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Remarks by the Tánaiste at Global Diaspora Forum

Chairman, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this afternoon.  In my role as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am delighted to welcome you all to Dublin.  However, as the TD or Member of Parliament for Dun Laoghaire, I am also delighted to welcome you all to my constituency.

Given its role as a place of entry into and departure from Ireland, it is particularly fitting that the Dun Laoghaire Harbour Company has been centrally involved in the planning of this Forum.  I would like to acknowledge the great work undertaken by Gerry and Kingsley and all their team in the Irish International Diaspora Centre Trust on organising what I have no doubt will be a productive and engaging discussion. 

I would also like to welcome our colleagues who are joining us from Washington DC.

It is fitting that my participation coincides with the opening of your Forum in Washington as our gathering in Dublin was the subject of discussions I had with the former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton in Dublin last November. 

Secretary Clinton has for many years been a strong advocate of embracing the enormous potential of our diaspora communities.  Having witnessed firsthand the work undertaken by groups such as the Ireland Funds and the Silicon Valley based Irish Technology Leadership Group, she supported Ireland’s hosting of the inaugural European strand of the Global Diaspora Forum which she convened in Washington in 2011 and 2012.  Given the great depth of experience that Ireland has to offer in this area, I was only too delighted to indicate my support for such a Forum. 

So why are we here today? Why is diaspora engagement so important?

Three simple statistics highlight the vital importance of engaging with Diasporas

Today, 1 out of every 33 people in the world are migrants, at current rates, there could be 405 million international migrants by 2050 and in 2009 remittances were 3 times the amount of official development aid.

These numbers are vast and the economic impact is so highly significant that Governments and the business sector ignore them and their potential at their peril. I am pleased to say that over recent years there has been a significant increase around the world in this enormous source of soft power.  Gatherings such as this demonstrate how much we can learn from each other.  

Before discussing Ireland’s approach to diaspora engagement it is worth looking quickly at the story of Irish emigration.  While the subject could take up a conference in its own right, a few points are worth noting.

Ireland is a small island on edge of Western Europe.  The current population on the island is 6.4 million - the highest in over a century.  As an island nation, emigration has always been a facet of our lives.  However in the period following the famine in the late 1840s up to the 1920s, our population fell from 8 million down to 3million.

This repeated pattern of emigration which continues up to this day has created a global Irish diaspora of some 70 million with some 44 million people in the US describing themselves as being of Irish descent.  Such a vast pool of people spread throughout the world who embrace a connection to this island constitutes an invaluable resource.  

It is therefore fair to say that the emigrant experience is very much part of who we are as a people and how we define ourselves and interact with the world. It is ingrained in our national Irish psyche.  Every generation, every community and almost every family has been affected.

Like so many emigrant communities, previous generations of Irish often experienced discrimination and exclusion upon their arrival. In the United States in the 19th Century, the Irish were shut out of many established education and business circles and ‘no Irish need apply’ signs were common features in the larger cities.  But demonstrating great resilience, they organised, overcame such obstacles and played an enormously positive role in the development of the US. 

There were few areas at which the Irish excelled better than politics. By the early 20th century many of the largest cities in the US had Mayors with close Irish connections and a growing number of Senators and members of Congress were of Irish extraction. This process reached a climax with the election of President Kennedy in 1960 and his emotional and historic visit to Ireland in 1963.  Here was a President whose eight great grandparents had come from Ireland and whose personal political success seemed to validate the experience of generations of Irish emigrants. 

In many ways this visit proved the catalyst- in both practical and symbolic terms- for a new more forward looking relationship between Ireland and its Diaspora. At a time of growing international interest in diaspora policy, it is fitting that we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this visit in June when we welcome Caroline Kennedy and other members of the Kennedy family to Ireland.

Throughout this conference you will no doubt hear a wide range of examples of the practical way in which diasporas can contribute to their homelands. The contribution that emigrant communities can play in resolving conflict and political challenges at home is often cited.

Indeed, the role that the Irish Diaspora, particularly in the United States, played in the peace process in Northern Ireland is a particularly significant example.   The support of the Clinton Administration for the process was vital to its success and the Irish American community was central to ensuring this engagement.

There are countless specific examples at business, community and political level of how the Irish in America and elsewhere helped to nudge this island towards peace.  One particularly significant example occurred in New York in 1992 when the candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination were invited by a group of  Irish-Americans to a Forum in Manhattan to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland.  Those who turned up were asked for an undertaking that they would assist with the on-going efforts to reach a solution in the North.  One of those candidates who participated struck a real chord with those present and made a number of specific and significant commitments.  That candidate was the then Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

It is fair to say that President Clinton kept his word and played a vital role in the peace process that culminated in April 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.  That Agreement was an historic breakthrough that committed all participants to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are all here today because we believe in the advantages of building mutually beneficial relationships and partnerships with our Diaspora. 

Ireland’s relationship with its diaspora is enshrined in our Constitution which states that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.”

