March 15, 2008

Our scattered nation is one of our greatest assets

Posted in International Economy · 16 comments ·

I am writing this from Boston. Boston, ‘the next parish over’, is home to the Boston Celtics, JFK, Southie, the Dropkick Murphies, the Red Sox and possibly the finest collection of high-tech companies, the most impressive cluster of top-grade universities and the most active venture capital community in the world.

In this State of Massachusetts, 28pc of the population regard themselves as Irish American. The Boston Irish are no longer exclusively the Tammany Hall politicians, fire-fighters and cops of old.

They are chief executives, professors, financiers, lawyers and entrepreneurs. The Irish Americans are the second richest ethnic group in America. A total of 900,000 speak a second language and more than one-third hold university degrees. They are the demographic echo of our past and they are also Ireland’s best global asset.

Boston is also the home of the internet phenomenon of the past few years — Facebook.

Facebook is at the heart of a new economic concept called social networking. Social networking is a dynamic form of communities, usually online, where ideas and groups bond via common ideas and common interests.

These can vary dramatically but they all bring people together. Bebo is similar, as are a variety of other social networking sites. Facebook is the most dominant of these and its market value (ie, the value of the network that it has facilitated) if based on the price Microsoft paid for 1.6pc of the company last year, could be close to $18bn (€11.5bn). This company was started in 2004 by a Harvard student.

However, what Microsoft is paying for is access to this network. It is paying for what economists call soft power. This is the power of networks, contacts, emotional ties and shared interests. The driver of the service economy is soft power and social networking is one of the key examples of this.

Now put these two things together: Facebook and the Irish diaspora. Think of the Irish diaspora as a large multinational social network for Ireland. Regard the Boston Irish and the Irish Americans as a potential “Facebook for the Irish Nation”, where a huge tribe of 70 million are bonded together by a common history and infused with a common purpose to connect, chat and network with each other.

In the past, information was power so that those with access to information hoarded it as a sign of power. Today the dissemination of information is power.

Open-access systems which allow the greatest amount of people to focus on problems, ideas, products, services or initiatives, will, like Facebook, be invaluable.

Now look again at the power of the Irish diaspora and their potentialto expand the brain power of Ireland and even more importantly, to put Ireland at the nexus of a global network.

When you look to the future, the diaspora is the only common denominator that Ireland has. When you talk to Irish American chief executives, they are fascinated by what has happened to the homeland and are keen to contribute to the next phase of Irish history. They could be a profound source of financing, know-how, contacts and influence.

Contrast the obvious implication for Ireland by the likes of Facebook, with the pathetic whingeing we experienced this week over the government’s plans for St Patrick’s Day.

Networks are facilitated and re-invigorated by these events. Ministers going to the farthest parts of the globe, to celebrate with the diaspora is an event that most clubs would die for.

Yet here we are back home, with our small -minded, 19th-century, penny pinching attitudes trying to make a negative story of a great economic opportunity.

There are two Irelands. There is us, the marooned Irish, and there is them, the wandering Irish. The diaspora are the exiles who paved the way for us. Without them Ireland wouldn’t be a global brand, we wouldn’t have the disproportionate footprint we have, nor would we get the welcome we do in every small town in the US, Australia, Canada or South Africa. We may be different but we are part of the same family.

Where we, the ‘marooned Irish’ were traditional, they, the ‘wandering Irish’ were modern; we were atavistic, they were progressive; we were closed, they were open; we were a failure, they were a success; we were definitive, they were mercurial; we were rooted, they were free; we were rural, they were urban; we were narrow, they were broad; we were fixed, they were nomadic; we were protectionist, they were free-marketeers; and above all, we were exclusive, they were promiscuous.

They are our alter-ego. We need them now as much as they ever needed us.

In the next 20 years, the countries that secure the best brainpower and contacts will be pre-eminent. We should realise that the diaspora are our trump card.

Today, we need the vision to fuse them to us. If this means actively giving them passports, encouraging their children to come home for subsidised holidays to recharge their Irishness or creating a world Irish forum, let’s do it.

To cynics who say that we could not transcend the limitations of geography and demography by leveraging the diaspora, fine if you don’t want to be part of it.

No one compels people to sign up for Facebook, yet it has over 70 million subscribers, chatting and networking away all day, everyday. Social networking is based on “the willing” not the unwilling.

The last thing we need is the chorus of naysayers, questioning the wisdom of international social networking, sneering about junkets and generally begrudging. The diaspora is our best resource: we should be spending more on it.

  1. Rob

    eh, seems to me that although this is an excellent essay there are a group of small-minded bigots who comment on this blog who would be diametrically opposed to David’s thesis welcoming back not only irish-born immigrants but irish-blood immigrants….

