Irish politicians' attitude towards its emigrants is "all take and no give," renowned Irish artist Robert Ballagh told the third annual New York/New Belfast conference at Fordham Lincoln Center in Manhattan last week. Ballagh lives in Ireland, but said he believes that anyone entitled to an Irish passport should have a vote in Irish politics.
During a panel discussion entitled "2012-2022: A Decade for the Diaspora," Ballagh noted that in Ireland's straitened economic circumstances, "Our politicians are developing a newfound interest in our diaspora. I find it embarrassing."
As for what Ireland might do for its emigrants prospering abroad, Ballagh said, "Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently remarked that he intends to provide a voice to the Irish diaspora. The simplest way is to give the vote to emigrants."
However, Ireland's politicians are not tabling the constitutional reform necessary to extend voting rights to citizens abroad, he said. That right is offered by 115 countries overall, including all but three European Union countries, he added.
Ballagh noted the "ridiculous situation" where one of the candidates couldn't vote in Ireland's presidential election last year. Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, was barred because he resides north of the border.
Another panelist, John Murphy, chair of the Irish Network USA, which fosters economic and social ties between Ireland and the U.S., questioned Ballagh's proposal.
"People might say wait a minute, I'm not so sure I want millions of people around the world being able to have a say in how my roads are built," Murphy said.
Should Ballagh's call be heeded, the biggest impact would likely be in Northern Ireland, where most residents are entitled to Republic of Ireland passports.
Ballagh qualified his comments after the session to say that, initially, Irish citizens should have a vote in presidential elections. Later, some Senate or even Dáil seats might be designated to represent the diaspora.
In his presentation, Ballagh said, "More than 70,000 people left Ireland last year," this as the country endured one of many waves of emigration that have marked its history.
Murphy, whose organization characterizes the "global Irish community" at 70 million people, said, "What diaspora means really is giving back. But it's two-way."
"I'd go so far as to say there should be college-level classes that say this [diaspora] is part of the market," he added.
Shane Naughton, founder of Inundata New York, also urged attendees to use their Irish connections, as he did when he got involved ten years ago with the then nascent Trinity College alumi association.
"It has been said before that the global Irish community is the original world wide web," Naughton said.
On a similar note, Ballagh said, "One thing I continue to marvel at when I travel is no matter where I alight around the world I seem to bump into Irish people."
However, he added, "Many find themselves abroad as the result of some calamity at home."
The Irish Network USA is in the process of forming a new, regional chapter in the Dallas-Austin area, Murphy said. This adds to 13 others in cities as far flung as Boston, Seattle, and Phoenix.
Tara McCabe, an executive director with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, and a board member of The American Ireland fund, which has raised more than $250 million to support peace and culture throughout Ireland, also spoke during the panel session.
McCabe, first generation Irish-American and the recipient of multiple awards as an ambassador for Ireland said, "The next generation will bring tremendous opportunities as we leverage the synergies across the different organizations that are part of the diaspora."
In another session on "Maximizing Golden Opportunities," Mary Louise Mallick, senior policy advisor in the office of the New York State Comptroller, maximized her talk time. "I'll be short and sweet. I don't have slides, but I do have money," she opened.
Mallick's office manages New York state's pension fund and has designated $30 million for investment in Northern Ireland. She invited attendees to talk to her later about investment opportunities.
One thriving sector is film and TV, said Richard Williams, chief executive of NI Screen, citing, for example, the fact that HBO is filming its landmark series "Game of Thrones" in The North.
The tourism benefits probably surpass the £20 million spent each season, he said.
"The series shows probably the most extensive presentation of images of Northern Ireland outside of the Troubles."
The conference also served as a showcase, with several videos presented of beautiful scenery and golf courses to evoke recent champions, such as Rory McIlroy.
Patrick Anderson, whose company prospects for gold, said he had taken the "golden opportunities" topic literally.
The Dalradian Resources chairman and chief executive said he was attracted partly by the political climate in Northern Ireland and credited the "very forward-looking" government for conducting a geological survey that showed the North's mining promise.
"That would have cost a company like ours hundreds of millions of dollars," Anderson said.
Before coming to The North last year, Dalradian was exploring in Ecuador, but Anderson said, "A change in government and policy made it impossible for us to work."
Work online is best done in Belfast, John McGrillen, Director of Development, Belfast City Council, told the session on "Super Connected Cities." According to a study conducted by the British government, he said, "Belfast is the best connected city in the U.K."
The Titanic Quarter's deputy chairman spoke of the blend of work and play envisioned for the 300-acre waterfront development that commemorates the centenary of the building of what was once the world's largest ship.
"It is re-establishing Belfast's pride,' he said afterward the [panel discussion.
"The Titanic has great natural resonance with the people of Belfast, and not just with one side. Martin McGuinness's great grand-uncle helped to build the Titanic," McGrillen said.