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    Global Irish Economic Forum: a report

    Monday, September 21st, 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 www.emigrant.ie. (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”.

    Global Irish Economic Forum: The speeches

    Saturday, September 19th, 2009

    I’ll archive the text of the speeches from the Global Irish Economic Forum here as they become available.

    Some of the speeches will be available on RTE’s special Global Irish Economic Forum webpage.

    Global Irish Economic Forum: thoughts from participants

    Friday, September 18th, 2009

    While the media is getting almost no access to the happenings at the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh, some of the participants have been willing to share their thoughts. Here’s a roundup of a few, all nabbed as they emerged from Farmleigh House at the close of the day:

    US ambassador Dan Rooney stressed his belief that the session was useful: “The ideas generated, and thoughts, can be used to help the public understand; when they see people from all over the world coming here, that’s a plus.” He spoke positively of Ireland’s chance for recovery: “You’ve got a good government, good people”. When asked whether Ireland’s close relationship with both America and Europe caused any tension, he said, “I think America is a great friend of Ireland and has been for years – almost before we were a country”, and indicated that Ireland’s position in the EU did not conflict with that friendship.

    Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore noted that business leaders had come from all over the world in order to give their thoughts in terms of the economy, how Ireland can keep jobs and stimulate investment. “It has to be said, sometimes we have much more negative impression than people looking in from outside would have”.

    He declined to discuss any individual ideas that had been discussed, citing the Chatham House rules in effect at the conference, but said that much of the conversation had focused on the importance of education, science and math, and investment in research and development, as well as communication infrastructure. He said, “The reason I accepted the invitation was that anything to do to keep jobs, stimulate investment, anything that can be done – we’ve got to do it.”

    Gilmore noted there’s a lot of good will at Farmleigh: “I think we’re getting a lot of friendly advice here today”.

    Thomas Corcoran of the Carlyle Group indicated his willingness to assist, and summed up the mood of the gathering as follows: “When days are dark it’s time to pull together.”

    Guillermo MacLaughlin, editor of the Southern Cross in Argentina, described his invitation to the Farmleigh event as “an honour for me”, as there were only two people in attendance from South America. He believes that the Irish in Argentina help to “strengthen the network, along with Asia and Australia and other parts of the world”. He noted that culture is a good gateway to business: “When you have an admiration for and a connection with each other, it is easier to do business. You share something.”

    Singer and philanthropist Bob Geldof spoke at length of the importance of assisting Africa, noting that Ireland is popular there and had a strong potential to influence the continent positively with aid. Of his participation in the conference he said, “If I can anyway help then I’m obliged to and I want to. Frankly, everyone is desperate.”

    Global Irish Economic Forum: first thoughts

    Friday, September 18th, 2009

    Here at the Global Irish Economic Forum, the media is getting relatively little access to the happenings. While the opening speech was open to the press as well as being streamed online, the sessions are closed.

    What are we missing out on? The plenary session was called, optimistically, “The global economy: positioning Ireland for the upturn”. It featured Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, HSBC CEO Brendan McDonagh, Retired Intel CEO Craig Barrett and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce on the panel. Next, attendees were divided among eleven breakout working groups to discuss economic topics undisclosed to the media.

    • As for the opening speech, it was about what one would expect from Taoiseach Brian Cowen for such a gathering: congratulatory talk about the fact that this is the first such gathering of global business talent for the benefit of Ireland, a determination that this would be the start of an ongoing process, hope that this effort would ultimately result in the restoration of a prosperous Ireland.
    • Among the more interesting aspects was the fact that article 2 of the Constitution is looming large in the Taoiseach’s mind. The pertinent quote, which became part of the constitution after the Irish people voted to change the document in 1999, is “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. The Taoiseach cited the article in his opening remarks to media, noting its appropriateness as one of the culminations of the peace process after the role that the diaspora had played in it. “This weekend we give renewed impetus to this assertion”, he said in his speech that opened the conference. Considering how profound an event is constitutional change, and how little the implications of this change have been discussed over the last decade, it is worth watching to see if this remains part of the discussion.
    • The Taoiseach also cited the “six million people on the island of Ireland”, yet the North looks a bit underrepresented here. The Chair of Invest NI is attending, but there are no Northern politicians here to match their counterparts from the Republic. One wonders if the Taoiseach’s words reflect any intention to move toward greater joint engagement on the issue of the Diaspora.
    • The number of women is disappointing – looks like a little more than ten percent of those in attendance are women, yet statistics show that emigration has been fairly equally divided between men and women in recent decades.