  2. AndrewGMooney

    David, your article is excellent. However, you appear to have ‘forgotten’ the 2nd Generation Irish living in The United Kingdom. LOL!
    Freudian slip? *rollseyes*

    How much of Ireland’s trade is with us? And how much of your trade with Europe goes via our logistical / distribution hubs? I still see lots of Irish trucks on our motorways. It can’t all be going by boat to Pays De Calais.

    I would have thought the building of strategic alliances with Britain and Europe was just as important to future Irish prosperity as getting too cosy with a floundering USA economy. If the Euro makes your cost-base unsustainable, it’s either Ulster or Poland. It doesn’t take long to shift people and ‘knowledge’ to a new more favourable location. Newry?

    The hard facts of economics will force American Capital to re-locate to the cheapest base. The ‘special relationship’ with ‘Traditional Irishness’ will be rather hard to quantify on the balance sheet when justifying strategic decisions to investors.

    It is, indeed, extraordinary how the ‘American Irish’ even unto the Nth generation refuse to be ‘invisibilized’ by the host culture, whilst still being energised by the dynamism that is ‘America’. It’s in stark contrast to the U.K.

    But then, perhaps British Culture is simply so ‘superior’ that it absorbs and renders invisible the children of any and all incomers……except the Muslims……and the Caribbean…..and the Hindus, Sikhs, Chinese. There must be something ‘special’ about the vanishing tribe of The Fifth Province that is the U.K Irish. I wonder what it is? Historic resentment from ‘real’ Irish towards ‘fake’ Irish Brits? I imagine that last paragraph might trigger a few interesting responses!

    In the United Kingdom, the tribe of The Fifth Province, as represented by my Mother and Father and all the other 50’s migrants, is vanishing before my eyes. Whether this is good, bad or neutral is an interesting topic. Seeing the great and good of Ireland cavorting in Cheltenham is an amusing distraction but the ‘real story’ is the middle-class, business class ‘ex-Irish’ I grew up. People who, curiously, still all have their Setanta channel on 24/7, and impose Irish Dancing on their poor children with totalitarian enthusiasm.
    Why isn‘t that an equally important diaspora to cultivate and network?
    Lots more I could say, but Twickenham beckons: I hear the National Anthem in the other room. Which one though? LOL!
    May the best team win! In Sport. Politics. Economics. And, above all: Culture.

  3. Ed

    David, Irish Americans are American first and foremost and rightly so – it’s all very fine to talk to a handful of top executives who look at our balance of payments and say wow ! – but on closer examination they see that it’s all a mirage and that it’s all down to MNC’s. Believe me, while they go on about Ireland, they actually have more regard for the British.

  4. John Q. Public

    Ed, you are probably right. The world has folded in on itself like a piece of paper, information everywhere on tap. David, you say ‘dissemination of information is power’ and that we native Irish are not clued in to the diaspora. Well, if these top executives etc. are so ‘fascinated’ and ‘keen to contribute to the next phase of Irish history’ why haven’t they made their move yet?

    Some sort of trans-atlantic business alliance might be a good thing between the Irish and Americans but I think the MNC’s have it all sewn up. Americans are probably the smallest ethnic group in Ireland so would more like to come here just because they have Irish dna? I doubt it.
    We are not begrudgers David, just realists, I would love to see some Irish Americans come here and make a go of it with us but it always has to be made viable.

  5. In light of David’s comments I thought you would be interested to know about is a Google mash-up that allows Irish people anywhere to map and profile themselves. The project starts on March 17 2008 with the aim of finding those seventy million Irish people around the world. The project is supported by the social network, an online community for people to get involved in the project as well as connect and interact.

  6. Dan Hayes

    Americans have a great affection for Ireland and the Irish.

    This was probabably brought home to David a few nights ago when he lectured at New York University’s Glucksmann Irish House. For those of you who don’t know of Lew Glucksmann, let’s just say that in his time he was the toughest of the tough Wall Streeters! Lew had a great love of Ireland, and he had it way before he marrried an Irish-American woman.

    Bottom Line: the potential is there, it only remains to be mined!

  7. Ed

    Dan, I’ve been dealing with America for some time now and I’ve learned a lot about our relationship with Irish America. Despite all the hype about success stories of the few, the vast majority of Irish Americans are not wealthy and look to us for leadership and not the other way round. No doubt, the top echelons have been of great assistance to this country in securing MNCs for us, but it’s a win, win situation for both them and for us. – our location and education system was there to be “mined” and they were best positioned to recognise and promote it.
    Taking our position right now, we’re almost an American dependency, technologically at least, and have nothing to offer these people that they don’t already have. If our great government hadn’t been so busy congratulating themselves and helping their builder friends, but instead had set in train a programme to get some of our indigenous industries up to world standard, then we would have Irish America from all levels queuing to be part of it all. Sadly this was not so and now, opportunity has passed us by .They should have been paranoid, not celebrating, but that’s the Irish way.

