This summer the Irish Government for the first time appointed a minister dedicated to diaspora affairs. This new minister, Jimmy Deenihan, marks a new chapter in the relationship between the Irish state and the Irish abroad. Almost half a million people have left Ireland since the economic downturn in 2008.

Minister Deenihan will be speaking about issues facing the diaspora when he opens the forthcoming IIBN OpportUnity conference that is taking place on November 6th and 7th in New York. The Minister took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to IrishCentral about the conference and some other themes he would like to address during his time as Minister for Diaspora Affairs.

OpportUnity is the 4th Annual Conference of the Irish International Business Network. It is taking place in New York for the first time. Over 30 speakers and hundreds of delegates will explore a number of topics including: Tourism, Media, FDI and Entrepreneurship. There are a limited number of tickets still available here.

How important is it for Ireland to have a designated Minister for Diaspora?

It is an honor and a privilege to have been appointed the first Minister for Diaspora Affairs in the history of the State. My appointment by the Taoiseach represents a strengthening of the Government’s commitment to the Diaspora. The Irish Abroad Unit was established as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2004 following the publication of the Report of the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants in 2002. Since 2004, over €114m has been paid in grants to organizations that support Irish emigrants. While the vast bulk of this funding has been provided to organizations providing welfare support to the most vulnerable members of the Irish communities abroad, grants have also been made to support heritage projects and business networks.

Having a Minister who is devoted solely to the Irish abroad gives greater recognition and focus to Irish communities around the world and to the valuable work being done by many Irish organizations on their behalf.

It will also allow a better two-way dialogue between the emigrant population and the State. I will represent Government views to the Irish abroad and the views of Irish communities abroad to the Government.

What will the new minister be involved with?

I will deal with the full range of issues facing the diaspora, bringing together both supports for our emigrants and support for efforts to engage second, third and subsequent generations of Irish. I am responsible for the Emigrant Support Programme which has for the last three years had an annual budget of €11.595m.

I will shortly publish a review of our diaspora policy. A public consultation process has received over 130 written submissions and has engaged with Irish communities in Britain, the US, Canada, and Australia.

What role can the diaspora play in helping Ireland?

The diaspora has always had a role in helping Ireland. For instance, for the past few decades members of the diaspora have played an integral part in advancing the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Traditionally members of the diaspora have, on an informal basis, “looked after our own” helping them with employment, housing and generally acclimatizing to a new country. In 2010 the Global Irish Network was established as a more formal mechanism for engaging with a particular cohort of the diaspora. The Global Irish Network has approximately 350 of the most influential Irish or Irish connected individuals based in almost 40 countries worldwide. This has been a way to harness the “soft power” that the diaspora can provide in relation to helping Ireland. The Network has been brought together twice since its establishment at the Global Irish Economic Forums in 2011 and 2013.

The Global Irish Network are involved in opening doors to decision makers in their home countries and work promoting Ireland at a variety of levels. They are involved in the preparation and implementation of Trade Missions and other high level visits.

Each year around St Patrick’s Day the entire diaspora is mobilized for the good of Ireland in a celebration of all things Irish that benefits Irish Communities around the globe and promotes Ireland as a place to visit, study and do business. Global greening of iconic buildings and landmarks is a growing phenomenon giving huge prominence to all things Irish.

Ireland must also help its diaspora – we must support and facilitate stronger links and new opportunities.

How important are groups like Irish International Business Network in the Diaspora?

Business Networks are hugely important element of our diaspora engagement. Networks such as IIBN, Irish Network USA, the Spanish Irish Business Network, Irish Network Dubai and Network Irlande in Paris to name but a few, provide opportunities for Irish people to come together, to share contacts, to provide and receive mentoring and to work together for their professional and personal development and for the benefit of Ireland.

These groups provide an important connection to Ireland for the professional and business communities both at home and abroad. Our direct support for these networks is relatively new but it will continue.

What are the expectations from the IIBN Opportunity Conference in New York in November?

The 4th IIBN Global Conference will bring members of IIBN from its New York, Dublin and London chapters together to share their contacts, their experiences and provide and opportunity to pool their resources for the greater good. I would expect great things from this as I think the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

I am particularly looking forward to the launch of Irish Design 2015 at the conference. This exciting imitative will see 2015 designated as the year of Irish design across the broadest possible interpretation. It will seek to embed design in all forms of industry adding value and creating jobs. It will be an opportunity to showcase Irish design and designers both nationally and internationally and will hopefully transform the design sector into the future. It is vital for the success of this ambitious initiative that Irish business people and the diaspora in general get behind and support it and the IIBN Global Conference provides a perfect platform from which to launch it in one of the most design conscious cities in the world.

Is there anything that the diaspora in the US could do to better help the US Ireland relationship?

The relationship with the diaspora is two-way. I want to develop this by connecting with the diaspora in new and real ways and I want to listen to what they have to say. Modern technology affords us new opportunities to facilitate this type of communication and I look forward to progressing this over the coming months.

I would like to encourage the diaspora in the US, those of Irish birth, Irish descent and Irish affinity to continue to engage with Ireland by maintaining their links and connections to home. New developments such as the availability of GAA games through GAAGO provide an opportunity for our heritage to be a real part of the lives of our diaspora. Indeed the GAA’s presence across the US enables the diaspora to play our national games and to introduce these to the next generation.

I would ask the Irish in America to continue to support Irish culture where possible, that organizations such as the IIBN and Irish Network USA continue the good work that they are doing in providing opportunities for Irish people to work together to help each other and to provide the strong platform of support for Irish businesses and trading links.

The diaspora in the US is already central to the relationship. Indeed, how many US Ambassadors have had Irish names including the recently appointed Kevin O’Malley, whom I had the pleasure to meet this week.

For my part I will endeavor to improve the communications channels with the diaspora recognizing that this is not a homogeneous group. I will look to support and develop opportunities and tools that facilitate the diaspora staying connected with Ireland.