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Tánaiste's Opening Address to the Global Irish Economic Forum

Today is a good day for Ireland.  Looking around this room – the 270 members of the Global Irish Network – together with political, business and cultural leaders, I see not only Ireland’s strengths, but also its potential.  I see its champions and its allies.  And I see hope for its future.

Once, the size of the Irish Diaspora was regarded as a failure:  a symptom of a country that could not provide a decent life, a decent future, for its own people.  Now, the talent, the expertise, the influence of the global Irish is one of our biggest strengths:  the envy of other nations.  Our influence stretches further, our opportunities are wider, than any other small country in the world.  And it is because of you.  It is because of us:  because of who we are as a people.

Since becoming Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade seven months ago, I have travelled to a dozen countries, including two visits to the United States in March and in September.  On most of these occasions, I have met with members of the Irish diaspora, from all walks of life. Often they were people who had left Ireland in tough times, or people whose parents or grandparents had made that journey. 

And I have been struck by a number of things about what it means to be Irish, and what it means to be Irish abroad.  The people I have met are proud.  Proud of their heritage, and proud of Ireland’s economic development – even if that pride has been shaken by some of the bad decisions taken during the global financial crisis.

That pride stems not just from the good things about being Irish – from our rich culture to the ease with which we make friends and build allies – but from the hard work it took to get to where we are today.  Because the Irish abroad – and the Irish people who make up the workforces of multinationals based here – are seen as being extremely hard-working.  They are seen as being creative; in the business of solutions; and they don’t need a fanfare announcing it.

And what comes through, time and again, in my engagement with the global Irish, is their willingness to serve the interests of our country.  Their patriotism, which co-exists with the contribution they have made to their home country, often the country of their citizenship.  They do it because of memories of the past:  parents, grandparents – perhaps themselves – leaving behind friends and family, for strangers and uncertain prospects.  But they also do it with an eye to the future:  so that generations of young Irish people need not face the same stark choices; so that their hopes can be fulfilled.  In doing so they are role models for a new generation of leaders, both at home and among the Diaspora.  They show that service is an important part of what it means to be Irish.

Ireland has never been a country rich in natural resources that can be easily turned into commodities.  Our biggest resource has been, and will continue to be, our people.  We cannot afford to be complacent – particularly when it comes to education and skills – but neither should we underestimate the determination, the resourcefulness, and the proven ability of the Irish people to think and work their way out of a problem.

Recognition

Irish people have rightly taken pride in the achievements of our people abroad and of their contribution to this nation’s development. I believe that it is now time for the State to reflect this pride by establishing a formal way in which the outstanding contribution made to this country and our people abroad by individual members of the Irish Diaspora can be acknowledged, and celebrated.

I am, therefore,  pleased to announce that the Government will shortly introduce a new system of recognition for sustained and distinguished service to Ireland or Irish communities abroad by individual members of the Diaspora. This will not be an honours system, but rather will involve the formal recognition every year of individuals from a range of sectors at a ceremony in Ireland. I will shortly bring detailed proposals to Government.

Progress since Farmleigh Forum 2009

The inaugural Global Irish Economic Forum held at Farmleigh in 2009, marked a shift in Ireland’s relationship with its Diaspora.  Following the success of that event, there is now a far greater appreciation of the fact that the global Irish, in all its diversity, constitute a vast source of soft power for this country. By working more closely together, we can deliver practical results for Ireland, and for our Diaspora.  

The Farmleigh Forum led directly to the establishment of the Global Irish Network which has proved to be an invaluable resource for the Government, State Agencies and Irish companies over the past 18 months, providing expert advice and high level access in many of our key markets abroad.

The hands-on contribution made by so many Network members in promoting Ireland abroad and developing business opportunities has been a powerful outcome from the inaugural Forum.  However, the establishment of the Network is only one of a significant number of initiatives to be implemented since the 2009. The paper circulated to you in advance, and available to the public online, demonstrates the extent and range of activities that have been taken forward.  

