November 26, 2012

The power of belonging: some thoughts on The Gathering

Posted in Ireland · 17 comments ·

Isn’t it curious how quickly the world changes? A few years ago, I argued that after a coming dreadful economic crash, Ireland would be well advised to look to its diaspora in a totally different way and if Ireland could see itself as the recharging battery for the Irishness of the Global Tribe, we could achieve great things.

At the time, this notion was dismissed by many as fanciful and why, some asked, with the economy going so well, did we need to be concerning ourselves with emigration when immigration was the issue?

Suffice to say, it is not that fanciful anymore.

But the relationship with the tribe is not about a “shake down”. If it is seen as a one-way opportunity to “stroke” a few quid from our cousins, it will rightly fail and should be excoriated.
In contrast, a thorough reinvention of the country’s relationship with the greater Irish family and a comprehension of the power of the Irish footprint all over the globe could be a truly holistic enterprise, if governed, like all good relationships, by give and take.

The crucial new ingredient, which hasn’t always been there, is give and take. New technology allows people to be connected like never before and this changes forever the relationship between the homeland and the tribe.

We could give them a sense of home that many of them yearn for and they could give us an extra cultural, economic and political dynamo to help not just kick-start the recovery but help re-define the entire “national project”, liberating us from the limitations of geography and helping us re-orientate the island in an increasingly globalised world.

In short, the tribe gives us something we have never used and which is now more powerful than ever: soft power. This is the power of persuasion, the power of memory and the power of branding. This is the kind of power that persuades them to switch from thinking, “oh, I like that” to “oh, I am like that”.

This is the power of belonging and, if we deploy such a power properly, we give them an extra identity, a shared history; we give them that most deeply evocative and emotive of feelings — we give them roots.

In return, they don’t give us their money; they give us something much more valuable, their networks. In a globalised world where people are constantly trading, exchanging and connecting with each other, the person, company or indeed country with the best networks succeeds.

So Ireland has both attributes: we have the brand, built in the minds of millions of years, and we have the global connected network to market that brand. But we have to be careful not to destroy the brand or abuse the network that maintains and enhances the brand.

The relationship with the Great Irish Tribe is complex and, like any extended family, not without its elements of dysfunction. There are many hurts and scores that haven’t quite been settled. The diaspora comes in many shapes and sizes and the Irishness of the tribe has mutated over the years.

But its influence remains far and wide.

For example, I am writing this while flying on Etihad Airways to Sydney to give two lectures. Bored with the movies, I am listening to the CD collection and reliving the 1990s with Oasis’s ‘What’s the Story Morning Glory’. So here I am listening to one of the world’s biggest selling music acts in history, yet the Gallaghers are Manchester Irish, sons of Irish emigrants, and the man who runs Etihad, one of the best global airlines with worldwide reach, is an Irish Australian, James Horan, the great-grandson of Tipperary people.

It is hard to underestimate the potential power of our network in a globalised, connected world. The Irish footprint is an emotional one, which actually transcends Irishness. For example, the other week I was chatting to two Indian friends who were waxing lyrical about their affection for Ireland, because they had fond memories of being taught by Irish priests in Bangalore in the 1970s. We have touched millions of people, created a place in people’s minds — some of these people have Irish genes, others don’t. Now we have an opportunity to build on that brand.

In narrow business terms, to use an American business expression, Ireland is a franchise. It is known and it is worldwide and is viewed positively. Few other small countries punch above their weight in the minds of others like we do because few others have such a tribe.

The diaspora is a vast, global sales force, which can be deployed to expand this franchise in all sorts of as yet unknown ways. With technology, this can be done at zero cost. But in order for this to become a self-reinforcing, positive force, we should not abuse trust because all franchises and brands are based on trust. If we abuse our Global Tribe for our own, narrow, 26-county ends, we will destroy it.

The Gathering is a step in the right direction but so too are many other much less high-profile local initiatives such as Ireland Reaching Out, which has the potential to track and find people whose ancestors left tiny parishes all around the country.

The Gathering is a fine tourist product and it will go some way to building the truly nation-defining enterprise of re-imagining Ireland in the 21st Century, where the country becomes the recharging battery for the Irishness of the Global Tribe. That is the prize. We are only at the beginning.

David McWilliams new book, The Good Room, is out now

  1. JapanZone

    “It is hard to underestimate the potential power of our network in a globalised, connected world.” Overestimate, surely? Sorry, once an editor, always an editor.

    As a member of the diaspora for 27 years newly returned to Ireland, this topic is one I have considered a lot for many years. When you wrote about it a while back, it rang very true and I had hopes that something like the Gathering, if it could just be done right, could provide a very tangible “buy in” for the many people who have yet to grasp the importance and the power of networking and connectivity.

    I’ve been working online since the late-90s but for me over the last few years, the internet has been a platform for social and environmental activism, a place to be inspired and entertained by serendipitous discoveries, and allows me to stay in real and regular contact with my family, social and business networks in Japan and elsewhere. And yet I was a dormant Facebook member for more than a year before it finally made sense to me. It was like a strange but cool looking object that sat in my tool box until, one day, I realized I needed something exactly that shape and size. If the Gathering can similarly inspire people to become more connected, it can open all sorts of doors, broaden horizons and enrich lives. All our lives.

