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Ireland's future depends on diaspora's 'soft power'


You were a crap player and you are a crap manager. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country and you're not even Irish, you English c**t."

Allegedly, with that parting shot, Roy Keane walked out of the Irish team at Saipan in 2002.

But Roy had used the word that can never be spoken in polite society. He used the E-word. He called Mick McCarthy 'English' and in so doing, opened up the debate about what constitutes an Irishman.

Is it enough to have Irish blood or do you have to be born here? What about those who live in an Irish area of Queens or London, have Irish parents and relations, feel themselves to be Irish, sing 'The Fields of Athenry' yet sound Scouse, Bostonian, Cape-Townian, Cockney or Canadian?

Is the Diaspora truly Irish? Have we, the Irish born here, forgotten that these people are the Irish footprint around the world?

The best Irish football teams, the most successful ones, were those in the Charlton era who represented a widest-possible definition of Irishness. At the time many soccer commentators lamented the fact that there were so many of what was termed derogatorily 'PlasticPaddies' on the team.

But these men were the demographic echo of the 500,000 Irish emigrants who left for Britain from 1949-1961. The Kevin Sheedys, Ray Houghtons and John Sheridans were the sons of men and women who were driven out by de Valera's economic nationalism. They pulled on the jersey and, as far as we were concerned, they were as Irish as anyone else

The sons of exiles added enormously to the potential of the team, giving it options and talents that we would not otherwise have had. This was a post-nationalist, national soccer team, the very essence of globalisation.

Now think about the potential economic impact of the Irish Diaspora. This is one thing we have that so few other countries have. This is our biggest and most unique resource and yet we don't appreciate its value.

The key to economic success in the future is to invest in people and brain power rather than property. In the years ahead the countries with the best networks, contacts and brains will win. This is termed "soft power" and the key to soft power is people.

In the Diaspora we not only have the people, but we have a ready made global network of talent. It is before our very eyes and yet we don't see it.

So for example, JFK -- the most famous Irish-American of all -- would not be eligible for an Irish passport under our present laws. This makes no economic or historical sense.

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Many of us are, if not hostile, not particularly welcoming to the exiles but all our great-grandparents are from the same root. And as Jack Charlton revealed they are our secret weapon.

Now, four generations after the Famine, it could well be that the history and culture of the Irish people, one of the world's great clans, is about to fuse with the demands of the Irish State to ensure that we remain one of the world's most successful economic jurisdictions. This is the next part of the Irish story: a 21st-century economic narrative conceived in the demographics of 19th-century emigration.

Sheila and Eileen Geoghegan turned up at the Irish Embassy in Buenos Aires in 2002, just months after the collapse of the Argentinian economy. The sisters, aged 18 and 20, wanted to claim Irish citizenship through their great-grandparents. They wanted to come home.

Sheila and Eileen have Irish blood on both sides going back to their eight great-grandparents. As far as they are concerned, Ireland is their homeland. They can trace their ancestors back to Co Westmeath. English is their first language. They were taught by Irish nuns and priests. Their parents still speak with Midlands accents. They are part of a 500,000-strong Irish Argentinian population.

Yet these sisters were refused entry visas. They were one generation too late. Had their grandparents been born here, they would have qualified, but as their grandmother, Mabel Ryan, who speaks with a flat Mullingar accent, was born in Argentina, the family were not Irish enough.

We refused entry to two young women, educated, sophisticated, willing to work, with invaluable ties to Latin America, fluent in the second-most-widespread language in the world and, most crucially, committed emotionally to Ireland. If brain power is soft power, then surely this refusal makes no sense.

These are the people who keep the Irish flag flying in the remotest parts of the world, the people who suffered most under our colonial past, who sent money home to Ireland when we hadn't a bean and who took other destitute Irish into their communities when wave after wave arrived on the docks in Argentina. They are emotionally drawn to us, they are our history and yet modern Ireland gives them the cold shoulder.

It is time to see the island of Ireland in the 21st century as the cradle of a global nation.

This nation extends all over the world, gelled together by the shared experience of previous generations.

We should institute a "right of return" policy and extend citizenship to people of Irish decent, extending beyond the present cut off point of two generations.

This would create a strong bond between the tribe and the mother country. The exiles could boost our labour force and in the new, soft world, their brains are invaluable.

There is a feather-light economic army of grey matter and these people could be at our disposal. All we have to do is imagine a New Hibernia.

It is time now to focus on the future rather than our endemic obsession with the next few months. We need, once more, to re-imagine Ireland and to use all the resources at our disposal to take advantage of the new globalised world.

In a sense, we need a post-nationalist, national project.

Not only does embracing the Diaspora make sense from a future economic perspective, it is also the right thing to do.

For years Ireland survived on emigrants' remittances. The Irish balance-of-payments figures in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and into the late-1960s, reveal that the cash inflow from emigrants sending money home kept this country afloat. It is only right that we repay the children of these people who gave so much to us while in exile. In addition, embracing the prodigal sons would be a true sign of Irish economic success and maturity.

As the returning Jews have done in Israel -- who extend citizenship to every Jewish person around the world -- the returning Irish exiles would inject vibrancy and enthusiasm into both our contemporary and traditional culture while at the same time opening up economic opportunities all over the world.

Anything that makes the tribe stronger makes the homeland stronger. In time the relationship becomes symbiotic.

Internationally, we would be pushing on an open door because, unlike the Israelis, we have no enemies. We are neutral, we didn't take anyone's land and we didn't invade anyone's country.

Who could object to the Irish State seeking to look after the global Irish tribe who supported us for so long? This idea threatens no-one. Our present EU commitments mean that the door would still be open to European workers. It is not an "either/or idea".

If we do this, globalisation could be the golden era of the Irish. We can turn our historical defeat into a future victory.

* This article is taken from the book 'The Generation Game' which is out now. Visit www.davidmcwilliams.ie