In an article on Saturday in the Irish Times it was reported that the “Institute of Directors has strongly criticised the proposal to appoint members of the Irish diaspora to State boards, warning that aspects of the initiative are fundamentally flawed. … Maura Quinn, chief executive of the Institute of Directors, said the practical repercussions and unintended consequences of the initiative had not been considered.

I’m going to work my way through each of Maura Quinn’s arguments, which somewhat ironically, I think, perfectly illustrate why we need fresh thinking with respect to the diaspora serving on state boards.

“First, the institute suggests that every State board should have in place a skills and competencies framework.  It believes that all candidates for a particular State board position should be assessed against the relevant framework, rather than appointed on the basis of being members of the diaspora, who have volunteered their services.”

I don’t believe anybody is suggesting that people should be appointed to state boards simply because they volunteered their services.  What they are suggesting is that there are members of the diaspora who would eminently qualify with respect to a skills and competencies framework; that have a huge amount of relevant experience and expertise that they could bring to a particular state body.  Ironically, there are plenty of people on state bodies because they are politically connected rather than having a particular competency – appointing members of the diaspora would actually work to help combat political cronyism in state board appointments.

“Then you get into the practicalities of people who are thousands of miles away,” she said, arguing that the busy schedules of overseas executives may mean they could not travel regularly to attend board meetings in Ireland.  Even though many multinational companies conduct global business meetings via audio or tele-conferencing, the institute believes it is not possible to build up the necessary relationship with other board members without physically attending meetings.  Anybody who is a director on a board will tell you that, no matter how sophisticated [the technology], nothing compares to being actually in the room,” Ms Quinn said.

This is utter baloney and reeks of protectionism.  Company boards and European initiatives are full of people who have to travel to attend board meetings on a regular basis.  Yes, these people are busy but things are slotted into their diaries well in advance and they regularly attend meetings overseas. We’re a small, open economy, people fly in all the time for meetings.  Moreover, many Irish people serve on the boards of companies globally and on European committees which they have to attend in person.  If we follow the logic through, Irish people should resign from such positions because they cannot possibly be attending meetings or doing a good job.  Moreover, a flight from Britain or northern Europe would take less time than the train from Cork or the drive from Donegal.  The argument simply does not stack up.

“Studies have shown there is a relatively small pool of people who regularly crop up on the boards of Irish enterprises, but the institute does not accept that seeking fresh overseas talent with experience of business in foreign markets is necessary, or even advisable.  There are lots of very good people here who are either currently involved or who would be happy to serve on State boards but may not have been asked,” she added. “We need to be more rigorous in identifying the skills that we need and ensuring proper succession planning.”  Ms Quinn said Ireland needed to be conscious of the “optics” of courting overseas executives, as it tacitly implied a lack of suitably qualified people in Ireland.  “If we are going to restore international trust in Ireland, we should be demonstrating that we have trust in ourselves.”

Again this is protectionism and hints at a deep inferiority complex and a fear of change as new thinking and new ways of doing things will inevitably follow external people being appointed to boards.  A true test of trust in ourselves is to have trust to open up our institutional structures and policies to outside scrutiny and new membership.  The argument about succession planning is a red herring – we can succession plan from diverse boards.  And no-one is saying that suitable Irish people not be on state boards; simply that they not be closed shops to people resident in Ireland.  Having a board of say ten people split 8 Irish/2 diaspora would allow for development, succession planning and external participation.

“In January it emerged that the Government was writing to current members of State boards to advise them that they had an option to waive their fees.  Ms Quinn said this suggestion devalued and demeaned the role of a director of a State board.”

So good, sound advice is only worth something if it is paid for?  And we do not want the valued time of senior executives in the diaspora at a bargain – or rather we do but we don’t want to formally have recognize it.  Again protectionism of the present system – we want to retain our cushy additional payments even though we have separate full-time employment and we don’t want anything to undermine this, like unpaid people who are more qualified for the job than we are.  Besides, I’m sure diaspora members will accept a payment if offered.

She added that the institute was not “suggesting that members of the diaspora did not have a role to play in relation to State bodies, but their role should lie in an advisory, rather than formal, capacity.”

That is, not straying into our institutions and systems where they might come to see how the Irish state really works.

Mark Boyle and myself have done a fair bit of work on diaspora strategies over the past couple of years.  We’ve written reports for the Irish, Scottish, Armenian and Canadian governments, as well as the World Bank, and spoken to them at length, and we’ve studied the diaspora policies and programmes in a number of countries.  The arguments expressed by the Institute of Directors flies in the face of all thinking in field of diaspora policy.

In fact, the argument sets of all kinds of alarm bells with respect to how Ireland Inc views and values the Irish diaspora.  There has been a lot of government rhetoric about how the diaspora can help Ireland grow its way out of the present crisis and economic recession.  It seems, however, that such help is to be provided informally, with no official recognition, and with little official value placed upon it.  Instead, we get a set of spurious and self-interested arguments as to why it cannot be formally recognised.

Frankly, this position is baloney and wrongheaded and will be counterproductive.  Indeed, with this attitude, it would not surprise me if movers and shakers in the Irish diaspora the next time a government body asks them for advice, investment or to travel back to Ireland for something like ‘The Gathering’ tells Ireland Inc to take a running jump.  Diaspora strategies are built on relationships of give and take.  One cannot expect to simply take solely on one’s terms and with no give.

Someone from Ireland Inc needs to have a quiet word with the Institute of Directors and re-frame their thinking before too much damage is done.  We need the Irish diaspora on our side and on our state boards.

Rob Kitchin