How to Help Get Ireland Moving Again ---using the power of the Diaspora properly


This is a version of an article I wrote for The Sunday Business Post in Ireland on how an Irish diaspora candidate for president could help the Irish economy turn around. I am contemplating a run for the job.

I am not a logical choice for president of Ireland. I have lived outside the country for 32 years, I am not a politician -- rather a journalist, author and businessman.

Frankly I'm outside the box. But the inside the box logical candidates have not been doing well no matter where you look in the world.

The world contagion has been spread mostly by groupthink and false certainties from experts singing from the same spreadsheet.

In Ireland we hear the catch cries and same old slogans and we frankly don't believe them.

We must learn to speak the truth.

Here is one such:
The European Union bailout is unfair. It cripples Ireland. It defies logic that you can cut incomes, hurt the poorest and raise taxes and recover from a recession.

We must seek new terms.
Voters need to send that message, and it needs to be heard in Paris and Berlin.

We should also look at our corporation tax, but with an idea to lower it, not raise it.

Northern Ireland is looking to do that too.

Such an act would ensure more inward investment, business leaders tell me. It would also give Ireland a valuable bargaining chip with Europe.

Europe has been good for this economy but we need to engage them no longer as supplicants, but showing some sharp elbows too.

We desperately need to look outwards, as an island nation, not inwards any more.

I learned early on to question easy assumptions and tackle hard issues. I left Ireland at age 26 in 1979, knowing no one in America but using my GAA skills in Chicago and San Francisco as a marvelous lever to set up a network of friends.
I started my own business in California later that same year. I now have four successful publications in New York and have created hundreds of jobs over that time.

In the United States I learned the virtues of candor and straight talk, especially during the immigration battles leading to the Donnelly and Morrison visas and peace process when I spent two fraught years as the intermediary between Sinn Fein and the White House in the run up to the successful IRA ceasefire.

I was also the first to establish contact with then Governor Bill Clinton and to interest him in the Irish peace effort, a point he graciously acknowledged at an Irish American event three months ago.

So how can a president help? As a door opener, the power of the presidency is in personal contacts, meeting and talking with key figures using the prestige of the office.

In my experience, senior Fortune 500 American executives are very flattered when Irish ambassadors visit and always refer to them warmly. The strength of this group lies not just in the United States but in the global reach of their contacts and companies.

Presidents can definitely secure the first meetings, make the case and then hand over to a dedicated team.

The creation of Diaspora business networks is something I have been doing for the last twenty years.

With our magazine Irish America, newspaper the Irish Voice and in our website Irish Central, we have created the annual Business 100, Wall Street 50, Legal 100, Top 50 Science and Technology and Top 50 Silicon Valley Irish lists, the latter in conjunction with the Irish Technology Leadership Group. The best and the brightest attend those events.

Meshing those with Irish business networks would have a powerful impact and help make Diaspora Direct Investment (DDI) a reality.

A president could play a powerful role in expanding important networks across the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain by attending and linking them with similar networks of businesses in Ireland.

Mentoring systems, job creation ideas and long term relationships could be created. To counter the bad publicity about Ireland, a cadre of job corps members of our best and brightest young leaders could visit, explaining that contrary to reports, the young Irish are as dedicated as ever.

Farmleigh in 2009 was a starting point, but it can be greatly expanded. The work of the Worldwide Ireland Funds has also been invaluable.

How does DDI work? How did MBNA end up in Leitrim with 1,700 jobs, or Coca-Cola in Ireland were it not for Irish American senior executives, who all things being equal, decided heritage clinched the deal?

How did Chuck Feeney end up investing billions in Irish education were it not for his Fermanagh roots?

How many more are out there across the U.S. and indeed Britain, Canada, Australia and Europe? But this resource must be worked and worked again.

Ireland is one of the greatest brands on Earth, yet it has become damaged and needs repair.

I was keenly aware of that when I asked The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, no relation but a long time friend, to accompany me to Ireland for the Obama visit.

She is the most popular opinion writer in America. She wrote two superb articles that had Tourism Ireland very happy indeed,
I think there are 30-40 journalists out there like Maureen Dowd who would write glowingly of Ireland if we gave them the opportunity to visit Ireland, the brand that sells itself once the person visits.

We must learn from the past, from the incredible success of the IDA back in the 1970s when Ireland was in at least in as bad shape. They set up the conditions for worldwide companies to come into Ireland.

They bought the land, they created the tax deal, they even paid staff briefly and hand held at every stage of the process. We must use that example for tourism and other major prospective employers.

First we must stop the lip service about the 70 million world wide Diaspora and get down to working it. Rhetoric and bowls of shamrocks bring goodwill but do not bring jobs.

Here are some concrete proposals from the Diaspora in the areas of tourism and education. We should think about subsidizing fares so that an American can fly here for the same price he can from New York to Los Angeles.

We need more flights into Ireland from destinations such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas and Washington, D.C. We need to do what it takes to secure those flights.

When visitors get here they should receive preprinted coupons for saving on meals, hotels and rental cars. European visitors could receive the same discount package also.

In the world of Groupon and Citydeal it is what everyone is expecting. Americans love a bargain, but they also love to spend.
On off peak months, low fares and direct service from across the U.S., Canada, Australia and further afield can sustain an industry that is so vital to Ireland’s future.

Similarly in education, research shows that thousands of people with Irish ancestry would love to take distance courses on everything from the Irish language to history, literature and the arts.

I know the government has taken recent initiatives in both these fields, but such action can be accelerated with presidential support leading the charge.

Some might ask how I could do all of this, given the limited nature of the president’s powers under the Constitution. It goes without saying that I would at all times operate on the basis of total respect for the constitutional boundaries of the role. But we are in a situation of national crisis.

A practical president fully committed to helping achieve a goal of increased employment could achieve a remarkable amount in my opinion. Is feidir le cheile.

Niall O’Dowd is founder of Irish Central.com, Irish America magazine and the Irish Voice newspaper.

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