The dominance of Irish diaspora in UK boardrooms is intrinsic to post-Brexit Britain

By Susie Dullard

6th April 2017

The physical, cultural and historical affinity between the UK and Ireland is long-known. As well as being Ireland’s largest trading partner, the UK is home to some 66,000 Irish nationals who not only make a significant contribution to the UK economy, but who represent the largest community of foreign directors working in UK businesses today.

This timely revelation coincided nicely with Eulogy’s recent Irish Directors event; an annual celebration of the contribution of Irish directors in UK businesses, now in its third year, and hosted by James Quinn, group business editor at The Telegraph. And what a celebration it was. Not least due to an enviable panel of successful individuals either from, or with a strong affinity to Ireland, including Helena Morrissey CBE, of Legal & General, Cait O’Riordan, chief product & information officer at the Financial Times, Susan Dargan, EVP & head of global services offshore at State Street Corporation and Sam Bowman, executive director from the Adam Smith Institute.

As the panel took their positions and the audience settled themselves in a resplendent room within the Irish Embassy in London, the obvious opening theme (and perhaps, elephant in the room) was the UK’s landmark decision to leave the European Union, the practical implications for Ireland and future challenges and opportunities within business.

Leap before you look

Now, Helena Morrissey’s reported favourite motto is “leap before you look”; no surprise then that whilst she recognises all the formal aspects of Brexit in terms of the UK’s relationship with Ireland and the global economy, she is a firm believer in ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. Her view was steadfast; “We can be optimistic and grown up about Brexit and decide how we operate from an opportunistic perspective.”

This sentiment was echoed by many others on the panel, despite widespread acknowledgement of the challenges that lie ahead regarding transition, freedom of movement and maintaining global regulatory standards, reflected in a comment from Susan Dargen; “Ireland is in a good position to build influence through an ongoing dialogue with the UK, to work towards a new framework post-Brexit. The proximity of Ireland is a huge advantage and will help during discussions to avoid a divergence outside of the EU – so the UK and Ireland working together is vital and very doable.”

So what are the considerations beyond Brexit? For Sam, the biggest and most challenging issues besides any diplomatic questions around travel and border restriction is what happens to Ireland within the EU given that (arguably), its strongest ally is gone. The fear is that Ireland will find itself increasingly isolated; that said, the fact that the common travel area pre-dates EU membership drew a unanimous view from the panel that a lot of progress that had been made during our lifetimes would be lost, should this not continue.

Decline in digital

The challenge surrounding skills, talent and retention was an evident hot potato, Cait in particular highlighting the struggle to recruit the right talent at the FT in order to deliver the best digital products to serve readers; “We’re already struggling to recruit as supply is not meeting the massive demand for talent in London, further intensified by the number of individuals who have, or plan to make a long-term commitment to the UK, pulling out as they just don’t know what their status is going to be post-Brexit. The UK is just not producing enough job-ready engineers for the FT to recruit, and there is real uncertainty about that.” Cait attributes the tech community in Dublin in particular as having strong positive attitudes and a ‘can do’ mentality when it comes to understanding the potential for tech, describing it as being ‘woven into the fabric of businesses there’ – something that’s almost certainly underpinning the attractiveness of Dublin for many organisations.

Secrets of success

On the ‘secrets’ behind successful Irish business people in the UK, the modest consensus was one of pure and simple hard work, perhaps borne out of opportunity which was driven by the ebb and flow of migration in the 1980s. Susan is of the view this isn’t subject to change; “There have been real opportunities for Irish men and women coming to the UK and this will remain. There has always been a natural affinity for Irish grads and the Irish coming to the UK, and whilst we hope the common travel area persists, if it doesn’t, there is still the wanderlust to say this transference will go on, and Irish will continue punching above their weight in terms of leadership and corporate representation.”

And punch above their weight they are, reflected in recent research conducted by the Fawcett Society and University of Manchester which revealed that Irish women are the only group from an ethnic background in the UK who earn more than men. Furthermore, 29 per cent of women are in middle manager roles compared with 22 per cent of white British women and 21 per cent of white Irish men; no doubt a pleasing series of statistics for Helena in her guise as founder of the 30% Club, which aims to accelerate progress towards better gender balance at all levels of organisations.

The final note was courtesy of Richard Bruton, Minister for Education and Skills who closed the event with a pertinent message; that the Irish recovery after the crash was built on people; they delivered more with less, created new markets and sectors and went further afield to build new opportunities. Yes, it is a challenging and uncertain time for all, but the compelling feeling of the night was one of community and togetherness – demonstrating that the economic success of the UK and Ireland is intrinsically intertwined.

They say that if you’re lucky enough to be Irish – you’re lucky enough.

One thing is for sure, the unique attributes, personal qualities and characteristics culminating in Ireland being one of the most celebrated around the world, looks set to remain.