July 27, 2008
Brian Cowen is proposing to embrace people of Irish descent in a move that could redefine our nation.
In New York last week, Brian Cowen made a significant speech. Although not much detail was reported, its content will have more impact on Ireland than anything he or Nicolas Sarkozy might have said at their much-hyped meeting.
In his address at the Irish consulate, Cowen proved that he is a modern thinker, a politician in touch with global realities, who is contemplating a post-nationalist Ireland. He spoke about the Irish tribe. He said that he would redefine the relationship Ireland has with the US, and in particular with Irish America.
According to a report in the Irish Echo, Cowen articulated a novel idea, which has the capacity to change Ireland’s relationship with the world, ‘‘acknowledging everyone who had worked hard in the Irish community, whether they were Irish-born, their parents were born in Ireland, or those who simply had a sense of being Irish’’. Cowen said that these were partnerships that were meaningful for those with a deep, serious kinship.
The Taoiseach announced that he was undertaking a full review of Ireland’s relationship with the USA. He stated: ‘‘This work will also prove invaluable in informing wider initiatives to harness the power of the Irish diaspora across the world.”
He continued: ‘‘We have to recognise these new realities, recognise the new challenges, today and tomorrow,” adding that the Irish had entered a new era globally and that the potential of the diaspora was a resource that had to be tapped.
This is a significant move by the Taoiseach because it reveals that the Irish state has finally recognised that, in a globally interconnected world, the country with the best network has a huge comparative advantage.
The world is undergoing a communication revolution that will obliterate national power as we have come to know it. It will mean that a nation’s message becomes blurred, and the power of being sociable – sometimes in the past portrayed as a weakness, and the antithesis to the stoicism and aloofness of power – will dominate.
The world has 1.4 billion plugged-in internet users and that number is growing by 250million a year. There are three billion mobile phones in the world, with another billion coming in the next three years. Ten hours of video are being uploaded onto YouTube every minute of every day. This connectivity revolution, where the best salespeople for ideas will be individuals playing a giant game of ‘pass it on’, is ideally suited to dramatic initiatives, and the diaspora is a natural sales force for the country.
The winners will be those countries which have access to the best brains, are open to ideas and which allow individuals to travel freely. As Cowen is proposing much freer travel between Ireland and America, presumably for people of Irish heritage, we could see our potential workforce increase from four million to 70 million.
These people would not have to move here, although some undoubtedly would, but by telling them that Ireland is open to them and vice-versa, you create the network necessary to compete.
If we just think about the Irish in America, the commercial power of the diaspora is irrefutable. Of the 34 million Irish-Americans registered, in the 2005 census, a third have bachelors degrees or higher. That’s over 11 million people.
More than 30 million Irish Americans have a high school diploma. As 91 per cent of the total Irish-American population has completed secondary education, our American cousins are considerably better educated than us. Even today, only seven out of ten Irish children finish the Leaving Cert.
Some 40 per cent of Irish Americans are either professionals or work in management, and 72 per cent are home owners.
The average income of an Irish-American household is $53,000. This puts them at the top of the ethnic league after the Jews, in terms of education, income and social class. Close to 900,000 English speaking Irish-Americans speak a second language. Their average age is 37, but there are over 10million Irish-Americans under 18.
This is an extraordinary reservoir of talent. The Irish-Americans define themselves as Irish; and while they are American, they have a deep affection for, and affiliation to, this country.
The 3.8 million Irish Canadians, the 1.9 million Irish Australians and the half-million Irish Argentines have similar profiles in terms of education and income.
By giving them a stake in their country of origin, Ireland could easily offer companies a most attractive package, a European country with a truly global workforce whose human capital is guaranteed and whose networks are solid.
Embracing a worldwide tribe who are not bound by geography or political boundaries but are unified by culture, familial history and shared experiences, would be a post-nationalist project – the very essence of globalisation. Last Monday, in contrast, Sarkozy seemed like a dinosaur — a Kissngerian hangover from the era of nation states, defined by geography, where the state defined the citizen’s relationship with the world.
Sarkozy was like a ‘top-down’ relic in a ‘bottom-up’ world, talking about relationships between states and using expression like ‘‘vital national interests’’.
He spoke of European visions, as if we were still in the Cold War. This is one of the problems with the EU. It is dominated by people whose view of the world has not changed since the Treaty of Versailles and who appear to see power as something for countries to fight over. But power has been disseminated. The small are rich, the big are poor. Those with soft power are thriving, those countries with traditional hard power are faltering.
A global diaspora, plugged in and bound by something much more important than money, is possibly the best asset any country could dream of – and we have it. The Taoiseach has triggered something powerful. Let’s plough on.