I would also like to acknowledge the work of many individuals here today who returned home in 2009 determined to devise and implement their own post Farmleigh initiatives.

For example, a direct consequence of an initiative of Network members based in Singapore, 23 Irish graduates have had the opportunity to participate in the Farmleigh Fellowship programme this year. This initiative, established as a direct consequence of the Farmleigh Forum, provides individuals with the opportunity to spend up to 9 months working in Asia, sponsored by an Irish or Irish-linked company. These young professionals have simultaneously undertaken a Masters in Asian Business Studies from University College Cork in cooperation with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.  The Fellowship’s long term goal is to develop a strategic group of 1000 young Irish professionals equipped with the business, culture and communication skills necessary to succeed in Asia within 5 years.

I would like to thank Fred Combe, Gerry Creaner, Niamh Connolly, Paraic McGrath and their team, and am delighted to confirm that the Farmleigh Fellowship is now planning a second programme in 2012 and urge you to support them in this endeavour.

At the first Forum two years ago, John McColgan spoke eloquently about the powerful benefits that could flow from the establishment of a large online Irish community.  John’s vision has become reality and I am pleased to announce that he will launch WorldIrish.com – an online community for Irish people and those who think Irish – here at Dublin Castle later this morning. I would like to pay tribute to John and his team for the time and resources that they have invested in this exciting project.

The important role that culture can play in projecting a positive image of Ireland abroad featured prominently at the Forum in 2009.  Since then we have witnessed the success of initiatives, such as the Imagine Ireland programme in the US, throughout 2011.  The appointment of Gabriel Byrne as our Cultural Ambassador has provided focus and profile to our work in this area. Gabriel, I would like to thank you for your commitment and service.

Two weeks ago in New York, I had the privilege of presenting the first Certificate of Irish Heritage to the mother of Joseph Hunter, a New York fire fighter who lost his life in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.    The Certificate, which has been developed since the last Forum, will provide official recognition by the State to those who have a strong ancestral connection to this island.  I can now confirm that the programme is fully operational through the website www.heritagecertificate.ie

There has also been an expansion in range and geographic location of Irish business networks abroad.  For instance, the Irish Technology Leadership Group, led by John Hartnett, has expanded significantly since the last Forum.  John and his team have a strong appreciation of the power of the modern Irish diaspora and how Irish connections in key sectors can deliver practical economic results for Ireland and the Irish Abroad. 

These are just some of the specific projects that were proposed at, or inspired by, the 2009 Forum.  There were others in sectors such as innovation, tourism and financial services. Taken together, they demonstrate clearly that Diaspora engagement is not an aspirational or unquantifiable concept, but a powerful relationship-building strategy – an arm of our industrial, economic and diplomatic policy – that delivers innovative and practical initiatives.

Objectives of Forum 2011

Ireland has lived through some of its darkest days.  When this Government took office, nothing less than our country’s survival was at stake.  It was that serious.  Since then, through decisive action to recapitalise the banks and restructure the banking system; successful renegotiation of the terms of our EU/IMF programme; targeted measures in job-intensive parts of our economy to spur employment; and, above all, a united effort to rebuild alliances, and to restore our international reputation, we have embarked on the road to recovery.  It is a difficult one.  And it is one that will continue to experience external challenges. 

Our agenda for this Forum is, therefore, comprehensive and urgent.  The work we do here can make a significant practical contribution to our economic recovery.  

Our deliberations will take place in a mixture of plenary sessions, smaller panel discussions and breakout working groups and are designed in a way to stimulate debate and maximise the emergence of practical initiatives. 

The topics selected for our working groups and panel discussions reflect the priorities identified in the new Programme for Government, and the challenges facing us on the path to recovery.  Of those, nothing is more urgent than the need to reduce the number of people who are out of work.  The high level of unemployment, and in particular long-term unemployment, is an affront to the dignity of too many of our fellow men and women.  We have a duty to them to do everything we can to get our economy moving again.  Job creation must be at the top of the list in our discussions, and in our search for solutions.

