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Brendan Keenan: If you want to succeed, make sure you go abroad and work


AT a time when the little Dublin Port Tunnel -- well, it is little really -- was leaking water and money, I found myself in the high-speed rail tunnel that runs under the sea from Hong Kong Island to the new airport.

When I expressed my stunned admiration for this piece of engineering, I was told that the man who ran the tunnelling company came from Mayo. So why wasn't he building our tunnel, instead of a consortium cobbled together, goodness knows how, for the purpose?

The memory returned last week at a conference organised in London by a new group called Business for Ireland. The discussion on Ireland's economic prospects was most instructive, but the large audience that turned up even more so.

They represented the three diasporas -- the ones who left in the 1980s because jobs were scarce; the ones who went, largely voluntarily, in the 1990s because the world was their oyster, and some of the latest flood who, it must be said, are not at all happy with what has been done to them.

Range of expertise

The really striking thing, though, was the range of expertise involved, plus power and influence. Every aspect of London financial services, from bond traders to corporate lawyers, at every level up to the most senior, seemed to be represented; as well as people in a wide range of non-financial jobs.

Bringing them together is part of the purpose of the new group. The expats are interested -- and not a little worried -- about what is happening at home. Most would like to do something to help if they could, but what?

My colleague David McWilliams, himself one of the dispersed (the word has the same origin as diaspora) has identified this potential source of intellectual capital and gone about trying to harness it with typical energy.

I started thinking about what the fact that we haven't utilised it tells us about those of us who stayed at home.

The Wright report into the Department of Finance highlighted -- in what many people think was a kindly way -- the lack of expertise in the department.

It seems bizarre, to say the least, that this accusation should be made of a country whose citizens are applying the highest of financial, and other, expertise across the great centres of the world.

The question is why there should be any such lack of expertise, given the clear evidence of the ability of Irish people to acquire it when they go abroad.

The Irish public service contains many highly qualified people who work extraordinarily hard. Every organisation needs such people, but no organisation can succeed by depending on special individuals.

It has often been thought that the historical pattern of emigration produced a greater degree of insularity at home. It is too crude to see this as the best and brightest leaving and the dullards staying. Indeed, even until the 1990s, the best and brightest got the prized jobs in the civil service and the less qualified took the boat.

But it would be no surprise if such a pattern produced a conservative, complacent public service, unable and unwilling to adapt to the dramatic changes from 1990 onwards.

The new London organisation, like others before it, is looking for ways to put this foreign expertise to good use in dealing with our problems. Judging from the audience, there is no shortage of willing hands and heads.

But there is something more fundamental which only government can do -- building the migratory tendencies of the Irish into the public service. Put bluntly, it should be a black mark on your CV if you have not spent time working outside the country.


This comes back to how we tend to see ourselves. Emigration was something forced on people. Returned emigrants were a source of threat; from Percy French's Donegan's daughter, to John Huston's 'Quiet Man'. The more successful they had been abroad, the bigger the threat.

In more recent times, another pernicious aspect has appeared. In times of crisis, outsiders are summoned in to apply the skills, or courage, which the locals are unable or unwilling to do.

They are then disposed of, sometime brutally; more often merely replaced when the time comes with a more familiar pair of hands when the job is done.

These arrangements suit everyone; not least politicians. Remember the famous occasion when Brian Cowen was picked up on a microphone swearing about the activities of the consumer council?

We all made a fuss about the bad language, but that wasn't the real scandal. The scandal was that the Taoiseach felt entitled to summon an officially independent body for a dressing down because they were giving him political trouble.

Most Taoisigh and ministers, of whatever party, feel entitled to do that, and almost all officials and appointees feel obliged to make obeisance to their political masters.

One does not have to agree with all their actions to sense the different atmosphere around a Matthew Elderfield in financial regulation, or a Kathleen O'Toole in policing.

I happen to think it is a better atmosphere than the fetid one of secrecy and fear which makes up much of Irish policymaking and administration. Given our new circumstances, it is one which we can no longer afford, literally or metaphorically.

The most probable outcome of the present crisis is that Ireland will become even more of a region in a monetary union with centralised budgetary and fiscal parameters.

It must think of itself, not as a self-contained island, but as an integral part of a large economic and administrative system, because that is what it will be.

To prosper in such a situation, a small country will simply have to do things better than the big ones. That is what the successful small states in the EU-15 do.

As we have seen so far, as compared with Spain and Italy, the consequences of failure in small countries are more severe.

Ireland has advantages from its diaspora, although we should not pretend we are in the same league as Swedes or Danes for depth of talent. It certainly cannot ignore the talent that resides across Europe and beyond.

I would need some convincing that the system is really willing to open itself to those who are working abroad in preference to those who have stuck close to their desks at home, like Gilbert & Sullivan's Sea Lord.

I am unlikely to be convinced until Brendan Howlin makes foreign experience an explicit advantage for senior promotions and appointments to regulatory positions -- and in some cases, a requirement. Bertie Ahern once said that sort of thing would be unfair. That is its great attraction.

Indo Business