Belfast Telegraph

We have yet to harness the talent of our diaspora

By Brendan Keenan

At a time when the little Dublin Port Tunnel - well, it is little really - was leaking water and money, I found myself in the high-speed rail tunnel that runs under the sea from Hong Kong to the new airport.

When I expressed my stunned admiration for this piece of engineering, I was told that the man who ran the tunnelling company came from Mayo. So why wasn't he building our tunnel, instead of a consortium cobbled together, goodness knows how, for the purpose?

The memory returned last week at a conference organised in London by a new group called Business for Ireland.

They represented the three diasporas - the ones who left in the 1980s because jobs were scarce; the ones who went, largely voluntarily, in the 1990s because the world was their oyster, and some of the latest flood who, it must be said, are not happy with what has been done to them.

Bringing them together is part of the purpose of the new group. The ex-pats are interested - and not a little worried - about what is happening at home. Most would like to do something to help if they could, but what?

My colleague David McWilliams, himself one of the dispersed, has identified this potential source of intellectual capital and gone about trying to harness it with typical energy.

I started thinking about what the fact that we haven't utilised it tells us about those of us who stayed at home.

The question is why there should be a lack of expertise in the workforce, given the clear evidence of the ability of Irish people to acquire it when they go abroad.

The Irish public service contains many highly-qualified people. Every organisation needs such people, but no organisation can succeed by depending on special individuals.

It has often been thought that the historical pattern of emigration produced a greater degree of insularity at home. But it is too crude to see this as the best and brightest leaving and the dullards staying.

Ireland has advantages from its diaspora, although we should not pretend we are in the same league as Swedes or Danes for depth of talent.

I would need some convincing that the system is really willing to open itself to those who are working abroad in preference to those who have stuck close to their desks at home, like Gilbert & Sullivan's Sea Lord.

I am unlikely to be convinced until Brendan Howlin makes foreign experience an explicit advantage for senior promotions and appointments to regulatory positions - and in some cases, a requirement. Bertie Ahern once said that sort of thing would be unfair. That is its great attraction.