Tuesday 19 November 2019

David McWilliams: Diaspora's 'soft power' will help fuel our future

David McWilliams watches Barack Obama's speech in Fallons pub in Dublin's city centre on Monday
David McWilliams watches Barack Obama's speech in Fallons pub in Dublin's city centre on Monday

David McWilliams

THE lad beside me in the queue for Obama had driven down all the way from Donegal. We joined the queue at 2pm, just at the back of Christchurch.

The very same scarf seller who was flogging Porto and Braga scarves outside Lansdowne last Wednesday night was doing a brisk trade in Obama paraphernalia as the wind howled down Thomas Street, encouraged by the wide open spaces at Christchurch.

"Yizzers Obama scarves only a tenner."

We stood opposite the Lord Edward pub for ages, hardly moving. The crowd were in great form, mainly students and people in their 20s. It was more like a line for Oxegen or the Kings of Leon than a political rally. But that's the Obama magic: he touches everyone. Every now and then one of the young lads would slip into Christchurch's garden and scale the railing to see how we were doing. Would we make it, would we not? The hawker is sensing the movements in his market before anyone else.

"Obama scarves only seven euro."

By half-three we have moved about five yards, things aren't looking good, but we are all still infused with "yes, we can" optimism. There were no crash barriers and precious few stewards. Quarter-past four, still no news. The crowd started to get a bit restless. There was no information. It had seemed that the bloke on the tannoy had adopted the language but not the method of American crowd control. So there was a lot of talk about Dame Street being "a sterile zone" whatever that is supposed to mean. One of the very few stewards told me that the area was "in full lockdown". Perplexed? Me too -- your guess is as good as mine. The lads flogging Obama gear are looking worried about their pile of merchandise. One thing about this market is that it is all or nothing: flog everything no matter what the price. If thousands of punters are turned away, demand will collapse.

"Yizzers Obama scarves -- two for a tenner."

Will we get in? But there was no information on that likelihood. There was also no mobile coverage in the crowded pocket so no one knew what was going on. But still the mood was upbeat as if the can-do attitude of the president would prevail. Then, when we were only 10 yards from the barriers, tantalisingly close, news started to seep in that RTE was telling people not to head for Christchurch. Ultimately, the guards emerged and told us the event was full. Resigned, thousands of us headed off. We would have stayed had the big screens at Christchurch been working but the Force 8 put paid to that.

"Three for a tenner."

People were still in good form as we all mooched off to see him on the telly. Straight down Nicholas Street, into a favourite old watering hole, Fallons in the Coombe. Fallons was full of Dame Street rejects, glued to the two TVs in either corner.

Years ago when I lived locally there was a regular in Fallons called "REM". He seemed a bit past it to be a Michael Stipe devotee, so one day one of us asked him why he was called REM. He took a gulp of stout, wiped his lip and pronounced, "Rangers, England and f***in' Meath -- the three things I hate most in the world."

Now some Dubs can still understand the Meath bit but after the queen's visit, the general attitude to England and even Rangers has surely changed a bit! Maybe Ireland is beginning to change and these visits are setting the tone, capturing something.

When Obama finally made it to the podium following Enda's rousing speech (after which I'd half-expected him to lift the Sam Maguire), the pub fell silent. You could hear a pin drop as if Obama had sprinkled magic mute dust over us.

There were all sorts at the bar, all mesmerised by Obama's oratory presence and charm. Two garda caps peeked in through the door halfway through and, in the most fitting and biological barometer of how good any speech is, the rush to the jacks at the end was desperate and disorderly.

There has been some criticism of Obama being long on rhetoric and short on specifics, but that is what public speeches are all about. They are supposed to appeal to our hearts, not our heads.

This is the very essence of "soft power". There are two types of power these days, hard power and soft power. Hard power is what the US has, military and geo-political muscle. It is brute force, the power of the big. Soft power is the power of persuasion, the power of ideas, the power of branding. Soft power allows small countries to be big. The greatest well of soft power that Ireland has is the diaspora, the great Irish tribe all around the world. They are our sales force -- far more persuasive than any official proselytiser -- and Obama is one of them.

We are now waking up to this powerful notion. It wasn't always that way. In fact in 2007 -- not that long ago -- I suggested in 'The Generation Game' that, if played properly, there was a transformative potential in the Irish tribe and that the echo of past generations could help reinvent Ireland for future generations, thus the title. One reviewer described this idea as "risible". Do such cynics think that now?

The economic power of the tribe is not a panacea, but it is a huge help and the presence of Irish-Americans at the top of many multinationals is significant. Years ago, I worked for Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE whose grandparents were from Cork. When I asked him did it matter to him that he was Irish when he decided to invest in Ireland, he snapped, "Of course it bloody did, once you guys got your act together, I was always going to favour Ireland."

Just to put the US connection in context and understand how important it is to have their president claiming to be one of us, consider this: US firms employ approximately 100,000 people directly in Ireland and Irish firms employ more than 80,000 people in the US. American companies spend €15bn annually on payroll and service. US companies account for €90bn of exports. US firms account for over 70pc of IDA- supported employment. US firms have invested $165bn (€117bn) in Ireland -- 4.6pc of total global investment by US firms, and more than they have invested in Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.

Tellingly, according to the IDA's 2010 annual report, the US accounted for 74pc of Ireland's inward investment in 2010.

This deep economic link is made more, not less, vibrant by having the human bonds of family and heritage reinforced officially. This was the broad idea behind the Farmleigh Global Irish Economic Forum in 2010. Hopefully we can build on it this year again.

As I left Fallons after the speech, I saw the hawker flogging what looked to be the last of the Obama scarves to two, on-duty, giggling female gardai. Glad to see he had a good day too, like the rest of us.

David McWilliams is a director of a community-based diaspora project called Ireland Reaching Out. Visit the website at www.irelandxo.org

Irish Independent

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