Sincere offer of help as Irish abroad watch Ireland suffer


OPINION:IN FAR off Silicon Valley a wizened old man worked for my father. His name was Michael McDonnell and he was a sound employee but a troubled man. In an earlier life, he had commanded Michael Collins’s active service unit, the Squad, and although young and idealistic, he was forced to flee his home never again contributing to her progress.

He was one of the millions who have been eliminated from giving their best for Ireland. His is an extreme but familiar case and one I thought of recently when I read in The Irish Times of the rejection of an offer by Irish-born and Irish-American executives to serve pro bono on Irish State boards.

The report quoted Maura Quinn, leader of a group with the Orwellian name, the Institute of Directors, who took issue with our offer. Her apology for the status quo cited ambiguous “skills and competencies” that may not be present in the overseas group and the “unintended consequences” of outside inclusion. Toss in the fear of certain “optics” that could occur and this self-serving rejection was complete.

One would think that all is well in Ireland. The truth is far more brutal as Irish governments and institutions, past and present, have been buffeted by a righteous gale of cynicism and outrage. All methods to spur economic progress and recapture the waning confidence of her citizens should be embraced not shunned. When I was a young mayor engaged in a savage labour dispute, my police chief counselled me that there comes a time when diplomacy and common sense serve no purpose; he was right. I abandoned that approach then.

This is another such time.

After years of politicians and bureaucrats catering to their own selfish agendas and thoughtless policies, Ireland is suffering.

I know of other times. I was present during heady events such as the Intel ground breaking and the initiation of the Apple project. I was there when San Jose provided free offices for the IDA to proselytise the merits of Ireland throughout Silicon Valley.

Such help was not the reason for the successes of the Irish tech sector – the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the Irish did that deed – but it certainly gave it a mighty push. Then it was great to be working together on projects that really helped people.

Many of us in the Irish diaspora value the land of our grandparents and mourn her recent difficulties. We only wish to help with the skills we believe are pertinent to the current economic and political dilemma. Entrepreneurs such as Trinity-educated chief executive Conrad Burke, and John Hartnett, who created the Irish Technology Leadership Group from whole cloth, can provide the assistance that our grandparents and more recent emigrants were never given. Tempered leaders such as Barry O’Sullivan of Cisco and Rory McInerny of Intel, John Gilmore of Nest and Rich Moran, the inimitable chief executive of Accenture, all know how to set strategies and measure them.

Dozens more have agreed to serve at no pay, no perks. From Microsoft to Disney, they are adept at business plans and accountability. They know that inward investment is wonderful, but the real business of creating companies and jobs indigenous to Ireland is key: measure success, not just glossy plans.

In the area of political reform, changes such as term limits in the Dáil and revolving-door restrictions for elected and appointed public officials as well as transparency in political money, have already been suggested by me and others.

Now it is no longer Saxon perfidy that bedevils that island, no longer the old enemies of Collins and his generation, but a paralysing fear of change.

At the global economic forum in Dublin, before Bono arrived, a few of us from Silicon Valley offered many ideas for an Irish resurgence. We backed it with action, financing an innovation centre in San Jose for emerging Irish companies, mentoring and funding many. We remain mindful of the maxim of Gordon Moore, legendary founder of Intel: “If everything you try works, you are not trying hard enough.”

We know how to succeed and we know how to rebound from failure. This is not just a trait of Silicon Valley, it is a traditional Irish one if only you use it!

We find it tragic that in the midst of the implosion of the Irish economy and the demise of the dream of so many of the bright-eyed youth of Trinity College, UCD, UCC and the other colleges, that we received this clumsy response. Once again, like the tragic Michael McDonnell, the rebel of my youth, they will face the spectre of emigration, with only denial to blame this time.

Perhaps only a “modest proposal” from Dean Swift could do justice to such a ridiculous suggestion from the Institute of Directors that we in the US would be too far away to build relationships and forge camaraderie. The members of the boards of Apple and Intel and the other giants of the brave new world which has changed all our lives can fly, teleconference, face time, and seem to be doing quite well at it, at least as well as the former, close-knit members of the Anglo Irish Bank board.

I hope our sincere offer to help will be accepted. Let our ideas on economic and political reform be vetted and discussed, not cavalierly deflected. The representatives of the Irish nation must act not in fear, not in uncertainty – but for the love of God, they must act.

Tom McEnery is a businessman and former instructor at Stanford and Santa Clara. He served as mayor of San Jose