    Aussie Irish “the poor relation” asserts Irish Echo

    Thursday, September 17th, 2009

    The Irish Echo in Australia has pointed out that only four representatives from “the most Irish country in the world outside of Ireland” will be attending the Global Irish Economic Forum – and they’re not happy.

    This is Ireland reaching out to the US and UK with token representation from other regions. Over 80 per cent of delegates will be drawn from these countries and, of course, Ireland itself. At least 20 delegates will not have the inconvenience of getting on an aircraft to get to Dublin as they are already in the country.

    This in itself would not look so ridiculous if there were not just four representatives from Australia. The ‘most Irish country in the world outside of Ireland’ will occupy about two per cent of the seats at this Global Irish Conference.

    The newspaper notes that for the last decade Australia has been the number one destination for young Irish people, and “cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Perth represent the future of the diaspora as much as cities like Boston and Liverpool represent its past”.

    It says the decision to invite such a small number of Australian representatives demonstrates “that Irish Australia is very much the poor relation in the eyes of the decision makers in Dublin”.

    It cites economics and Australia’s strategic position as one reason that Australia should be better represented:

    Consider Australia’s strategic economic position as a springboard into the key Asian markets and the fact that it is the only western economy to avoid recession during the current financial crisis. Ireland has plenty of friends in America. It needs friends in Asia.

    The four Australian-based Irish that have been invited are Qantas CEO Alan Joyce and Optus CEO Paul O’Sullivan, Australia Ireland Fund chairman Charles Curran and Skilled Group founder Frank Hargrave. The newspaper reports that at least two others, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and author Thomas Kenneally, were invited but could not attend.

    The newspaper’s take on the story does reflect some of the difficulties that such a gathering surely posed for the Irish government: when you have a diaspora of 70 million people and you want to gather only a couple hundred of them in one room, there will be many players who will feel left out.

    Full story and related websites:

    Count me out, says O’Leary

    Friday, September 11th, 2009

    Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary, ever the provocateur, has said he has no interest in attending the upcoming Global Irish Economic Forum. The forum is taking place at Farmleigh House on 18 and 19 September, and is aimed at garnering ideas and enabling Ireland’s most successful global citizens to network for the mutual benefit of Ireland’s economy and the diaspora.

    The Irish Independent recently ran a wide-ranging interview with the business executive turned Lisbon campaigner. O’Leary was his usual subtle self when asked about the forum:

    Perhaps Michael might take the time to go to the Government’s upcoming Global Irish Economic Forum to pitch his ideas to save the country?

    “No. I told them I wouldn’t show up to it. We got this invitation back in February for a three-day shindig of the great and the good who have nothing to contribute. I mean, Bob Geldof never created a bloody job in Ireland in his life. I’m not just singling him out, but you’ll have all the usual ‘come all ye’s’ and the social bloody partners and all it is, is a jolly. They’re even going to the All-Ireland final on the Sunday! I wrote back to Cowen and said this is all being hosted by Micheal Martin, and he’s a waste of space.”

    So what would Michael O’Leary do to make things better?

    “What you want to have is a group of business people with concrete ideas to take one day in the middle of November. Don’t make it a big media event where we listen to speeches from Bob ‘bloody’ Geldof and gobshites from Cori. They’re not the ones who deliver jobs. Take 20 or 30 sensible business people and we’ll give you the solutions. I’m not going to waste three days of my life farting around in Farmleigh, listening to all those bunnies waffling on in cliches before going to the All-Ireland bloody final! It’s a photoshoot for a Government that wants to look like it’s doing something. Frankly I have better things to do with my time, like growing Ryanair.”

    In fairness to the organisers, the actual programme for the Global Irish Forum seems to resemble O’Leary’s vision of  a chat with sensible business people far more than a session of come-all-ye’s.

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