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'Home to what?' Emigrants want a say in who runs the show while they're living abroad

Barry Johnston says emigrants are exercised about having no say in the kind of country they would one day like to return to.

“YOU WILL ALWAYS be of Ireland”. The words of the Taoiseach in his Christmas message to the Irish overseas. The Taoiseach’s fine words are beginning to ring hollow to the one in six Irish-born citizens living abroad who, with no right to vote, are denied any say in the future of their country.

The government had a clear strategy of capitalising on the sentiment and emotion surrounding the mass return of Irish emigrants for the festive period. The centrepiece of this was the launch of the #hometowork campaign. “Make your Christmas commute shorter next year”, the ads in airport arrivals halls read.

It was a deliberate but clumsy attempt to co-opt the positivity and dynamism of the marriage referendum #hometovote. Instead it has drawn scorn from many emigrants who see little benefit now in returning to lower paid jobs with fewer opportunities; it ostracises those emigrants who may not have the skills or resources to return for work; and it draws attention to this government’s totally inadequate response to the 5th report of the Constitutional Convention on emigrant voting.

Irish emigrants 

In the past month, in preparation for the launch of the first ever Emigrant Manifesto, I have been canvassing the views of Irish emigrants face-to-face and online. On the relationship between the state and the Irish abroad, one Dublin graduate now living and working on the continent put it simply. “They should stop treating us like a cash cow and start recognising us as citizens.”

A meeting with a group of Berlin GAA members was typical. Much to my delight (and relief) they showed up on a snowy night in early January as the temperature dipped below minus 8 degrees. The weather – a metaphor for how the topic has been put on ice by successive Irish governments. Their presence – a testament to how much they cared and were keen to have their say.

“Home to what?”, was Anthony’s take. An engineer and proud Cavan-man (is there any other kind?), he still sees little employment opportunities in his home county and wouldn’t consider working in Dublin a return home.

The vast majority of emigrants I have spoken to have contemplated the timing and the circumstances of their return at some point, but many are in no hurry. They were much more exercised about having no say in the kind of country they would return to nor a mechanism as Irish citizens to hold to account the politicians whose policies had forced many of them to leave in the first place.

Cillian is in a relationship with a Romanian woman in Berlin. Unlike him she retains the right to vote in her home country, and does so frequently. The comparison for him is stark.

Still Irish citizens

“I’m still an Irish citizen at the end of the day. If I don’t get to vote in Ireland, where do I get to vote?”

He highlights too the problem inherent in the government’s policy of encouraging emigrant return but denying them political voice. Regardless of job opportunities, with a lack of non-religious education options he feels less likely to return home to raise a family.

But at least these young Irish ex-pats – the obvious targets of the #hometowork campaign – still feel wanted in some way by their home nation, if only for their economic potential.

Recently at the Irish Embassy the Ireland Fund Great Britain Award was presented to Monica’s Place – an accommodation and welfare service for Irish men in Birmingham. One of the service users, Joe, spoke at the event. He left Dublin 54 years ago.

The service provided a visit back to Dublin recently, but he didn’t recognise it as home. A whole generation of the long-departed ‘forgotten’ Irish, like Joe, are left without any sense as to what part “of Ireland” they now belong.

Engaging with the diaspora 

Undoubtedly this government has done much to ‘engage’ the diaspora. It has appointed the first Minister for the Diaspora – Jimmy Deenihan, by all accounts a popular figure amongst the Irish abroad. And to its credit it has spared the relatively small but vitally important emigrant support budget from the worst of the cutbacks.

Yet while many have been happy to contribute to initiatives like to the Global Irish Economic Forum and Connect Ireland, it has remained a resolutely one-way relationship. “We’re only interested in you if you have something to give”, is the message many emigrants have been hearing for years.

The one thing the Irish abroad have consistently called for, regardless of generation, destination or economic circumstance, is the right to vote – a right the emigrant citizens of over 120 other countries enjoy.

For all its talk this government just didn’t want to go there and so responding to the relevant report on the Constitutional Convention, 22 months late by its own deadline, it passed the buck on to the next administration citing “practical and operational challenges”.

So, we’ll go into this election calling (some of) our emigrants home, bemoaning the departure of others, romanticising and sentimentalising them, but refusing to listen to what they have to say.

Barry Johnston is a London-based Independent candidate seeking election to the Seanad on the NUI Panel as a representative of the Irish overseas. @B_CA_JohnstonFacebook.

The emigration manifesto was launched today. You can find out more here

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