This constitutional commitment has underpinned an active Diaspora support and engagement policy by Government in Ireland over recent years. The Government is committed to implementing policies which will in the future ensure that no Irish citizen has to endure emigration by economic necessity. At the same time, we have been extremely robust in ensuring that those who are emigrating today receive assistance from the Government and Government supported organisations at home and abroad. This year alone, €11.6 million is being provided to Irish organisations that provided direct support to Irish emigrants, both longstanding and new.  Indeed, we provide extensive funding to organisations that act as first port of call for new emigrants, including the GAA, the London Irish Centre, the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto and several similar groups in Australia. We also support a wide range of business and graduate networks around the world.

Diversity is the hallmark of most diasporas.  The Irish abroad includes well assimilated communities in Britain, North America where we have fourth and fifth generation Irish, to new communities in the Middle East and Asia, to recently departed graduates and professionals who are mobile and quite capable of living anywhere in the world.

A successful diaspora policy must reflect this diversity and avoid the temptation to apply a one size fits all.   Ireland has deliberately adopted an inclusive approach to defining the parameters of our diaspora.   Our starting point is groups and individuals who consider “being Irish” as a central part of their personal and cultural identity. To them, “being Irish” is a powerful identity that they are proud of and want to retain. 

The consequence of this broad definition means that you cannot have a homogeneous diaspora engagement policy.  Diasporas differ. Therefore policies must be informed by a number of factors: geography; demographics; focus and interests.  It must be cross generational and multi-faceted.

At a government level, diaspora engagement is coordinated by the Irish Abroad Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Today, our active diaspora engagement policy has two key strands. 

Firstly, through the Emigrant Support Programme, we work to support the most vulnerable of our emigrants.  Since 2004, over €100million in grants has been allocated in support of over 200 voluntary and community organisations in some 25 countries who provide frontline services to our communities

Highlighting the widespread political commitment to the process, there has been no significant reduction in the annual budget despite our current financial situation.

Approx 75% has gone to Britain where the emphasis has been on supporting sensitive, frontline welfare services, targeted at the most vulnerable members of our overseas communities.  Independent reports have demonstrated that such services have made a substantive difference to the lives of Irish people in Britain, reducing homelessness, tackling social isolation, and enabling Irish emigrants to access their local, statutory entitlements.

We strive to ensure that the programme is as flexible as possible so we can react to the changing needs of our emigrants.  Today in addition to Britain and the US, we are supporting projects in Australia, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, Zimbabwe, China, Singapore, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and across Western Europe.

A key element of discussions at this Forum will be how we can engage with our diasporas in support of economic development.

In 2009, we added a new element to our diaspora engagement by hosting the first Global Irish Economic Forum.  We brought together 180 senior Irish business people based overseas and sought to leverage the advice and expertise of these key influencers in support of our economic renewal.  We followed this up with a second forum in 2011 and I will convene the third forum in Dublin Castle later this year.

One of the key outcomes of this engagement was the establishment of the Global Irish Network.  Based in almost 40 countries, the Global Irish Network consists of some 350 of the most influential Irish and Irish-connected individuals abroad and provides Ireland with an invaluable resource of international expertise.

The Network has given far greater strategic direction and coherence to the manner in which the Government engages with our most senior Irish contacts around the world.   Over the past three years, the Network has proved to be particularly effective  

  • as a source of structured advice from key players in priority markets, sectors and within multinational companies.  This advice has fed directly into the formation of Government policy and action plans;
  • in the facilitation of high level access to decision makers in major corporations for the Government and Irish companies. 
  • formal involvement in developing trade missions;
  • a direct role in job creation through high level FDI Forums, Connect Ireland,  and the Global Irish Contacts Programme;
  • support and assistance with our work to build a strong international reputation;
  • participation in a number of new initiatives, including in the tourism, education and agri-food sector.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The theme of this Forum is “Where Ideas Meet Action”.  Over the last number of years, the Government has enhanced its interaction with our diaspora and undertaken a number of concrete that initiatives that benefit all.  In doing this, we have been fortunate that we have a diaspora willing to be our partners.

We are all here today to learn from one another and we all agree that Diaspora engagement is a positive thing- but it is not a simple thing.  Let me leave you with some lessons learned from our experiences.

First, diaspora engagement is a process not an outcome. Engagement does not automatically happen and we must work at it.  You can never take your people abroad for granted or assume their goodwill.

Second, once you have engaged with your diaspora, it is essential to maintain and build structured and multi-layered connections.  We do so on a regular basis through our Embassies and Ministerial visits, and newsletters.

As has been said many times today, our diasporas are not homogeneous groups; a range of different strategies is required. It is essential that governments be attentive and responsive to the concerns and issues that impact on our communities abroad.   It is critical that the debate is not framed around what can the diaspora do for us - it should be a two way partnership.

Finally, Government should be a facilitator rather than sole implementer.  It is vital to identify leaders and organisers within the diaspora and connect them to similar people in the home country.

I would like to thank you for listening this afternoon and wish all of you here in Dublin and in Washington every success in your future endeavours.