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    Global Irish Economic Forum: a report

    By Noreen Bowden | September 21, 2009

    This is my report on the Global Irish Economic Forum that I wrote up for Liam Ferrie’s Irish Emigrant news service, which is at (The news is published in two print editions in New York and Boston as well.) Liam Ferrie, of course, is the tirelessly committed granddaddy of all Internet outreach to the Irish abroad, having published the Irish Emigrant newsletter since 1987 – the longest-running online source of national news in the world. Respect.

    Ireland goes global for help in crisis

    By Noreen Bowden (for Irish Emigrant)

    The Irish government opened a new chapter in its relationship with the Diaspora this weekend, as it gathered 180 leading figures from the worlds of business, technology, philanthropy, and culture and asked them for help in solving the current economic crisis. The Global Irish Economic Forum, hosted by Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael Martin, took place on Friday and Saturday at Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park. It consisted of a series of keynote speeches and panel discussions aimed at coming up with concrete solutions for economic growth. Among the proposals that emerged were a website for the diaspora, a university of performing arts, and enhanced educational travel programmes for young people.

    Minister Martin said that he believed the event had achieved what it had set out to do, which was twofold: to identify “a range of ideas to help address the economic challenges that confront us?; and also to take “an important step toward establishing a new, more dynamic relationship between Ireland and its diaspora.” He also announced his intention to form “a new global Irish network made up of those in attendance and other highly influential members of our global community”.

    The forum, organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs, was the brainchild of economist David McWilliams, whose last book had focused on his belief that the talents of the Irish abroad could be harnessed to play a key role in Ireland’s future. McWilliams said that he planned for the conference to produce five coherent proposals to the government for economic development. While most of those assembled were successful businessmen (only about 20 women were among those invited), it was culture that, somewhat surprisingly, emerged as Ireland’s proposed economic weapon.

    Digicel chief executive Denis O’Brien told the closing session of the forum that Ireland’s culture was what the nation could use to connect with its diaspora of 70 million people. “Culture is everything”, O’Brien said, “the fact that we have such a strong culture as a country really gives us one of the big advantages of any nation in the world.”

    International Investment and Underwriting chair Dermot Desmond, echoing O’Brien’s comments about the richness of Irish literature, drama and music, asked, “How can we monetise our culture?” The answer, he said, was to build “the greatest university in the world for the performing arts”.

    There were several other ideas revealed in the course of the closing session. One was a website that would showcase Irish culture and arts to the world, while serving as a connecting point to the diaspora. Another was enhanced educational travel opportunities for young people, modeled after the Birthright Israel programmes, aimed at strengthening Irish identity and connections through structured trips to Ireland. The idea of selling bonds to the diaspora was also introduced; the bonds, inspired by a popular Israeli programme, would be used to finance diaspora-related projects. While several participants spoke of Israel’s approach to its diaspora as a model, Minister Martin seemed hesitant to agree, saying that there were reasons specific to Israel’s situation that made its solutions work for them. “We’re not in the Israeli space”, he said.

    Several speakers spoke of a need to “up our game”, to ratchet up the level of outreach and activities for the Irish abroad.  As American Ireland Fund philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman commented, “We have to get to the next level, which is the business level, and capitalise on what we have already”.

    Those in attendance included luminaries in the fields of business, philanthropy, the arts, and academia, living in Ireland and around the world. Among the top business executives were retired Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett; Dr Pearse Lyons, Alltech Inc, KY; Conrad Burke, Innovalight in CA; Fred Combe, Natus Pte Ltd, Singapore; John Hartnett, G24 Innovations, Wales; Kevin Melia, Vette Corporation, MA; and HSBC North America Chief Executive Brendan McDonagh.

    Singer Bob Geldof, Riverdance producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan, and filmmaker Neil Jordan were among those representing the arts. Academics present included Fr Joe McShane, the president of New York’s Fordham University; Prof. Martina Newell-McGloughlin, Director, University of California System-wide Biotech Program; and Dr Louise Richardson of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Several Irish politicians and the heads of many Irish state agencies also attended.

    The geographic range was widespread; while many came from the US and Britain, the rest of the world was well-represented. Among those who came from less typical locales were PCS founder Liam O’Keeffe-Ayudhkij, who came from Thailand; Southern Cross publisher Guillermo MacLoughlin Breard, who attended from Argentina; and Malaysian-Irish Business Network founder Leslie Eu flew in from Malaysia.

    One of the biggest challenges facing the organisers was surely determining the guest list. With a diaspora of 70 million people, how to choose fewer than 200 to invite? “I don’t believe there were many who would have refused an invitation”, said Avril Conroy, a BP executive living in Russia, “and there were probably a lot more who would have loved an invitation in the end. Maybe the solution is 1,000 of us sitting in a room. But people have to be willing to give and to take action.”

    Most of the event was closed to the media, with only Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s keynote opening address and the concluding panel session open to reporters. The forum employed Chatham House Rules, which dictated that no statement from the closed sessions could be quoted; this may have ensured a frank exchange of ideas in the sessions but frustrated reporters who were eager for some hard stories to emerge. It is likely that the event will be more highly regarded abroad than it is within Ireland.

    Feedback from participants suggested that former Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett, a keynote speaker at the opening plenary, had presented a significant challenge to the government with harsh criticism on Ireland’s level of education and investment in research and development. Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism Martin Cullen had also reportedly been an impassioned speaker, defending the arts and culture sector against proposed cuts in the recent An Bord Snip report. Several attendees noted that the discussions did not steer away from critical assessments of Ireland’s situation.

    Participants interviewed during the course of the two days were positive about the level of discussion. Labour leader Éamon Gilmore noted the amount of good will among attendees: “I think we’re getting a lot of friendly advice here today.”

    And participants seemed cautiously optimistic that their advice would be listened to: “I assume that the Government – since they went to the trouble of bringing everyone here – they’ll take some good order of what they’re hearing,” said Dennis Swanson, President of Fox Television.

    “I’m very realistic about it – we shouldn’t underestimate this: it is a tough crisis. But we have our health”, Avril Conroy said, laughing. She summed up her thoughts with the kind of sentiment that the Government was surely banking on as it organised the forum: “I’m positive, I love Ireland. I might have left, but I never went away”.

    Topics: Latest News | 2 Comments »

    2 Responses to “Global Irish Economic Forum: a report”

    1. eddie stack Says:
      September 22nd, 2009 at 12:38 am

      thanks for this Noreen. I’m thinking about blogging on a few aspects of what was said + will link to your page if that’s ok with you. my blog is:


    2. Regional, youth Farmleighs to follow Global Irish Economic Forum | – about Irish emigration and the diaspora Says:
      March 9th, 2010 at 12:42 am

      [...] Global Irish Economic Forum: a report [...]