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Column Emigrants give plenty back to Ireland, so why can't we vote?

Politicians laugh off the fact that people are being forced to leave. They wouldn’t if they faced the consequences at the polls, writes Noreen Bowden.

On Friday, US-based publisher Niall O’Dowd announced he was withdrawing from the Irish presidential race. Perhaps it’s because we expect emigrants to help solve our problems, but give nothing in return, argues Noreen Bowden.

THIS SUMMER, SEVEN of my friends are emigrating. They include: a returned emigrant in his 40s, back several years from the US but now job-hunting in Berlin; a couple in their late 30s and their two young children, heading to a new job for him in the UK; a man in his 70s who believes his retirement savings will last longer in Spain than in Ireland; and a friend in his late 40s who is moving back home to Colorado, facing an uncertain future after 20 years of living in Galway.

I’m going myself: packing up after nearly a decade and a half in Ireland, going back to spend a year back in graduate school in Boston. My own story of emigration and return will continue on its twisty way. I’m the daughter of a Castlebar woman who left in the 1950s and a Kilkenny man who became a New York City bus driver after emigrating in the 1960s. I’ve been living in Ireland since 1997, and I suspect I’ll be back.

Earlier this month, Fergus O’Rourke wrote on that “in Ireland, emigration is pretty universally regarded as A Bad Thing”. I’d dispute that. In Ireland emigration really isn’t “universally regarded” as any one thing at all. Our relationship with the phenomenon is complex, deeply individual and often contradictory.

During the boom times, the notion that involuntary emigration was a bad thing was a safe concept for the government to express, even at the highest levels: Bertie Ahern declared the ending of involuntary emigration as one of his top achievements. No one really questioned the nearly 20,000 Irish people a year who were still leaving: with an unemployment rate hovering at around four per cent, and the Australian year a rite of passage for many, it seemed reasonable to assume that those who left were enjoying the fruits of a global boom. For those that weren’t, the Irish government was upping the spending on Irish welfare abroad.

When times are tough, however, the public discourse around emigration tends to diverge. It’s then – while TV news programmes tug at the heartstrings with images of teary mothers at the airport, stories of entire classes of graduating nurses being hired by UK hospitals, and tales of fathers leaving families to take contracts in London or Dubai that will enable them to send home the mortgage – that we hear the calls to embrace our renewed status as an emigrant nation. The loudest of these voices tend to belong to those who feel no urge to move themselves.

‘A dead-end vision’

In the 1980s, Brian Lenihan Snr’s “We can’t all live on a small island” seemed to sum up governmental complacency. During the current crisis, it was former Tánaiste Mary Coughlan who highlighted the government’s non-response to rising emigration figures: she claimed young people were emigrating because “they want to enjoy themselves. That’s what young people are entitled to do.”

While some surely were emigrating to enjoy themselves, it seems unlikely that the amount of fun to be had out there was rising with the emigration rate as global economic fortunes declined.

Journalist Karlin Lillington wrote a piece in the Irish Times, calling for a reconsideration of emigration (as if it hadn’t already happened among policy-makers). She unselfconsciously echoed Brian Lenihan’s 1980s comments in proclaiming:

The idea that this small land mass can provide jobs for its entire population doesn’t make sense – and even if it did, having everybody employed here would be an extremely limited and dead-end economic vision.

Lillington wasn’t just hearkening back to the 1980s with her comments. Her words were rooted in the notion that the diaspora is out there to be harnessed for our economic ends. That the more educated, talented people we have working on our behalf around the world, the better off we’ll be. By now the idea of ‘harnessing the diaspora’ is so widespread in Ireland that it makes the occasional student protests against ‘brain drain’ sound strangely old-fashioned. We don’t do brain drain anymore. It’s called brain circulation now, and it rests on the notion that our most qualified emigrants will either return or make their foreign-gained experience available for Ireland’s benefit.