  8. John Q. Public

    David, where are you going with your ‘marooned’? It’s worth mentioning the ‘marooned Irish’ in the USA at the moment who are undocumented. They could come home but don’t want to. They would rather stay marooned out there in limbo. If they don’t want to come home how would the rest of the diaspora feel about it? Have you done a poll to see exactly how many Irish descendants want to come and live here? I think you have just spoken to a few hobos on the side of the road in Argentina with holes in their shoes and dreamy notions of who they are and where they came from. It has to be said a great many have returned home from the states etc. but do they feel marooned now and would you criticise them for being ‘traditional’ or do they add a little umph to the economy? You say the travelling Irish were ‘atavistic’ and ‘progressive’ but they picked that up from the Yanks quicksmart, they had to.

  9. Dan Hayes


    Most web sites don’t relish response to responses, but I think yours merits a measured reply.

    There is a great measure of good feeing towards the Irish. I cited Lew Glucksamann. On the subway home after that posting I realized I should have stated that he was a secular Hungarian-American Jew who loved Ireland. Granted that if push came to shove he as a “good” Anarcho-Capitalist of the first order would have sold out Ireland. But if things were in the balance, he would have tilted the scales for Ireland. That’s a demonstrable fact!!!

    Where do we go from here? At David’s NYU lecture the question was raised about the Jews. There is another example of people helping out each other, and that is the Armenians. I understand that Prof Kevin MacDonald is in the process of cataloguing how this diaspora people also help each other out . It does not require Ashkenazi sky-high IQ. It just requres ethnic solidarity! (Hopefully the last sentence has got under the PC radar screen.)


  10. VincentH

    The Irish do not aid each other because there is no one group of Irish that do not have an agenda which is repugnant to another. The issue prior to the establishment of the irish press is a good snapshot of this situation.

  11. Observer is worth a look.

    The Americans (US & CAN) & Argentinians are the best assets we have for this country, these people have more to offer us than we have ourselves with the EU.

    Why not rely on your own people and resources, relying on others only leaves you very vulnerable – That’s why we are heading for a recession and the surrender of our own soverignty if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified.

    It’s about time we re-evaluate the future of our society whilst we economically descend back into the Ireland of the eighties – This time let’s take our time instead of make a rushed job like the last 15 years have been.

  12. Malcolm McClure

    It’s complete pie in the sky, that those in the Irish diaspora who have reached CEO in America will come riding to our rescue now that Kathleen Mavourneen is getting a bit distressed. The events of the past few days make this extremely unlikely as CEOs never use their own money to open new enterprises abroad. Either they seek state enterprise grants or they borrow on the capital market. Neither the Irish government nor aspiring expatriate executives will find it easy to raise capital for any purposes, for at least a few years. Those that still have jobs will be risk-averse and more inclined to batten down the hatches of their core businesses than seek new adventures abroad. The Chinese are unsentimental but might emerge as the Dragons (as in Den) of the east and a potential source of venture capital.

  13. Ed

    The Irish in America haven’t founded many business empires as they tend to be political rather than enterprising – they prefer to climb someone else’s tree and use their money. That’s why you’ll see lots of CEOs, but very few founders – there’s a hidden message there somewhere.

  14. MK

    Hi again David,

    > the pathetic whingeing we experienced this week over the government’s plans for St Patrick’s Day.

    Its not that government representatives shouldn’t visit araway places to promote Ireland, indeed they should. The problem is the ‘junkets’ that are being taken advantage of, with expensive flights (more than the norm), expensive hotels (more than the norm) and too many unnecessary people going (wives, official bag handlers, etc). Also, its questionable whether our representatives should be going to the same places year-in year-out, places which by and large already know the rish story all too well eg: Boston.

    Also, reading between the lines of your piece it would seem to be that you are behind in teh curve in terms of understanding ‘social networking’. This is a relatively new phrase for it, but online communities are as old as the internet itself and pre-date the web. What has got the companies like Microsoft excited are the number of people on these sites and the time they spend. Think of it as a media location. People are by and large ‘wasting their time’/entertaining themselves when participating on these sites. There are a few business ones, but its marginal as to the amount of real business you could derive from a complete stranger, or even one through 6 degrees!


  15. Ed

    VincentH’s assertion that the Irish don’t aid each other is a valid one – we tend to be very individualistic. It may have something to do with our history – the loss of leaders with the flight of the earls dealt a severe blow to a cohesive existence. Then, the famine dealt a grater one, when survival depended on ones own wits. It’s said that the survivors never wanted to talk about it, as they believed, that they came through it at the expense of others. This then, may go someway towards explaining our individualism.

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