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    Should we appoint prominent diaspora members to the Seanad?

    By Noreen Bowden | May 30, 2011

    Irish-American businessman Tom McEnery has made a number of suggestions about how better to engage the diaspora in assisting Ireland with its economic crisis. Mr McEnery, an author, businessman, and  former mayor of San Jose, lectures at Santa Clara University and Stanford University. He wrote an article in the Irish Times advocating greater engagement with the Irish diaspora:

    It is time to think and act anew. Irish officials must implement solutions quickly, before it’s too late, redouble efforts at creating wealth in emerging companies and harness the untapped resources of the Irish diaspora.

    There is much talk of this vast diaspora, but its resources are not being utilised. Until the Irish leadership sees that taoiseachs delivering platitudes and bowls of shamrocks will not substitute for meaningful engagement, it never will be utilised.

    His first two suggestions are focused on economic development:

    Merge IDA, Enterprise Ireland and other agencies involved in economic development into one agency, name a leader, maybe an American chief executive like Craig Barrett, and support innovation, jobs and company formation. Then measure performance, not press releases;

    Put whatever resources you can muster into worldwide venture capital funds that have a link beyond the monetary to Ireland, a real eco-system, and make the creation of companies, not reports, their core product;

    The most interesting of the suggestions is the last:

    Instead of abolishing the Seanad, select members who serve at no salary but chosen only from the Irish diaspora. From Silicon Valley select the likes of Craig Barrett, John Hartnett, founder of the ITLG and the Wilde Angel Fund, Conrad Burke of Innovalight and John O Ryan, the inventor behind the dynamic Rovi Corporate.

    Add in Maria Shriver, Gabriel Byrne, Chuck Feeney, Niall O’Dowd and Declan Kelly too. And then from across the US, Australia, Canada and globally pick more such people and use them. Don’t lose them in a jumble of compliments and forums. As I once noted, I often found more wisdom in a conversation over a pint in McDaid’s or an hour at San Jose’s Irish Innovation Center than a day of speeches at Farmleigh. Implement, implement, implement as if your future depended on it – for it surely do.

    I appreciate the spirit behind this suggestion: there are many in the diaspora who are willing and able to take a philanthropic approach to Ireland, and who would surely do us much good. I also appreciate the desire for greater engagement that is driving this idea, the generosity and good will among the diaspora that it highlights, and the innovative approach that is so sorely needed in rethinking the relationship between Ireland and the Irish abroad.

    But I think it’s a highly problematic idea, for the following reasons:

    1. Appointing, rather than electing, more representatives to the Seanad would reinforce the undemocratic nature of that body.
    2. Asking people to serve in an unpaid capacity will ensure that only those of significant means will be able to do so. Not every talented person is wealthy enough to do substantial amounts of unpaid work.
    3. These kinds of appointments would reinforce one of the most fundamental distortions in Irish society: the distinction between the insiders and the outsiders. One of the keys to the way the potential for success is often unleashed in the Irish abroad is that when Irish people leave, they often find themselves less bound by the restrictions of class and connection. Recent efforts to implement top-down networks and give government greater access to the most successful of the Irish abroad are aimed at establishing a hierarchy among the Irish abroad that the establishment here understand and are more comfortable with. This is not a step forward.

    All the same, we’re blessed here in Ireland, in having a large international base of people around the globe who are interested in assisting us. We haven’t got the relationship right yet, but the more ideas we can throw around the better. I believe that we should favour those ideas that move us toward greater equality and more democratic representation of all of our citizens.

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