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Global Forum on Diaspora and Development sponsored by Irish Aid and Diaspora Matters

Irish Aid, Irish abroad, MoS Jimmy Deenihan, Speech, Great Britain, Ireland, North America, 2014

 

Opening Address by Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, TD, at the

Global Forum on Diaspora and Development sponsored by Irish Aid and Diaspora Matters

 

Chairman, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to speak this morning at the Global Diaspora and Development Forum.

May I extend a warm welcome to Ireland to those of you who have travelled for the event – you are very welcome and I hope you will get to see some of our beautiful country while you are here.

The programme for this Forum is at once both deep and diverse – in fact many of the panel discussions alone would be worthy of conferences in their own right. I propose therefore, for my own contribution, to try and offer some context for your discussions by sharing some of Ireland’s experience of how an engaged diaspora meaningfully contributed to, and of course continues to contribute to, our development.

I would at the outset emphasise the value our Government places on our diaspora. My own appointment earlier this year as Minister for Diaspora Affairs, the first such Minister in the history of the State, is but latest example of the emphasis placed by our Government on our relationship with the Irish abroad and our global diaspora.

I will also suggest some lessons that I feel Ireland has learned from its own experience – lessons that I will also be using to inform the work of my office. But perhaps it would be useful to look back before we look forward.

Emigration is always an aspect of life on an island, and Ireland is no different in that regard. From the time of the Great Famine in the 1840s up until the 1920s the population on this island fell from 8million to 3million. Successive waves of emigration followed in the 1950s, 1980s and more recently in the last five years, though the numbers leaving are thankfully now falling. The result is that we have a global diaspora that has been estimated by some at up to 70 million people, a huge number by any standards. Over 40 million people in the United States alone describe themselves as being of Irish descent.

This pool of people is extremely significant. An undisputed resource – and also a significant responsibility and I will come back to that later. The point I am making is that the sheer scale of the numbers show that every family in Ireland has been affected by emigration at some point. It is part of our national story and psyche. It is, quite simply, part of who we are.

We know too well that emigration was very difficult for many of those who left. They often faced hardship and discrimination. But very many thrived and shared their good fortune with those still at home. Remittances were of critical importance to Ireland after the Famine. Unfortunately, definitive figures are not available but, as an example, we know that from the outbreak of the Second World War to 1952, emigrant remittances from just Britain alone to Ireland were running at the modern equivalent of more than 100 million pounds sterling per year. And the actual figure was probably much higher as official records only capture postal orders and telegrams containing money sent back to Ireland.

That pattern is replayed in many other countries today. The World Bank estimates that the global value of remittances could reach 680 billion US dollars by 2016, with a significant proportion of this going to developing countries. In fact, figures from 2013 show that remittances to developing countries were three times higher than total Official Development Assistance. It goes without saying that, from a development perspective, the economic impact of remittances must be factored by governments and the business sector. One challenge that we face is to make the cost of sending remittances less onerous for diaspora communities. Costs are coming down, but sub-Saharan Africa remains the most expensive region in the world to send money to and this is something that Ireland, the European Union and the international community as a whole is determined to address.

Ireland has also benefited hugely from significant investment by philanthropists such as Chuck Feeney through his Atlantic Philanthropies, the Brennan-Glucksmans, and many, many others. Organisations such as The Ireland Funds, who are represented here today, are also noteworthy. I should point out, for the few of you here who don’t already know him, that Kingsley Aikins, head of the Ireland Funds for nearly 20 years, is here today as one of the organisers of the conference. The Ireland Funds has raised over 480 million US dollars for over 3,000 organisations in Ireland and other countries.

With the onset of the recent economic crisis, Government engagement with members of the diaspora on issues related to economic recovery and growth became more structured, through the Global Irish Network and the meetings of the Global Irish Economic Forum, which brings members of the Network together with the Government every two years.

The Global Irish Network is comprised of over 350 senior Irish and Irish connected business people who have demonstrated a strong connection to Ireland and have a record of high achievement in international business or in assisting in the promotion of Ireland. Launched in 2010, the Network members come from a diversity of disciplines and have a wide geographic reach - currently spread over 40 countries.

Coupled with meetings of the Global Irish Economic Forum, the Network has provided Ireland with an invaluable resource of international expertise which contributes to our economic recovery. They facilitate high level access to decision makers in major corporations; they have formal involvement in developing trade missions; they have participated in a number of new initiatives in the tourism, education and agri food sectors. In short, they have had a direct role in job creation in Ireland – and I’m not sure there is a better way to support your country.

