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Thursday 2 October 2014

Why my notepad was just Gathering dust at think-in

The Global Irish Economic Forum was more elitist than the Seanad, found a frustrated Carol Hunt

Published 06/10/2013 | 05:00

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Norah Casey at The Gathering Conference at at the Global Irish Network Conference at Dublin Castle, yesterday.

IT seemed that where The Gathering was concerned I'd missed the boat. Or at least that's how it felt when I queried if it was possible to go sit with the real people and ask minister Leo Varadkar a question or two.

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I'd been under the sad delusion that the Global Irish Economic Forum was a fairly open affair – it was taking place in our State-owned Dublin Castle and was paid for by our Department of Foreign Affairs. (Although network members travel at their own expense and give their time free). I'd never thought that it was – as detractors had suggested – an elitist affair comprised in the main of rich emigrants gaining access to our politicians and telling the peasants what they should do. (The Global Irish Network was launched in 2010 and is made up of more than 350 super successful Irish and diaspora-Irish business people).

Of course I wasn't so naive as to think that punters could just walk in off the street but I didn't expect the level of paranoia exhibited by my new BFs every time I tried to approach a member of the Global Irish Network or ask a question of any of the politicians or businesspeople attending the discussions.

My new best friends – without whom I was not allowed take a step sideways – all had badges stating that they were with the Department of Foreign Affairs. I was beginning to feel terribly important. I had "security"!

"No, you can't do that," said my first "security" guy when I suggested that what I'd like to do was just mingle at the morning 'Networking Opportunity', see who was who, what was what and find out what great ideas were being communicated so I could write about them.

I spotted Leo Varadkar, tanned and sunny, chatting with Keith Woods; David McWilliams holding court at the top of the stairs; Dara O Briain in the midst of a laughing group, Garry Hynes from the amazing Druid Theatre Company – sure I couldn't wait to hear all the news. But, sadly, it wasn't to be . . .

I was raced through this "Gathering of the Greats" as if I had an infectious disease (which seemingly I did, it was called "media") into a hall where I was to wait (with my minder) until the next panel discussion began.

Both I and Tony, the Sunday Independent photographer, were told by our "security" that chatting informally to people was "not allowed". All questions and queries had to be put through the relevant departments and even at the panel discussions, questions from the media were not tolerated.

"We had a press conference yesterday, you should have been there," was what I was repeatedly told. "Which means it's yesterday's news," I kept saying plaintively to my "security". "That's no use to a Sunday newspaper."

"It's a strictly private event for the members of the Global Irish Network," was what I was informed when I asked could I sit in the main area of St Patrick's Hall and ask Lovely Leo a question or two. (I had been shoved upstairs to the empty "media gallery"). Varadkar was part of the panel discussing "The Gathering and its Legacy" and I was dying to know if this "once in a lifetime" occasion was going to become a regular part of our calendar.

"You can't ask questions," said "security". But sure, what was the harm? Surely that's the point of a "panel discussion" and chairwoman Norah Casey had made it clear that questions from the floor would be welcome.

"Some people," I was told, "have been assured that they won't be hassled by media."

I was beginning to wonder did they think I had a direct line to Julian Assange. When myself and another frustrated journalist tweeted that we were at the forum and unable to do our jobs as journalists (ie ask questions) we were quickly told that if we'd like to interview anyone present we could ask and, if possible, it would be arranged.

I plumped for Leo. After various calls and queries it tuned out that he'd already left the building.

The only political person who seemed delighted to stop and chat (to the horror of my minder) was Micheal Martin, who was looking awful pleased with himself (though he did say it was early days and some Seanad ballots had yet to be counted). "I think the crisis [we're in at the moment] is a clarion call for reform," he said, "for both the Seanad and the Dail."

Meanwhile, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore was a no-show at the panel discussion he was down to attend. Eamon, we were informed, was called away on "important government business". Wow.

I returned, like a good girl, to the "media centre" where, I was told, I could watch the forum business on the telly. It all looked great. Seems an awful pity that only the members of the Global Irish Network and government invitees are allowed any input though. And they say the Seanad is elitist?

Sunday Independent

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