership of a group or a suggested way of activating an interest in the applicant's heritage and kinship with others of an Irish background. It just seemed like a cheap wheeze to drum up money.
Yet the scheme could have had great potential. The certificates were presented to Hollywood actor Tom Cruise and US president Barack Obama, who seemed delighted to receive this unusual honour - a connection and photo opportunity that other small countries could only dream of. But the scheme was allowed to lapse and eventually die. On 'Morning Ireland', Diaspora Minister Jimmy Deenihan gave a rather poor explanation as to why it was being abandoned, or even why it had been launched.
In a way that is typical of many ministers in this Government, Deenihan spoke about the scheme as if it had nothing to do with him. And perhaps it didn't. In a strange piece of outsourcing, the scheme was allocated to Fexco, the Kerry-based foreign exchange company, where it seemed to just wither on the vine.
Unfortunately, the whole charade speaks volumes about the Government's empty rhetoric about the Irish diaspora. And this goes for successive Irish governments.
Despite all the talk about the worldwide Irish community and our deep roots abroad, the diaspora is more like a handy overseas constituency that is patronised, and tapped, around the St Patrick's Day season.
Jimmy Deenihan should know better. Recently in a Kerry newspaper, there was a story about the Kerry TD visiting the US in 1990 to develop links with the diaspora on economic and cultural matters.
Deenihan spoke about the goodwill of Kerry-associated people in the US towards their ancestral home. In exploring this in 1990, Deenihan was ahead of the curve, and by now all TDs will have seen the potential connections between their county and Irish communities in the UK, US and farther afield. (Sinn Féin has also been ahead of the curve with its fundraising in the US and Australia, but that's another matter.)
But the Government still doesn't seem to know how to explore this wonderful diaspora and what to do with it, other than line up the brass bands for St Patrick's Day.
In the same 'Morning Ireland' interview, for example, Deenihan was asked about votes for Irish emigrants, and he seemed relieved that it is not likely to be something looked at during this Government's term. All Irish governments kick this one down the road. Granted, many would have reservations about extending the electoral franchise overseas, even for Irish presidential elections, but we should stop toying with the hopes of our diaspora on this.
Look at the confusion about what to do with The Gathering, which was a huge success. When will we have it again? Will it be every five years, or three? No one seems to be sure, yet meanwhile the tremendous goodwill and connections built up during The Gathering are allowed to fade.
This is a real pity. The diaspora, and especially Irish America, is a treasure trove for our island, a huge and fascinating resource rich in history and culture. It is the upside to decades of often dispiriting emigration. It is a phenomenon I experienced at first hand as a diplomat in North America, based in New York, and encountering all the different groups and generations of Irish influence throughout US society. But the Irish Government seems to just see it as a tourist cash cow and something to be shaken down every St Patrick's Day season.
Y et even as a cash cow, it is a resource that the Government has under-used. For example, the State has withdrawn from involvement in a national diaspora centre, apparently due to a lack of capital funding. This seems strange, given that there seems to be plenty of money for auction politics. (Interestingly, a privately run diaspora centre will open in Dublin's CHQ building next spring.)
And no wonder - this has been the best year for tourism on record. Among the visitors are many exploring their Irish heritage and getting in touch with their roots. But there is no central place where they can go to explore the full dimension of the diaspora, its variety, scale and impact.
The abandonment of State involvement in such a destination, like the scrapping of the heritage certificates and the uncertainty about The Gathering project, all show the emptiness of the Government's much-vaunted commitment to the diaspora concept. It is also incredibly short-sighted when tourism is booming and we are doing all we can to draw in international investment.