The Government has designed our agenda today and tomorrow around the need to achieve a number of key objectives. 

First, to maintain and further develop a structured engagement between the Government and leading business figures from our Diaspora, and from among our friends abroad. 

Secondly, to rebuild our international reputation.   Your presence here, together with the entire Cabinet, is a clear demonstration of confidence in Ireland’s future.  Your help in telling the Irish story – and it is a good story – is essential in painting an accurate picture of Ireland’s prospects.

Thirdly, I am pleased to announce that the Government is establishing a register of international advocates within six specific sectors.  These include:

  • Foreign Direct Investment;
  • the financial services sector;
  •  the promotion of culture abroad;
  • tourism;
  • assisting Irish exporting Irish companies;  and
  • Ireland’s international reputation.

These groups will be tasked with providing advice and assistance to the Government, State Agencies and Irish companies within each sector, developing specific, targeted projects, and projecting a positive profile of Ireland within the international media and business communities.   I would encourage you to register with us this weekend.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, you will be tasked with proposing no more than two to three specific ideas from each of the fifteen working groups that will take place later today and tomorrow morning.   The programme has been designed to provide as much time as possible for these groups, which will be focussed and action-orientated.

Fifth, one of the most important legacies of this Forum will be strength and engagement of the next generation of the Diaspora.  There will be a specific panel discussion and working group on this topic, with participation by representatives of young Irish networks abroad, but cultivating the next generation of leaders has to be part of everything we do.

I would like to commend the Ireland Fund’s Worldwide Young Leaders Programme which has already engaged with some 3,000 young leaders in the US, Australia, Britain, and here at home. We can add real momentum to the process at this Forum.

Implementation

It is essential that this Forum is not a once-off event, but part of an ongoing process of engagement.  To maximise the benefits from the Forum, the Government is establishing an Advisory and Implementation Group, co-chaired by the Taoiseach and myself.  It will include members of the Global Irish Network from each of the main geographic areas represented here at Dublin Castle.

This group will meet twice a year and will be tasked with implementing, where appropriate, the initiatives which might emerge from the Forum and coordinating the overall work programme for the Network.  The non-Government representatives will also be tasked with working with our Ambassadors in keeping the wider Network membership informed of developments.  We will also set up a high level Governmental working group to oversee follow up of the Forum and to prepare a report for Government and members of the Global Irish Network.

I am also pleased to announce that local chapters of the Global Irish Network will be established on a more formal basis.  Our Ambassadors and Consuls Generals abroad will play a full role in developing and supporting these chapters.

Conclusion

Before concluding, I would like to express my appreciation in advance to the moderators of each of our panel discussions for giving freely of their time and expertise.  Margaret Brennan, Claire Byrne, David McWilliams, Fionnuala Sweeney and Matt Cooper will all play a pivotal  role in ensuring that the panel discussion are lively and productive and I am grateful for their contribution.

I would also like to thank the UCD Michael Smurfit School of Business for providing their services as the facilitators of each of our working groups free of charge.  

Ireland’s relationship with the global Irish now stands at a moment filled with opportunity.  It is open to all Irish people, at home and abroad, to play their part in fulfilling this potential. The Government can help shape and develop the relationship, but the contribution to be made by the private sector, by communities and families is perhaps of greater importance.

This is a new Government, at the beginning of a new chapter in Irish history.  We are determined that the Ireland that emerges from this crisis is one that is economically stronger, leaner and more sustainable.  But also one that it is a fairer place:  a better place to grow up and to grow old. An Ireland that has a different compass – one that tells our young people, we judge you not by what you have, but by what you give back.

This is a value that has led many of the global Irish back home, not least those who are gathered here today.  Together we can build that future for Ireland, where our legacy is measured not simply by GDP, but by the reach and the breadth of our children’s opportunities.