‘Let’s find a way to harness the strength of a worldwide community of 70m people’
An island of six million on the edge of Europe, Ireland is buoyed by its diaspora which, estimated at seventy million strong, makes up nearly one percent of the world’s population. At times this may seem like a purely notional figure, something deployed when required but not really realistic in any tangible form.
I have never thought that way personally and since being appointed Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development I have in fact witnessed first-hand the reach and breadth of our Irish diaspora communities, from the skyscrapers of America to the villages of Africa.
The Irish Government’s 2015 Diaspora Policy articulates a whole of Government approach to engaging and supporting our diaspora, no matter where they are in the world. The policy commits to carrying out this work under five distinct headings: support, connect, facilitate, recognise and evolve.
Following on from the great strides that have been made since 2015, as Minister I have my eyes firmly on how we can evolve the diaspora policy so that we can support the ever more diverse groups that make up our seventy million strong global Irish nation.
To me there are two clear areas that I want to see evolved further – the use of new and innovative technologies; and the bridging of our global diaspora engagement with our considerable development work and broader connections in Africa and Asia.
I see huge potential to improve how we use technology to support and engage our people abroad. I see opportunities to not only increase connections with Ireland but to also increase connections across and within diaspora communities. This is already the case in many of the newer diaspora locations such as the Gulf States, Canada and Australia.
Here you will find some of the most mobile and connected emigrants in the world who are using social media and other technology to stay in touch with each other and Ireland – and not only consuming and experiencing Irish culture but also increasingly contributing to it.
I want to harness this type of innovation and roll it out across our work with all our diaspora communities and I have made extending our reach a priority for our diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I have set myself and my officials a challenge to increase the @GlobalIrish Twitter account from ten thousand followers to one million.
This “one million” challenge is not just a number. Rather it is emblematic of our deep desire to increase our engagement with new and different people, in new and different places, in new and different ways. It will require us to think of new ways to engage our diaspora and will necessitate us using technology, stories gathered and relationships built, in new and smarter ways.
This is already happening through Ireland’s network of Embassies and Consulates who are ever more connecting through social media. In conjunction with the social media accounts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we now reach over three hundred thousand people. An impressive number, but just the tip of the iceberg. This communication is not the end in itself but instead I believe its offers a gateway for people to access a range of services and supports that they may not have known were out there.
Whether it be finding out about a GAA club in their area or availing of assistance from one of the many welfare organisations funded by the Government’s Emigrant Support Programme, simply connecting people can have significant benefits for individuals and communities.
The Emigrant Support Programme therefore has a key role to play. With a budget of €11.59 million and a mandate to support Irish organisations around the world, the Programme received over four hundred and twenty applications from more than twenty countries in 2017. Every year approximately seventy percent of funding goes towards frontline welfare organisations which provide services that assist the most vulnerable of the Irish abroad. I intend to continue this work but also to prioritise funding of intergenerational projects, which best reflect the diversity of our diaspora and to encourage better collaboration between different organisations to lead to innovative projects addressing new and future needs.
In this way, and in conjunction with improvements in how we use technology, I believe we can make a real-world and lasting difference while also extending our reach to support younger emigrants and newer diaspora communities.
The other half of my responsibilities relates to international development, which is ably managed by Irish Aid and the countless Irish in Africa and Asia who are engaged in providing frontline supports for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. I see in this work a huge potential to harness the diaspora for good, to share lessons learned, to match up skilled people with organisations that need them and to augment the already considerable development and aid work which Ireland supports.
I believe that there is a cohort of our diaspora who have the experience and talent that is needed to sustain our development work.
There are therefore opportunities to work smarter in a manner that bridges diaspora engagement with development work. I think that again technology has an important role to play in this through identifying and developing networks where people can assist in the development of communities less fortunate than ours.
I will seek to greater link my two responsibilities in the year ahead and to pilot new initiatives which can bring real benefits to both sides of my responsibilities.
I believe that the time is also right to give something back to our diaspora and to recognise the contribution they have made to the country. An essential element of this will be to give them a voice in choosing our President, a President for the global Irish nation.
In March of this year the Government therefore decided that a referendum should be held to amend the constitution to allow Irish citizens resident outside the State, including in Northern Ireland, to vote in Irish presidential elections. It is envisioned that this referendum will take place in June 2019 and I see this as a way to greater develop our two way connection with our citizens abroad through recognising and rewarding the contributions that our diaspora has made to this country.
My work to assist returning emigrants will also continue. In November, I was delighted to launch our new ‘Back for Business’ mentoring scheme for returned emigrants. Meeting the 45 participants I was extremely impressed, not only by the range of experience that they had developed by living overseas, but also by their commitment to forging successful enterprises here at home and contributing to communities across the country.
These are just a few of the issues to the fore of the Government’s diaspora engagement work. I believe they showcase the breadth of activity that we are engaged in and also the significant opportunities that remain to be capitalised upon.
I will continue to look for innovative ways of supporting our diaspora and our citizens choosing to return home. As Minister for the Diaspora and International Development I will be voice and a champion of the diaspora in Government and I will in the year ahead make the case for supporting all our Irish communities, in all their diversity and no matter where they are located.
It is time to move our thinking on, to develop a real sense of a truly Global Irish nation, to reflect the ever increasing mobility and connectedness of all of our people, no matter where they are in the world.
In this century when conversations will happen seamlessly, instantaneously and across great distances, we will finally be unshackled from the physical boundaries of geography.
That’s when our work in building a deeply connected Global Irish community will reap the kind of dividends that our ancestors could never have envisaged. Wishing all the Irish community in Britain a peaceful Christmas and a very happy New Year.