Can the Irish Save Ireland?

By Conor O'Clery

DUBLIN, Ireland - Desperate to overcome a ruinous economic downturn, Ireland is turning to its 70 million-strong diaspora for help.

Underlining the seriousness of the Irish economic crisis, the government released statistics Tuesday showing net outward migration for the first time in 14 years. In a return to the past, perhaps those emigrants can help seed the recovery back home.

The appeal went out at a government-sponsored Global Irish Forum, held in Dublin and modeled on the Davos Forum where world leaders debate important international problems. It was held in Farnleigh House, former home of the Guinness family, set in 78 secluded acres of parkland in west Dublin.

At the forum some of Ireland's most prominent sons and daughters gave advice on how to exploit its emigrant population, while dishing out some harsh criticism of Ireland itself.

Political, corporate and cultural figures from all over the world met in private sessions in the 18th-century mansion, with the prime minister, Brian Cowen, in attendance.

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Much of the conversation focused on how to attract inward investment and promote Irish companies abroad. But news leaked out that there had been some straight talk about Ireland's poor performance in recent years.

Craig Barrett, former chairman of Intel, which has invested $7 billion in the country since 1986, made everyone sit up when he said that little remained of his original reasons for bringing the chip-making giant to Ireland.

"The day belonged to Craig Barrett," confided New Yorker Niall O'Dowd, as attendees gathered for a final public session in the classical-style ballroom on Saturday. "He made everybody sit up and pay attention."

O'Dowd, publisher of Irish Central news website, said Barrett "pointed out that Ireland is falling behind in infrastructure, broadband, education and, most of all, in investment in research and development, which is the key to attracting high-level foreign investment."

Martina Newell-McLoughlin, head of the University of California biotechnology research program, shocked Irish university presidents in the audience by calling the seven universities in Ireland a "bunch of ivory towers" with no coordinated thinking.

Irish mobile phone magnate Denis O'Brien complained to the delegates, who included Rock star Bob Geldoff, that "we are famous for our writers, our artists, our poets and we are not famous for much else."

O'Brien made the point that the Irish diaspora already helped entrepreneurs like himself in unexpected ways: His cell phone group got a license to operate in Samoa because the prime minister had been educated by Irish Christian Brothers.

For some countries, Ireland is a role model in how to exploit its diaspora, with network groups established in several countries and significant financial backing from the government. But the Irish are now looking to other countries like Israel and India for ways to do better. A study of their strategies has been carried out by the Worldwide Ireland Funds, a global non-profit fundraising network.

"Governments around the world are beginning to think about engaging their overseas populations in innovative ways," said co-author Kingsley Aikins, president and CEO of the Worldwide Ireland Funds.

His survey found that in addition to more than 34 million Irish Americans registered in the 2000 census (not including 5 million who claimed to be Scots Irish), there are also 3.8 million Irish Canadians, 1.9 million Irish Australians, 500 Irish Argentines, and millions more of Irish heritage in Britain and other European countries.

Although the Irish population constitutes just 1 percent of the total population of the European Community, when looked at through the lens of the diaspora Ireland is in fact a highly globalized country with more than 70 million members.

This "diverse, globalized and highly valuable network" should be leveraged for the benefit of its members, said Aikins.

Economist David McWilliams, the instigator of the forum, concluded in a similar vein, that "the homeland can be strengthened by the tribe."

McWilliams, a returned emigrant in his early 40s, made the point that his generation did not want to be "the first Irish people who have had to emigrate twice in their working lifetime."

The great migrations of the last two centuries - which created Ireland's diaspora - ended with the prosperity of the Celtic Tiger years, and from 1991 to 2006 there was an influx of 350,000 migrants, more than half of them returnees.

However the latest population figures reveal that the number of emigrants increased in the year ending in April to 65,000, while the number of immigrants fell to 57,000. One problem Ireland doesn't have, however, is a declining population - the country grew by almost 1 percent in the same period, due to the highest birth rate in over a century, and the population now stands at 4.46 million.

Conor O'Clery is GlobalPost correspondent in Ireland.

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