  2. Adam Byrne


  3. george

    Good luck with it, I have very little hope in “the Gathering”. I think it is going to be another costly PR exercise, and its results blown out of proportion to satisfy the ego of some, and the infantile mentality of others.
    In the meantime we have one of the greatest businessman and employer we ever had, behind bars, to cover up for the ignorance of a lot of our political class and top civil servants, who gets all the ups and none of the downs. If at least some of them would have had their pensions stripped down and in jail, everything would make more sense.

    • Ravished By The Sheer Implausibility Of That Last Statement

      Gangsters belong behind bars; just a shame more of his family, friends and peers aren’t in there with him. Apart from that I totally agree with you.

      • george

        Ta call a gangster a man, that started driving a lorry, and developed by himself one of the most impressive native business in this Isle, is something I don’t agree with you. I don’t think he is with no fault, but who is? And what about all the great things his ex-employees say about him, and all the wealth he generated for the local communities?
        OK he had a moment of weakness, combined with to much greed for easy money? But did he supposed to stand at one side, at a time when most of the others, where doing it?
        In my opinion we’ll be better off as a Nation, if the Government makes a deal with him, after all he recognises part of the debt. And he’ll be allowed to have a second chance, to continue with his businesses, creating wealth and employment, for which he has an excellent track record.
        And apart from that he should be with few other native entrepreneurs in a “think tank”, advising and giving ideas to the Government, in how to pull out of this crisis; when at the moment many people has no jobs and no hope. That would sound to me as more original, than licking the feet of a Coorporation, who comes here to take advantage of our tax regime; and ironically to whom we never ask about the devastation they leave behind in their home place, before arriving here. If whe are going to be so choosy with our entrepreneurs who treat their workers very well, and are able to create wealth for their communities; we should do the same with the others coming from abroad!
        The man like many of us, has done something wrong, but to forget all the good he did and is capable of doing would be completely mad. He is a “doer” and a producer, in a moment the Country don’t need talkers like us and our politicians, but “doers” like him.

        • Steaf35

          Elements of the previous government made lots of mistakes…..I do believe that they’re enjoying the freedom of rather fat pensions at the minute…!!!
          As regards the Gathering, the Gov should put a few million into a pot & conduct a lotto type draw for return free flights for those who wish to avail of it..!

          • gizzy

            The man made mistakes and the law is the law. Whether he should bein jail while a burglar with 54 previuos convictions walks the street is for everyone to make up their own mind about. What is galling is the interpetation that IBRC is chasing the money for the Irish Taxpayer. They are chasing the money to pay international billionaires for bonds they bought. These guys would make Quinn look like an altar boy but they’re not Irish so pay them the money. The rest of the money will go to pay big salaries in IBRC for ten years and they will return very little to the taxpayer but everyone involved in setting it up and allowing it continue like NAMA will
            have ridden into the sunset by then.

          • george

            gizzy excactly as you say!!!

  4. Irish PI

    At this stage it should be quite clear to anyone .We Irish dont do long term,we do want it and want it now and to Hell with tomrrow! The last decade should be evidence to this.
    So no guessing as to what the gathering 13 will be…A shakedown of the tribe,and no thought to long term benefits or ramifications..

  5. Kevin Lyda

    If we really want to engage with emigrants, then the following would be fantastic ideas to do so. By all means have a big party for a bunch of rich people and people who view themselves as movers and shakers. Do enjoy. But for engaging with actual diaspora, two suggestions:

    1) Follow the lead of the rest of Europe (including the UK), Australia, Canada, the United States and loads of other nations and recognize the right of emigrants to have a political voice in their homeland. Successive gov’ts have used emigration as a safety valve to deal with economic issues. Surely emigrants should have a chance to express their views on such decisions?

    BTW, if your objection is based on *who* you *guess* emigrants might vote for, note that you are condoning voter suppression for partisan reasons. I also suspect you’re painting all emigrants as blithering idiots.

    2) Why is BBC a global brand and RTE not? We have a worldwide content distribution network (the internet), we have a global audience (the diaspora) and we have a system for funding RTE (the TV license). And yet for some reason RTE spends money and engineering time to limit where it’s content can be seen.

    Now obviously the content RTE buys from abroad (another discussion would ask why) can’t be globally broadcast due to licensing reasons. But why not make available worldwide content we produce here in Ireland to people willing to pay for a “global TV license?”

  6. ppmoore

    Yet emigrants are ignored in Ireland. The geovernment makes it purposely difficult to maintain a connection.

    Probably alone among EU members, irish emigrants don’t have a vote. It is impossible to receive live RTE television when overseas.

    • Ravished By The Sheer Implausibility Of That Last Statement

      It’s easy to circumnavigate the geoblock restrictions on RTE websites though I’m not sure it’s legal.

  7. Ruairi_OBroin

    “Ireland doesn’t give a roasted fart about the diaspora” – James Joyce. Has anything really changed?

  8. oiltrash_in_perth

    when I started working in Perth a few years back people looked at me funny, now I have all sort of friends of friends wanting to skype etc , is this what being in the tribe looks like ?


    My sister’s just emigrated, so you’ll excuse me if I say that I find “The Gathering” an insult to my intelligence. It should be renamed “The Scattering” and that would only require the Government to continue it’s current “strategies”. The Gathering is a load of bollox that only someone completely out of touch with reality could come up with or even treat seriously.

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