03 January 2014

Tragic: The Gathering

One thing I don't think any of us will miss from 2013 is the cringe-inducing shame-fest that was The Gathering. After previous administrations gave away all our natural resources for less than a string of beads, when the Government searched the back of the national couch for spare change to pay off the socialised bank debt and found it vacuumed clean, I can almost see the light bulbs going off in their heads when they suddenly remembered the bulging pockets of the plus-sized distant cousins whose ample backsides so recently graced its worn and tattered cushions.

'The Americans!", they surely cried, 'ah surely be to jaysus, wouldn't they have a few bob now?"

And thus our year of national whoring was birthed.

According to its cheerleaders the year-long initiative of events and branding aimed at attracting members of the global Irish Diaspora (and the EI-curious) back to the Aul' Sod with wallets full of hard currency and freshly pressed blue jeans ready to trade for a pint and dance at a crossroads with a comely maiden or two, was a rip-roaring success. It is claimed that visitor numbers were up by 7.3%, and an extra €170M in tourism revenue was generated, but the same report cautions that "any repeat would likely prove difficult and consideration should be given to never staging it again".

So just like our natural gas and offshore exploration rights, tapping the Diaspora has proven to be a once-off fire sale, our attempts to monetize our historical tragedy by sidling up to the teenage bridesmaids like the creepy drunken uncle at a wedding and shaming them into a dance have ended as quickly as they began as our hand wandered too far south, bringing a look of disgust and the non-verbalised threat of a slap if we ever come within 50 meters of them again.

But let's take a look at those numbers again, with The Gathering claiming responsibility for 275,000 additional visitors. It's not entirely explained how they attribute a particular visitor's presence to The Gathering, for example I myself flew in to Dublin Airport on at least four more occasions this year than last year - as many of the Disapora would claim Irish passports how can they tell as I pass in through immigration whether I am here for the craic or something a little more permanent? No doubt the NSA would know by following my Foursquare check-ins, but no one could ever accuse the Government of being that sinisterly savvy as they stand in Arrivals with their abacus counting up the marks visitors.

Still, 275,000 visitors seems like a respectable number. Here's another number, 200,600. That's how many people emigrated between 2007/08 and 2012/13, according to the CSO, around 80,000 of those during The Gathering.

Sure we needed the space to accommodate all the marks visitors.

Here's another number: €600M. That's how much we will pay to bondholders, secured and unsecured, in the first four weeks of 2014. Even looking just at the unsecured bondholders, folks who we have no legal obligation to pay back (and according to that radical Ajai Chopra of the IMF, we shouldn't be paying off, except Germany our "European partners" made us), we will flush almost €79M down the toilet as we pay them back between now and the end of February.

While the cynical amongst you might dismiss the theatrics of Enda's #StateofIt address as we "exited" the bailout by pointing out that we will be paying off the socialised banking debt for generations to come, I prefer to look at the glass half full of Ming-water and congratulate the Government for working so hard these least few years to  generate the raw materials for The Gathering 2053, and 2093, and 2133...

The Gathering itself emerged from the prized brain trust that is The Global Irish Forum, a think-in where the Government invited back all the tax-exiles who have fled our shores to deliberate on our woes (that they themselves had absolutely no hand in creating, honestly, for reals) for a period long enough to be wined and dined but not long enough that they jeopardise their tax-exile status.

In 2011, the bold and the beautiful came up with three ideas that would save the country:
- Plans for a global Irish “homecoming”, billed as the biggest tourism initiative ever staged in Ireland, to attract up to 325,000 extra visitors to Ireland in 2013;

- A new Irish social networking site – WorldIrish.com – which its founders say has the potential to connect millions of Irish people, or those with an affinity to the country;

- An annual State-run diaspora awards ceremony to recognise “outstanding contributions” or distinguished service made to Ireland and Irish communities.
They also offered to sit for free on State boards, to provide their expertise and thought leadership. Funnily enough the Government didn't seem to quick to take them up on that offer...

I've no idea whether anything came of the Diaspora awards, but you can see that The Gathering fell well short of it's 325,000 target. But what of WorldIrish, Denis O'Brien's Facebook-killing social network?

Set up by Riverdance's John McColgan, O'Brien and fellow "entrepreneur" Dermot Desmond, the nascent site received heavy publicity following its launch at the Forum in 2011, in no small part due to the ties between its promotors and the Government. Seen as a potential rival to Niall O'Dowd's IrishCentral.com, which at the time was the main website targeting the Irish American community, WorldIrish was viewed favourably by a Fine Gael-led government eager to have an alternative channel in to the Irish American market, particularly given O'Dowd's strong Republican leanings and later abortive tilt at the Presidency.

Sadly, what they all forgot in their quest to be the Facebook of Ireland was that there was already a Facebook in Ireland, and it was called Facebook. Thus despite the hard work of some great people involved in business itself, in September McColgan, O'Brien and Desmond shuttered the service and shelved their plans for a series of additional networks aimed at other Disaporae (for naturally WorldIrish was just a test bed for their much larger aspirations, but they were happy to take all the free government publicity for their beta), and sold the users on to, um, Niall O'Dowd's IrishCentral.com. It didn't even make it to the end of The Gathering, drawing its last independent breath in September.

That sound you hear is the splish-splashing of Enda's shattered dreams. Silly Enda, business trumps everything, haven't you learned that yet?

So ultimately The Gathering, like its bedfellow WorldIrish and the Global Irish Forum that spawned them both, proved to be strong on hype and weak on results, with no long term benefit to the country.

Now here's a thought, the next time we invite over all these "thought leaders" for a State-funded knees-up, instead of giving them acres of free publicity for their next private business venture or whoring out our country for whatever short-sighted shake-down they come up with over their power breakfast, maybe we should just ask them to (this is going to sound crazy, I know) pay their taxes.

This is Ireland in 2014. Where the most radical suggestion you can make is to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.



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