Last week I attended the Irish Diaspora Forum in University College, Dublin. It was an interesting event with a great many people from what could be called the Irish Diaspora industry.
Niall O’Dowd of the Irish American Magazine had organized the event so perhaps it was only natural that the United States would dominate many of the sessions. Indeed, with 40 million Americans having some kind of Irish heritage it is only reasonable that the US gets the attention it does. However, it was not this that got me thinking. It was the Irish themselves. And how they see the Irish Diaspora.
The Irish nations (both north and south) view the Diaspora in a very particular way. In general, they view the Irish Diaspora as a quasi-natural resource, a resource that is to be exploited for the betterment of the Irish nations. The product of this exploitation is primarily Foreign Direct Investment into Ireland.
Indeed, many of the speakers dealt with the issue of how Ireland would further mine this resource in an uncertain economic future. Even the election of Barack Obama was seen largely through the prism of apparent threats to US Foreign Direct Investment into Ireland.
But this view of the Diaspora as an exploitable resource strikes me as flawed. While the seventy million people around the world may well seem to be an inexhaustible resource, we all know that there is no such thing. All resources are finite. Emigration may once have been enough to replenish it, but no longer.
As if to illustrate the dangers, Loretta Brennan Glucksman spoke of the changing role of the Irish American Fund. No longer can it simply raise funds in the US for projects in Ireland. Ireland is now wealthier than many parts of the US from where the money was being raised.
If the Irish nations want to view the Diaspora as a resource, they must exploit it sustainably. They must begin to think of the Diaspora as an ecosystem that must be respected. The Irish nations must start thinking about protecting it.
At the conference David McWilliams spoke of the Israeli project which invites young Jewish people to Israel. While not immediately economically profitable, in the longer term it creates a greater affinity of non-Israeli Jews for the state of Israel. Israel has given its Diaspora something. It has recharged and replenished the link to Israel and Jewishness. The Israeli policy is about protecting and nurturing the Jewish ecosystem from which future resources may emerge. Down the road, no doubt, that Diaspora ecosystem will result in New Shekels. But the return will not solely be financial. It will be political and cultural.
The Irish nations must begin to think in the same way. They must begin to think about the Irish ecosystem. They must begin to think about how they can nurture Irish heritage. It really is time for the Irish nations to adopt new type of green politics for the Irish Diaspora.