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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019

RTÉ's George Lee on emigration, climate change and the Dáil's 'power game'

We spoke to George Lee about his new documentary on Irish expats in Hong Kong – and if the Dáil should be doing something to make Ireland a more attractive place to live and work.

6/6/2009 Elections Results Source:

SAY WHAT YOU like about George Lee (and he does have his critics, particularly after his stint in the Dáil) there’s no denying he’s passionate about the subjects he tackles.

After working for the Central Bank and as a senior economist at a stockbrokers, Lee grew to fame as an economics correspondent for RTÉ, tearing apart the economic policies that lead to the Celtic Tiger collapse in his programme How We Blew the Boom.

In a move that raised a lot of eyebrows and received a lot of attention, Lee left RTÉ and joined Fine Gael running for office in Dublin South in the 2009 general election.

He was labelled a ‘celebrity’ candidate, and topped the poll comfortably – beating his nearest opponent, Labour’s Alex White,  by over 15,000 votes.

In equally dramatic a fashion, after almost nine months as a TD, Lee resigned from both the Dáil and Fine Gael – saying he was disillusioned with the process, and was appointed to roles “without my consultation whatsoever” (more on that later).

As Lee’s brush with politics was during a leave of absence from RTÉ, he returned to the station to his high-salary – but not to the same politically-charged role as their economics expert.

Now he takes on the neutral task of Agriculture and Environment correspondent, putting both his farming background and passion for the environment to use.

Lee also has a great admiration for the resilience of the Irish people, and says that it is due to their efforts – and not politicians – that Ireland has recovered as much as it has.

In the new documentary Better Off Abroad, he explores a different type of resilience, taking a look at what people endure when they emigrate, and gaining an insight into a subject that he says fascinates people:

“What kind of jobs [do they have], what kind of lifestyle? [We want] to experience and bring back what it’s like to be an Irish expat,” he says.

Better Off Abroad?

hong Kong Source: Screenshot/Better Off Abroad

The series Better Off Abroad looks at Irish people in different cities, and different jobs across the world, travelling to places like California and Dubai to speak with the area’s Irish immigrants.

In the episode to be released this evening, Lee travels to Hong Kong to explore the good, as well as the bad of living in a city with a unique political position.

“There’s a lot they have to turn a blind eye to,” says Lee. “Hong Kong is a flashy city with a lot of people in a very small area, it’s very fast-paced and wickedly expensive for property. Then there’s the pollution, the traffic, the constant movement.

But the other side of that is the good pay, the career opportunities, and no sale tax and an income tax of 8%. So it’s a mixed bag, but most people we met were very happy.

He says that the pace of life in Hong Kong also poses its challenges and that people should expect to work long, hard hours if they’re to make the move.

“If you’re going there without good skills or good connections you’d be pretty miserable.”

He also says that people should be careful in assuming that emigrating to London (another city the series has looked at) “is a doddle” – saying that they have a very different culture, society and political system.

“One of the people I came across that impressed me was the head butler in the Savoy, who’s a very outwardly person and could talk to anybody, a natural gab.

“And he describes coming to work in the morning – they all get on the train, everyone looks at the ground, nobody looks at each other, nobody speaks with each other. He doesn’t know the names of his neighbours on one side of his home, even though he’s lived in his place for a long time.

I spoke to another guy who was very, very very well-off, he lived in one of the stockbroker belts and one of the things he said was: ‘The English don’t quite let you in – they’re tolerant, but different’.

Screenshot 2016-11-26 at 19.45.35 Source: Better Off Abroad/Screengrab

Although augmented by the most recent economic crash, Irish emigration isn’t a new phenomenon. But Lee says that this year in particular has made emigrations “an issue of our time” which warrants a closer look to inform others, as well as satisfy our own curiosity.

“How many of your friends live or have lived abroad? There are an awful lot of Irish people who have gone abroad and a lot of Irish people who’ve thought about it. It’s intriguing to find out what kind of lives they have led.”

He says that although there’s a strong case for people to stay at home, that there’s “a kind of fascination” with the subject of emigration and it’s not just for the young:

“We mostly spoke to people in their 40s who said they’d give it a go – which is really interesting, as there’s a perception that emigration is for young people who are only interested in a good time and will move on home afterwards.

I don’t think that’s the reality. I think people are always interested in better opportunities.

But the fact that so many people feel they have to leave Ireland for better opportunities elsewhere, does that represent a failure on behalf of our politicians, and if so, how should we change the Dáil to change that?


6/6/2009 Elections Results The night George Lee was elected in 2009. Source:

“I have experience with the Dáil,” says Lee.

People can be idealistic about what the Dáil should be. I was, but I’ve learnt that the Dáil is purely about power. Maybe people are expecting too much in terms of what the Dáil should be, but no matter what you do about changing it – it is a game about power.

“My experience is, it’s not a place for idealists.”

So is it difficult to watch Enda Kenny and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan talk to Trump about issues such as Irish immigration, an issue he’s clearly interested in, and not get involved?

I don’t find it the slightest bit difficult in separating myself. I put it in the context of what it is, they must do their job, I think my view won’t have any impact on what they do.
I don’t think the general view of ordinary people and constituents matters in their dealings about how they deal with Trump or otherwise.

“I’m a little bit wised up in relation to what to expect and I’m more informed than ever. I just see what it is – it’s politics, and politics is about power. It’s not about what you think it is.”

12/5/2009. Fine Gael By Elections Campaigns Source:

As skeptical as all of that sounds, Lee seems to reserve all hope he has for Ireland’s future:

“I think there are great things about Ireland and sometimes we forget it.

I don’t want to fall into anybody’s support trap, but Ireland has gone under the most extraordinary recovery. This country is under sold, it’s not discussed, it’s under appreciated.

“I can’t think of any other country which went into total meltdown, the likes of which we were in the middle of before and have come out of it so fast, so quickly, and we don’t talk about that.

“And I think we should talk about it is because it gives us great hope… a good strong reason to be hopeful for the future.”

He also acknowledges that not everyone has felt the recovery – a point emphasised by the last election, which punished Fine Gael for their slogan ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ for being out of tune with the experiences of a lot of voters.

“Cleary at the moment, people are still angry. I was so angry I went into the Dáil, so I’ve experienced and felt all of those things.

“There are an awful lot of places which haven’t felt the recovery and will never be the same again, but there are good things happening and there are people doing good things.”

I don’t think politicians keep the country going.

6/5/2009 George Lee Joins Fine Gael Source:

Climate change is the next big thing in George Lee’s sights. As RTÉ’s agricultural and environment correspondent, he’s supportive of electric cars as one of many efforts to combat climate change.

“Climate change it is one of the biggest issues of our generation. It’s such a massive challenge.

“We didn’t know about these things when I was a kid, when I was a boy.

“I remember looking at burning rubbish in back gardens or places where I worked and I remember thinking, even as a little kid: ‘Where does the smoke go?’

“You know, you throw a tyre on and the fire and black smoke goes into the sky and [someone says] ‘Oh you know it just goes up into the sky’.

“But we know better now, and there is a limit to what you can put up there. There are challenges and it’s not necessarily our fault, but there are changes we can make, and even though there’s a huge way to go, I think it’s worthwhile.

“I think that’s something my kids, your kids, they won’t thank us for ignoring it.”

Better Off Abroad airs tonight at 9.30pm.


Read: RTÉ staff say decision to cut children’s programme making was ‘bolt from the blue’

Read: George Lee, RTÉ’s new Agriculture Correspondent: Both my parents are from farms

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