Flying the flag pays dividends

Fri, Mar 15, 2013, 06:00

When times are tough there is a tendency to whinge about the cost of ministerial travel. So, before the media becomes a conduit for complaints about the cost of representing Ireland abroad on St Patrick’s Day, a sense of proportion is required. Celebrations of the national holiday represent a unique opportunity to promote Irish tourism, industry and agriculture against a positive, fun-filled background. Other countries would give their eye teeth for the kind of largely cost-free publicity generated by colourful parades across the world and the “greening” of local monuments. Any failure by the Government to harness such opportunities would amount to gross political incompetence.

There is a balance to be struck. During the boom years, some ministers lost the run of themselves and travelled with large, expensive entourages. Such profligacy was reined in after the bubble burst and, more recently, costs and support numbers have been greatly reduced. Value for money is now a key consideration.

Bowls of shamrock have become a feature of St Patrick’s Day at the White House and this level of political access has been replicated throughout the multinational sector. Ministers, backed up by Enterprise Ireland officials, promote inward investment from the US on the grounds that Ireland offers a highly skilled workforce and a taxation-friendly, English-speaking, gateway to the EU. Promotional activity is not, however, confined to the US. South American and Asian countries are also being targeted for exports and inward investments while the attractions of tourism are advertised in Britain, Europe and Australia.

The sheer scale of the international publicity platform created by Irish emigrants and their descendants is remarkable. Not only have they convinced their countries of adoption that being Irish is important, but that it demands public celebration. The result – colourful, fun-filled parades where, for many, being Irish for a day has become part of the annual calendar.

As Ireland struggles out of recession, opportunities like this should be grasped with both hands. St Patrick’s Day and its attendant celebrations will offer access to trading and financial centres. The message that Ireland is open for business, is in the process of reinventing itself, and offers an educated and willing workforce is getting through.

A growing number of international companies have located here and financial markets regard the country in an increasingly positive light. The tourism industry is recovering and Fáilte Ireland has an exceptional opportunity to reach out to people of Irish descent and promote the Gathering. All of these strands can be woven together by travelling ministers so that the opportunities surrounding St Patrick’s Day can enrich all of society.