EMIGRATION IS A phenomenon, a potential future for thousands of young people, and a popular topic in Ireland at this time of year. Whether it’s post-holiday photos from the departure gates at Dublin Airport or articles on demographic change, whether it’s classed as a Government operation or a national sport, emigration is currently making headlines.
Already a longstanding feature of Irish history, current events increasingly place it as a feature in Irish newspapers. Emigration itself places Ireland above the other EU countries; in average rates, the Old Country currently holds the highest.
Irish students, interns and young people in general are either partaking in or protesting against emigration. Irish families are being separated by it. Rural areas in Ireland are being depopulated by it. Emigration is even having an effect on the property market. Small wonder then that it should feature so prominently in Irish publications and— when covering the country— in foreign press such as the Economist, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Le Monde and The New York Times.
However although the current budget, which has been variously termed as seen as ‘Operation Emigration’ and ‘the Scattering,’ has provoked anti-Government protest: emigration is nothing new. The current outflow might, at times, equal but does not largely surpass the rate of people leaving Ireland in the 1950s or the 1980s. Considerably more attention is being paid to it now than then, however.
From Mary Robinson lighting a symbolic candle in the window in 1990 to the 2002 Taskforce Report on Ireland and the Irish Abroad, a succession of recent Irish governments have made increasing efforts to establish a ‘Diaspora engagement policy’. Those currently running the country, and accused of running people out of it, are no exception. The Emigrant Support Programme (ESP), which funds almost 200 Irish community organisations in over 20 countries, has not suffered a significant budget cut in three years. Irish groups ranging from those providing support for the elderly abroad and the newly arrived to GAA clubs and other culture and heritage organisations have received grants of over €104 million from the ESP since 2004.
In recent years organisations in Canada and Australia, such as the new Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto, have received additional funding in light of the large numbers of new Irish migrants seeking work in these countries. While the ESP budget falls well short of recommendations made in 2002 in a State Taskforce Report on Policy Regarding Emigrants— and the commitment made on the basis of that report in the 2007 Programme for Government— it is a significant step up from the paltry £250,000 offered in 1987.
It is one of many such steps taken. The Irish Abroad Unit was established in 2004 to ‘provide greater strategic direction’ to the State’s engagement with the diaspora and the first Global Irish Economic forum was held in 2009. The Global Irish Network, a group of influential Irish business figures drawn from over 40 countries overseas, whose role it is to aid in the development of the Irish export market and State initiatives like the Irish Technology Leadership Group, are the direct result of the first Global Irish Economic forum and participated in the third one held just this year gone. In short, the last few years have seen a more widespread involvement of Irish communities overseas in Irish affairs than any other era in a country that has experienced many waves of emigration.
An external vote for Irish emigrants
Although critics see Ireland’s renewal of its relations with the diaspora in a cynical light— for example, renaming the Gathering 2013 as ‘the Grabbing’— there are signs amongst the Irish overseas that these new ties are being taken seriously. As protest mounts at home against the excessive rate of emigration, those who have already left are campaigning for an external vote. A young emigrant movement called We’re Coming Back hosted ‘a toast for a vote’ on the weekend of the 20th of December; inviting participants to photograph a toast in solidarity and post it on Facebook.
We’re Not Leaving, a sister campaign that aims to stem the flood of people leaving Ireland, supported the event and also demand that an external vote be accorded to Irish emigrants.
Nor is it only protesters and pressure groups but politicians also are in favour of granting the Irish abroad the right to participate in elections at home. President of Sinn Féin and a long-time supporter of the overseas vote, Gerry Adams, personally endorsed We’re Coming Back while personalities such as Paul Kehoe, the Fine Gael Minister of State, and Mark Daly, Fianna Fáil Spokesperson for the Irish Overseas and Diaspora, also support extending the democratic franchise to the diaspora.
As Ireland begins to recover its economy but continues to lose its youth, it looks more and more to its emigrants. Therefore, while those leaving are in the paper, in the planes and perhaps reading, it is important someone notes that they are still, more than ever before, a part of the country.
David Burns works in Paris as a TA (Teaching Assistant) at La Sorbonne Nouvelle. He left Ireland after the Dublin restaurants in which he used to work, Frankie’s Steakhouse & Chatham Brasserie, both closed. David is a campaign member of We’re Coming Back, the new movement for an emigrant vote.