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Column: Our diaspora can make Ireland great – but we need to connect

We’re used to asking what the Irish community abroad can do for us. Maybe the real question is what we can do for them, writes Kingsley Aikins.

Kingsley Aikins

HISTORICALLY A phenomenon of forced emigration, the traditional view of the Irish diaspora as a distant community is changing, a change that is down to the rise of globalisation, technology and communications. This shift in relevance and impact has led to an increased opportunity for those members of the diaspora to connect with their home and those of their ancestors. It also offers Ireland an opportunity to utilise this community for our own cultural and economic benefit.

The potential and opportunity for Ireland and her Diaspora is huge. We have seen from international examples the influence and benefit that a Diaspora community can have. As a community looking to engage with our own diaspora and how we can work for our mutual benefit, we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. What made China the world’s manufacturing powerhouse? What made India a global technology hub? What made Israel the world’s second largest venture capital market and what helped bring peace to Northern Ireland? The answer to each of these questions is the same: networking with their diasporas, particularly those in the US.

Diasporas are now big business. Governments around the world are realising this and seeing their far-flung diasporas as a resource for home countries and fertile sources of business, capital and ideas. The Economist recently had a cover which read “The magic of Diasporas – how migrant business networks are changing the world”. Including remittances, diaspora investment, tourism and education is a $400 billion a year industry and countries are waking up to this reality.

There are now over 215 million people who live in a country other than the one in which they were born (80 million of them are European). This is three per cent of the world’s population and one in ten who live in the developed world. Ireland’s diaspora is one of the largest and most influential, numbering over 70 million globally, there are 44 million in the US and large numbers in the UK, Canada and Australia. Over three million Irish citizens live outside of Ireland.

‘Networking is something the Irish are intrinsically good at’

Ireland now has the potential to become the world’s leading country in this space. This is because there are a number of initiatives being worked on in Ireland which are unique and which will draw attention to Ireland. Examples here are the WorldIrish social media website that John McColgan has launched, the Dun Laoghaire Harbour Company plan to build a Diaspora Museum on the Carlisle Pier and Mike Feerick’s plan to connect Loughrea and hundreds of other Irish parishes with descendants of emigrants who left Loughrea over the last century.

Recently the Taoiseach Enda Kenny launched Connect Ireland, a hugely innovative idea to encourage and reward people in the Irish diaspora who help create jobs in Ireland. In addition the Irish Government announced the Gathering and designated 2013 as the year in which they are going to invite an additional 300,000 people from the Irish diaspora to visit Ireland.

Key to successfully developing diaspora strategies is networking, something the Irish are intrinsically good at. An example of how the diaspora can help is the numbers who are well entrenched in major global companies that can be attracted to invest in Ireland. For example, over 40,000 Irish people are directors of companies in Britain. From the Ford Motor Company’s decision to open their first overseas factory in Ireland right up to some of the most recent technology investments in Ireland, the role of key ‘tipping agents’ within these companies has been crucial. Many inward investment decisions are very close and these people can ‘nudge’ a deal in Ireland’s direction. A strategic networking approach means identifying these people through research and developing deep and meaningful relationships with them over the long term so they are in a position to help Ireland when the time comes. ‘Asks and tasks’ are a part of this and other countries do this very effectively.

What we are seeing now is a national ‘call to arms’ to really embrace the opportunity that exists. This will involve every organisation, institution, company, town, village and individual, as I believe everyone can play an active role in aiding our economic recovery. The best starting point is for everyone to consider what they can do for the diaspora rather than what the diaspora can do for them. The Global Diaspora Strategies Toolkit (available on diasporamatters.com) which was launched by Taoiseach Enda Kenny is a road map to go about this.

Founder of Diaspora Matters and co-founder of Networking Matters, Kingsley Aikins has previously represented the Irish Trade Board and IDA Ireland in Australia.  In January 1993, he took over as Executive Director of The American Ireland Fund.  In June 1995 he was appointed Chief Executive of the Worldwide Ireland Funds who are active in 11 countries including Ireland. He now runs a consultancy company based in Dublin.

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Kingsley Aikins

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