The Gathering was a coming of age moment for Ireland, an event that proved the Diaspora was no empty chimera but a real entity, with tens of thousands ready to come “home” when the message was simple, loud and positive.
The Irish, especially at the grassroots, played their part, reinventing and restoring their own history, which became a powerful form of self-expression for many at a time of national depression.
The relationship can only prosper you would think, but yet there is so much undone on both sides.
The Gathering proved that America is where the biggest hub of the Diaspora lives. Traffic from North America was up a whopping 13 percent to over 1 million visitors, down from Britain and about the same everywhere else.
Throw in the massive success of the Notre Game/Navy game in September 2012 and you have irrefutable evidence that America is where the heart of the Diaspora lives.
The implications of that are obvious. America is clearly responsive to a major outreach from Ireland - and not just on tourism - but how can that outreach be made?
Ireland with its huge footprint of 35 million Irish Americans should be poised to capitalize, but it is really not.
Some are responding. In a nimble move Tourism Ireland has now shifted some marketing dollars to America in response to the Gathering success. It is called fish where the fish are, a message that needs to percolate. But will it?
Ireland simply has not applied the resources to do that. There are only about 20 full time Irish diplomats in America, all hard working and stretched to the limit.
There should be three times that at least with trained specialists in media, business, Diaspora relations. The image of Ireland, the business of Ireland, the connections to Ireland are dealt with to some extent by the other government agencies, but again the effort falls short.
The image of the country, the outreach to new business markets, the active encouragement to come home is a huge undertaking, properly staffed it could ensure a gathering type success in many related fields every year.
It should be supervised under a Minister for the Diaspora, whose sole purpose is to pull together the different threads of the Irish abroad and maximize the contact and potential of the relationship.
He/She would be tasked with the creation of the business networks across the US and elsewhere to identify the next generation of Irish American business leaders, opinion formers, cultural connectors.
Where is the next Don Keough who led Coca Cola and Notre Dame into Ireland or Chuck Feeney who invested billions in Irish education and philanthropy? We may never know because we don’t have the proper resources to seek them out.
Such a minister would need to ask hard questions about where resources are going.
This week a new Irish mission in Austin, Texas was announced but so was one in Sierra Leone and Zagreb. Which one is likely to pay more dividends for Ireland?
Whether such a question even get asked is interesting in itself. We are operating a Diaspora policy 1920s model in the era of 2020.
There are Irish American business networks in every major city and state, very few are activated or encouraged at the level they need to be. The process of identifying such business leaders and networks nationwide has never been seriously undertaken by Irish governments.
The question must be asked is Ireland serious about having this discussion or are they content to look on the Diaspora as an ATM and little else?
Something doesn’t fit. Goldman Sachs Managing Director and Roscommon native Adrian Jones put it well in an interview in Irish America Magazine.
“You have a challenge in that you’ve got public sector, European-focused official Ireland trying to figure out how to engage with private sector, U.S.-based ex-pats,” he explained.
“And official Ireland seems to me a lot more focused on how to control them as distinct from how to leverage and enable.”
Many in the Diaspora know this instinctively but rarely speak out. It is not easy to speak out about a small country where power is concentrated in almost every field in a few hands. There is an inevitable circling of the wagons when people from outside do.
The groupthink that brought Ireland into financial crisis is very hard to penetrate and there is a continuing overarching narrative that does not encourage outside the box or indeed outside the country input.
The Diaspora knows that without rampant emigration Ireland’s unemployment would be around the Spanish levels of 26 percent. We also know the difference between forced emigration and those who voluntarily go. It is an important distinction.
I am frankly amazed there is not more discussion on this. The massive cost to the Irish taxpayer to educate the children of the nation for emigration means that other countries get the sole benefit. Where is the debate on this?
Yet within that emigration lies the seeds of a future Irish American, Canadian, Australian and British Diaspora as the descendants of this latest emigrant flood encounter their own Irish roots and heritage.
The need for a dedicated Diaspora minister now and in the future is evident.
Such a ministry could also deal with the issue of emigrant votes. The reality is that graduates living abroad already have a vote in NUI or Trinity seats for the Seanad which is downright discrimination against those living abroad who have not graduated from such institutions.
The Diaspora should be given the opportunity as the French afford, to elect at least one senator and one Taoiseach’s nomination from the nation abroad.
There is a lot of palaver on this issue about emigrants flooding the ballot box. Put simply, very few would turn up at consulates to vote on Election Day anyway. A five-year cut off date after departure from Ireland would further focus the issue.
In the end the lesson of The Gathering needs to be internalized and acted on in Ireland, that a strong aggressive message, focused directly on a warm invitation to visit pays off huge dividends. It can be created in many other fields if the proper attention is given.
American Ireland Fund CE0 Kieran McLoughlin states it succinctly "Potential is a dangerous word and can cover a multitude but the potential of the irish American/irish relationship has never truly been tapped. It is truly a vast resource."
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