Jimmy Deenihan will be clocking up plenty of air miles in the next couple of years.
The 62-year-old Irish politician, already well known as a former champion at Gaelic football, will be meeting and greeting, handshaking and backslapping potentially millions of people as the newly appointed minister for diaspora affairs in the Irish government.
Some 70 million people in the world claim an Irish connection, and there are 1 million Irish passports held by people born outside the country, from the United States to Australia. But Mr Deenihan has chosen the UAE as his first stop on his whistlestop tour as minister.
“This reflects the importance we place on the UAE and the Gulf. This is a very important place for us, and we have a close relationship with the royal families here. When you buy horses from somebody you’ve got to trust them,” he jokes, referring to the big horse-racing business between the UAE and Ireland.
There are about 8,000 Irish citizens living and working in the UAE, but they have had an influence on the Emirates’ commerce disproportionate to that relative small number. Irish business people have risen to the top in some of the most important UAE industries, such as retailing, hotels and aviation, and made a big contribution to the modern UAE economy.
So his trip is about far more than bloodstock and also about more than just business. His appointment was the result of a constitutional convention in the country, which is considering some pretty fundamental changes to its political system, and he sees the diaspora as an exercise in nation-guiding.
“I think we have the opportunity to create a broader Irish nation in addition to the existing Irish state,” he says.
There are some practical measures under consideration to help create this “new” nation. He is pushing the idea that diaspora citizens could be able to vote in Irish presidential elections, and even – longer term – be allowed to return representatives to the Irish Senate, part of the Dail (the Irish parliament).
So the days of the Irish senator representing Abu Dhabi in Dublin may not be too far off, next to the member from New York, London or Sydney. “I’m very much in favour of it personally, but it’s up to the cabinet and the people,” says Mr Deenihan.
For now, though, he sees his job as to tap into the potential among Irish citizens living in the Gulf: “There is a very vibrant Irish business network in the UAE. They want to help each other, help Ireland and help the UAE.”
The food industry is an obvious connection. Ireland exports 90 per cent of the food it produces, while the UAE imports 90 per cent of the food it consumes.
“We have the highest standards in Europe for our food products, especially meat. It’s all organic and natural,” Mr Deenihan says.
“I realise because of halal standards the method of slaughter is important, but we are very customer friendly and can adapt our methods to suit the high standards expected in this part of the world. We already have well-established existing facilities, and some of the labelling of Irish produce is already provided in Arabic,” he adds.
There are other areas of commercial cooperation, actual or potential, he says.
“Health care is an area of increasing contact. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland helps train Emirati medical students, indeed they have a programme in my hometown of Tralee, County Kerry, to prepare students before they start formal training. And the airlines are cooperating more, with Etihad sending their pilots to be trained in Ireland, and I see real potential in high-tech, telecoms and data.”
Mr Deenihan is by no means the first Irish politician to visit the UAE. Since the country opened a full embassy in the capital in October 2009, several ministers, including the prime minister, have made the trip.
But they came in a very different economic climate. Ireland suffered perhaps more than most from the global crisis. The Irish banking system collapsed, property prices were savaged and government austerity measures, insisted on by the European Union and the IMF, led to high levels of unemployment and more emigration. The diaspora knows the reality of life back home.
“But we did not default [on debt obligations], and I think that’s a matter of pride for the diaspora,” he says, and holds out the promise of better times to come.
“There’s no doubt the economy has turned a corner. We recorded 7.7 per cent GDP growth in the second quarter and forecasts for the full year have been raised to 4.5 per cent, it might even be better”, he says.
“We’ve hit the 3 per cent budget deficit set by international agencies, mainly because of higher tax income, when some other countries are struggling to get there. The target is a zero deficit by 2018.
“The question now is whether we can give some of that back, in the form of tax cuts. Hopefully we’ll be able to address that soon.”
Tax in Ireland has become an explosive issue, with the EU investigating the arrangements between Apple and the Irish authorities in an investigation that could result in the US tech leader being forced to pat back billions of euros of what Brussels claims was “illegal state aid”.
Mr Deenihan holds the government line on this issue, to the effect that the country did nothing illegal and that it will be exonerated in any investigation.
So are the days of the Celtic tiger on the way back? Maybe, but with a more muted roar.
“This time we’ve learnt from our mistakes, I’m convinced of that,” he says.
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