LAST WEEK WHEN Jimmy Deenihan was shuffled from the position of Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to Minister of State for the Diaspora it was widely reported as a demotion.
Although there is no arguing that losing a Cabinet seat must be viewed as such, the newly created portfolio has the potential to have a lasting effect on how the 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish heritage view their homeland.
Deenihan has a reputation for being active in seeking to bring the diaspora into the fold so he is sure to at the very least understand that potential.
From the Rose of Tralee to the Gathering, Ireland has long sought to engage with the diaspora but, with the numbers streaming out of the country over the last few years, it has moved from a somewhat abstract aspirational issue to a live one.
But what are likely to be the first issues Deenihan will tackle and how could the position develop over the next few years?
This will the immediate focus of the Minister of State for the Diaspora. The Taoiseach indicated during the week that Deenihan will examine whether Irish emigrants should be allowed to vote in presidential elections.
But the Government in fact has no choice but to have a look at this because the Constitutional Convention last year recommend that they should. This doesn’t mean that it will come to pass, rather that the Government has until the end of this year to respond to the convention’s recommendation.
In past Dáil debates Deenihan has supported the idea of voting rights for Irish citizens for a period of time after they’ve left the country, a proviso that most accept is likely to be part of any legislative change.
Will it go further than that though? If it is indeed the case that there’s a time limit on an Irish citizen voting abroad then a ballot held every seven years could mean they only get one or two votes in total.
Suggestions that there be a single Dáil seat set aside for the diaspora may be more meaningful but very unlikely.
Curiously, a poll conducted previously on TheJournal.ie found that far more people supported the idea that Irish abroad should vote in all elections rather than in just presidential election. It’s worth noting however that the largest proportion were against the idea completely.
If the Government is to pursue the idea a referendum will be needed.
Céad míle fáilte (arís)
Whatever could be said about The Gathering has probably been said before and, given that the year-long love-in with the Irish of several generations past is over, we should maybe stop debating it.
The Government’s flagship tourism initiative was deemed a ‘ great success’ after trips to Ireland increased by 7.3% last year with double digit growth reported in visits from the US.
We’ve often heard of politicians arguing about ‘legacy benefits’ of global events such as the Olympics or World Cup, but the term has also been bandied about in reference to The Gathering.
Perhaps disappointingly, the only genuine proposals that have been suggested about how to build on last year’s evenT has been to either hold it again in a few years or have a series of mini-gatherings.
It will be Deenhinan’s job to be a bit more inventive in this regard.
Undocumented and forgotten
The Minister for State for the Diaspora is under the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs. The latter department is the one which has taken the lead in arguing the case for the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US, so presumably the new junior role will have big say in lobbying on this issue.
The is an assignment that is both awkward and vital. Awkward because of the controversial issue of illegal immigration in the US but important because being seen to represent the interests of Irish-Americans is a way of working alongside Irish-American politicians who’s influence isn’t quite as declining as some may suggest.
Also, as Larry Donnelly argued recently, Irish politicians have a moral duty to represent the country’s citizens regardless of their circumstances.
The second related issue is the rather darker problem of the the so-called ‘forgotten Irish’ living in the UK. These are the Irish people who travelled to the UK during the last two major waves of emigration in the 1950s and 1980s and are living in poor and often lonely conditions.
While people may ask what the Irish Government can do to help people in these situations, there are a number of organisations such as the Ireland Funds in the UK that work against the problem and a clear policy to support them from the new minister would be very beneficial.
Bringing them home
It’s perhaps more the job of others in Government to create the conditions for emigrants to return back to Ireland but perhaps there is a role for Deehihan here as well. Now that Ireland has a Minister for the Diaspora it’s their job to try and create a link between the Irish abroad that has to date been lacking.
A common theme among recent emigrants has been a disillusionment with the political process and if Deenihan believes in what his Government is doing it is now his job to spread the word.