Global Irish homecoming

 

THE IRISH diaspora is a global human resource that, so far, has not been fully utilised to assist national economic renewal and to help restore Ireland’s international reputation. The Global Irish Economic Forum, which met in Dublin at the weekend, is an attempt to harness the diaspora’s potential, by building links with the estimated 70 million people who claim Irish ancestry, and by tapping into their goodwill, expertise and energy. At the two-day meeting, business, cultural and media figures – from here and abroad – shared their ideas on how to make Ireland a more attractive place in which to invest, to study and to visit. The forum, which was launched two years ago, can now report some progress.

The body has proposed a year-long major tourism event in 2013, a “homecoming” that would attract 350,000 additional visitors – a small part of the great diaspora. A €16 million investment by Tourism Ireland, it is estimated, could generate €220 million in extra revenue. Another positive proposal was the generous offer by 100 top executives in the business, science and technology sectors to sit – without payment – on the boards of State agencies. That, and the willingness shown by former US president Bill Clinton to host a conference in the US to benefit investment in Ireland are examples of the huge international goodwill that exists for this country.

Certainly, from the taxpayer’s perspective, the forum can hardly be faulted. It is a cost-effective initiative. Those who attended the conference paid their own travel and hotel expenses and even though twice as many participants came as last time, the cost of staging the event – about €300,000 – will be less than in 2009. However, to build on the success achieved and to develop fully the forum’s potential requires the Government to take a close interest in its activities.

The decision to establish an advisory and implementation group, co-chaired by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, which will meet twice-yearly to follow up and implement worthwhile forum proposals, is welcome and necessary. That association enhances the authority and status of the forum. It also makes it less likely the forum will become a mere talking shop.

However, a major future challenge facing the forum will be to maintain its dynamism and relevance. This may well involve some turnover in forum membership to involve new people with fresh ideas, particularly those from outside Europe and the US. Asia and Latin America have become the engines of global economic growth, and the forum needs to reflect that changed reality, both in the composition of its membership and its range of interests.

In that regard, the forum’s plan to expand the graduate scheme for Asia from 25 to 100 places each year is a worthwhile initiative. It will give more Irish graduates an opportunity to work and study there. But it is also a clear sign the forum has recognised a deficiency in its make-up, and has sought to rectify it.