Some of our visitors here may not be aware but Ireland’s relationship with the Irish overseas is actually enshrined in our Constitution – Bunreacht na hÉireann - 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 special affinity was particularly evidenced in the contribution made by the Irish abroad to the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. There are volumes still to be written about the many small and large, but always significant, ways in which the Irish throughout America and elsewhere, through business, community and political action, supported the efforts at home to find a peaceful solution to the Troubles. Access to decision makers was the key. In fact President Clinton, whose message we just watched, is a prime example of this. Back in 1992 a group of Irish Americans invited him along with the other candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination to a forum in New York to discuss Northern Ireland. Those present were asked to make a commitment to assist in finding a solution and we all know how significant President Clinton’s contribution turned out to be, culminating in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. That day was one of the most significant in Irish history - and there is no doubt of the role the diaspora played in its coming about.

I would be remiss not to mention culture. Irish culture is the glue that binds our diaspora together. We are known worldwide for our literature, music, theatre and of course dance. In this sector I can confidently say we are a world leader – and due to the incredible ingenuity and creative ability of our artists, it is an area where I expect we will maintain world prominence. Our diaspora already contribute significantly in this field. I hardly need remind you that Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, the lead dancers in the original Riverdance are proud Irish Americans – two of the finest Irish Ambassadors we have ever produced, both born and raised outside our island.

Sport and our particular national sports are very close to my own heart. Gaelic games, hurling and Gaelic football for our visitors, are now played in every corner of the world. The Government has supported the Gaelic Athletic Association to achieve this. GAA clubs worldwide help our new emigrants to settle while remaining connected to home and at the same time showcase something that is unique to Ireland all over the world. No-one forgets the spectacle of hurling once they have watched a match – though of course football would be my own passion.

So, those are just some examples of how the diaspora can meaningfully contribute to their home countries development and I know you will hear many others during the Forum, but I would also note that, as I mentioned earlier, engagement with the diaspora is also a responsibility. The Irish Government takes this aspect of our relationship with the diaspora very seriously. In 2004 we established the Irish Abroad Unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to manage a range of engagement between the Irish Government and the diaspora.

This Unit manages the structured engagement with the Diaspora on economic development through the Global Irish Network and the Global Irish Economic Forum which I mentioned earlier. The Unit also organises the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for the Irish Abroad. In fact as you may have seen in this morning’s papers, just yesterday evening our President Michael D. Higgins presented the 2014 awards to recognise the service given to this country or to Irish communities abroad by those who live outside Ireland. Awards were presented in the areas of Arts, Culture and Sport, Charitable Works, Business and Education, Irish Community Support, and, Peace Reconciliation and Development to recipients such as Fionnuala Flanagan, Catherine Day and posthumously Jim Flaherty, the former Minister for Finance of Canada.

While I mention President Higgins, he himself, like so many in Ireland, has seen generations of his family emigrate. He has therefore a deep interest and personal solidarity with the Irish abroad as seen by his regular visits to Irish Centres in Britain. This high level recognition reinforces the key message of the value we place on our Irish communities abroad.

The Irish Abroad Unit also manages the . This programme supports frontline welfare and community organisations to support vulnerable Irish communities abroad. Organisations in Britain and the United States receive the largest amounts of funding but recent years have seen grants made to organisations in locations as diverse as Brisbane, Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai and Zimbabwe, in addition to more traditional locations.

Funding has increased from €2.9m in 2003 to reach a peak of €15.2m in 2008 and 2009. Since then, in line with reductions across the public sector, the allocation has been reduced and the allocation for 2014 stands at €11.6m.

So as you can see, we are doing a lot but we are always looking for ways we can improve and we have learned some key lessons along the way which I offer in case they are of any benefit:

Firstly and most importantly, the Irish diaspora, like any other, is not a homogenous group and should not be viewed as such. Government engagement must be sensitive to how different diaspora groups experience their connection to Ireland and the policies in place must reflect this.

Secondly, engagement must be a two-way process, to ensure that that the links between Ireland and its diaspora continue to evolve and remain relevant and vibrant. And it is just that – a process, not an outcome. It requires sustained and differentiated efforts to reach the different segments of your population abroad. In this context, we must also take a long term view of what we mean by “development”; it is not a question of what our diaspora can do for us. It is a question of what can we do together, to ensure a vibrant global community, with benefit flowing in all directions.

Thirdly, it cannot all be done from Dublin. It is critical to support and facilitate key individuals and organisations abroad – which will ensure a much broader reach than what you can achieve from capitals.

Finally, make no assumptions. Emigration and heritage is a complicated experience and it would be naive to assume support for your endeavours from the entire community.

So, I hope with that snapshot I have given you a flavour of why engagement with the diaspora is of enormous importance for Ireland. It has been a distinctive feature of efforts to bring a lasting peace to the island. It has built economic links resulting in trade, investment and tourism. The achievements of the diaspora, both Irish born and those of Irish descent, have enhanced Ireland’s profile and reputation internationally, and are a source of pride to people in Ireland. Members of the diaspora have shown Ireland, and Irish culture and sports, in all parts of the world.

I hope our experience offers some food for thought for your discussions over the next two days and I look forward to hearing the outcomes and recommendations from the Forum.

Thank you.

Further details on the Global Forum

 

ENDS

Press Office
October 31 2014