It may have been Mary Robinson who started the celebration of the diaspora in Ireland in the 1990s, but her embrace was soon followed by the phenomenon of diaspora engagement for economic purposes. Irish policy-makers realised we were on to something. Our diaspora had achieved mythic proportions: we have the biggest, most loyal diaspora of them all – or so we imagine. Never mind that the figure of 70million is a dubious extrapolation based on census results recording anyone who reports any Irish ancestry. No matter: our Green Army of 70 million (or 80 or 100 million, as the figure has been variously reported in recent months) is surely just awaiting the word from commanding officers back home to unleash their economic might.

The Irish establishment has responded enthusiastically. Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen eagerly talked up the diaspora as a “huge and willing resource” when he launched the Smart Economy strategy in 2010. Enda Kenny was thinking similarly when he announced the initiative in which diaspora members would be paid for job creation. During the crisis, the notion that the diaspora could save us from our financial fate has loomed large. There seems to be no limit to what we can ask of our loyal foot soldiers abroad.

‘He’s not one of us’

And yet we see the limits of our gratitude when we see the reaction to Irish-born, New York-based publisher Niall O’Dowd’s interest in seeking the Irish presidency. There were plenty of voices pointing out that O’Dowd isn’t really one of us any more. The Irish Times ran an unintentionally comical article from the Northern Ireland-born, New York-resident Walter Ellis, who plaintively opined that O’Dowd “would not get my vote”. No surprise there, as Ellis is as disenfranchised as O’Dowd. Irish Times editors thoughtfully appended to the article the text of the US oath of allegiance taken by immigrants when they became US citizens. They did not add that the Irish government does not recognise such oaths as a renunciation of Irish citizenship.

O’Dowd was willing to be the good Irishman abroad as president, acting as a travelling salesman for the country. He appeared earnest in his intention to spread the pro-business, tourism-friendly gospel of Brand Ireland. This won’t stop his critics. Article 2 of our constitution may grant O’Dowd full entitlement to membership in the Irish Nation as an Irish citizen, but the court of popular opinion in Ireland won’t. Once you go, your money, your contacts, and your expertise are welcome. Your presence in the political system is not.

Because that’s one of the curious things about the establishment view of emigration: while today’s politicians are relatively unconcerned about emigration, it’s the emigrants themselves they’re not too sure about. Almost every other developed nation in the world (and a long and growing list of developing ones) allows its ex-pats to vote – partly because they realise political engagement is part of the deal if they want to reap the economic benefits of their diasporas. Not so Ireland: our political classes distrust our emigrants – perhaps because they realise that it will be a lot harder to maintain that cavalier attitude toward the departure of thousands of people in tough economic times if the departed retain a political voice.

And emigrants like O’Dowd have been willing to go along with this bad bargain – for too long, I would argue. O’Dowd contemplated running in an election he won’t be allowed to vote in, and showed no interest in even protesting his own disenfranchisement. O’Dowd has worked tirelessly on behalf of Ireland, for several decades. Yet he and the other three million Irish citizens abroad are refused what the vast majority of other developed nations offer: a voice in their home country.

How long with the establishment be able to keep a lid on the political aspirations of the Irish abroad? I believe it will be this generation of emigrants who will force the change. Today’s young people are too connected, self-confident and politically aware to content themselves with donning the green jersey while being deprived of the kind of voice that almost any other EU nation would give them. The old arguments against giving emigrants the vote just don’t work any more, and today’s Irish abroad are become increasingly aware of the reality that emigrant voting is now an international democratic norm.

It’s up to the Irish establishment to take up the challenge of facilitating political participation for all our citizens. For too long, the establishment has been too relaxed about the price their fellow citizens paid when they leave Ireland in bad economic times. Perhaps the cavalier pronouncements on emigration will be a little harder to make when they are accountable to those who’ve left.

Noreen Bowden has been engaged in emigrant issues for twenty years and is the former director of the Emigrant Advice Network. She writes about emigration and diaspora at her website,

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