Emigration Nation


With the emigration wheel again turning, Sean Finnan looks at the impact of emigration on the relationship between the state and citizen

In the 12 months leading to April, the number of Irish people leaving the island was estimated to be at 46,500. This is an increase of about 6,000 from the year before. In 1989 Ireland saw over 44,000 people leave the country for foreign lands according to the ESRI, but that marked the highest the rate of emigration got during the recession at that time. In terms of comparing our present situation to the previous grievances of emigration, this chapter has already been written.

According to the 1996 census, 207,951 people resident in the state had lived outside the state for one year or more. This figure rose to 329,836 in 2002 and again rose to 778,577 in the 2006 census. Although these figures give no insight into reasons for leaving the state and how long the individual has been away, there is a huge suggestion that when the nation can support its numbers, many would rather remain here. Comments by Minister for Finance earlier this year in which he stated that emigration is “not being driven by unemployment at home… it’s being driven by a desire to see another part of the world and live there” do not reflect the reality of emigration.

“I plan to travel home,” says Claire Mullen, a UCD graduate now living in Perth, Australia. “I’ve been here two and a half years so in the next two years I hope to travel home. Well, not necessarily back to Ireland but maybe to Europe, to England. Hopefully in the next two years things will pick up and there will be work in Ireland. But if not I’ll just go to Europe, it’s much closer to home anyway.”

This is but a reflection of the government’s attitude to emigration. Since the beginning of the crisis, the government has become more engaged with the diaspora abroad through The Global Irish Economic Forum. One of the plans of the forum is to see Irish expatriates sit on the boards of state bodies and offer their expertise for free, while another is The Gathering, set to take place in the coming year.

The Gathering wishes to showcase the country to the Irish diaspora and hopefully extract as much as it can from their pockets. At the same time, thousands of young people are leaving, possibly sharing flights with wealthy ancestors. The state for all its investment in a yearlong homecoming, ignores the leaving party, not even offering them as little as the opportunity to vote abroad. The future promises that they may need their support but for the moment this dependence is easily ignored.

Noreen Bowden of GlobalIrish.ie spoke to the University Observer on the issue of emigrants having the opportunity to vote abroad. “Our constitution says that citizens all around the world are actually entitled to be part of the Irish nation but we haven’t really come to terms with that… Allowing emigrants to vote would increase their level of engagement in the country, and this would be a positive thing at a time when Ireland needs all the help it can get. I believe it’s a necessity from a democratic perspective. Emigrants are affected by a whole range of policies in Ireland; some that affect their chances of return such as the economy and spousal immigration laws, for example. Others have an impact on their lives overseas: the emigrant support budget, the level of consular support available in their new countries, broadcasting policy, pension levels for those who worked in Ireland and are entitled to an Irish pension. Many are paying Irish taxes on properties they own back in Ireland. There’s no one charged with speaking up for overseas citizens in the Dáil so their perspective is utterly unrepresented.”

“Sometimes those who oppose emigrant voting rights make the argument
that they shouldn’t vote because they’re not affected by the policies made
by the government,” continued Bowden. “But this is untrue. Instead the reality is that emigrants are affected by these policies, but the policy-makers aren’t
accountable to them, and have no incentive to consider the effects of
their policies on overseas citizens.”

Often the argument is made that emigrants should not be allowed to vote because they don’t pay taxes. Taxation however, does not equal citizenship. Another argument denying the vote to the Irish abroad is that they are not politically in-tune, yet with advancements in technology, it means it’s as easy to be aware of current affairs in Dublin as it is in New York. The voice of emigrants is effectively hushed. Despite them occupying a kind of inter-state existence with one eye at home, analysing the situation until it is suitable to return home and another in their adopted country, yet in both, their influence on society is denied.

“I left home for a couple of reasons but mainly for work,” says Mullen. “I couldn’t get a job at home. I finished my masters in UCD in structural engineering in 2009 and I was at home for about seven months and couldn’t get a job. I did want to travel as well for experience so this was a good reason to get away. I definitely think they should [have a postal vote]. I think they should have postal votes because there was a lot of stuff in the past we had no control over and also in the future for people who want to travel home, their voice should be heard, especially because of the sheer volume of people that are now outside of Ireland and looking to go back home.”

The impact of technology is the key to change for this situation. The distance between home and abroad in some respects is now the distance from your nearest internet connection. Politically interested emigrants can tap into the networks of Irish people abroad whether it is Facebook or some other site in creating a political entity capable of achieving their right to vote.

“If you have the technology which is going to keep people more in touch than ever before, it’s just going to become inconceivable that we are going to use the old argument that people cannot keep in touch with what is going on,” says Bowden. The second thing as well is that we have a very highly educated cohort going out. People are going to have expectations about how their relationship with their country should be. There is an increasing awareness as well of the number of countries that have moved in the last twenty or thirty years to allow their own expats the right to vote. Ireland is going to become increasingly isolated in not allowing its expats the right to vote.”

Another former UCD student Kate Rothwell, now working in Switzerland, speaks of the impact of technology on her emigration experience. “I think that it has a huge impact. There’s really not the same sense, at least for me, of being cut off, or homesickness. I used to find that if I came home after being away for a few months, I’d have the feeling that I should have a load of news to share but then I’d Skyped my mother the day before so they already knew everything. Sometimes that makes it a bit more difficult to move on, in other circumstances as well, people are calling home the whole time. Generally I found it a lot easier to stay in touch with family and friends, to organise with them what I’m going to do when I’m coming back, and even for the likes of Facebook, where my parents can see and say: ‘Oh look, she’s out, she’s having a good time’. I think the little updates of my life, even if I’m not in touch the whole time and obviously you’ve got to monitor that as well… it makes the world a much smaller place. That sounds corny but it’s true.”

Support services for emigrants are hard to come by in Ireland. Are they really needed however is a difficult question to assess. The Council for Emigrants of the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference provides support to those emigrating by offering information on host destinations, numbers of support services, liaising with other migrant network groups for the needs of migrants, etc. The lack of support services by the Government though is perhaps unsurprising.

“Obviously you could say that they could provide more jobs but that’s a very complex issue in itself,” says Rothwell. “I think if there was a more positive attitude towards foreign language learning. There are huge issues with the way languages are taught in secondary schools and that’s something again that’s being cut back and cut back… There isn’t enough competence or even confidence in language learning. I think if more of us had that, if we had a second language which we felt a little more strongly about, then a lot more of us could go to Germany, to France or wherever, where you wouldn’t be that far away. They would be a Ryanair flight away rather than those who unfortunately feel that no, I’ve got to go to Australia, I’ve got to go to New Zealand, to Canada and again, there are a lot going there because it’s an adventure, but it’s a huge investment to go that far. If it doesn’t work, then people are stuck. I think one way to help, or at least reduce that is to take a second look at foreign language learning.”

Currently 18,900 Irish people have emigrated to the United Kingdom this year according to CSO figures ,with the number growing daily. The number of Irish people in London is believed to be reaching the one million mark, making London the second biggest Irish city in terms of Irish residents. The two cities have never been closer with dozens of daily flights between Dublin and London, cheaper than that of a train to Cork. Yet, as of last month, RTE closed down its London headquarters.

With the importance and interest of Irish people having often been intrinsically tied with Britain’s capital, now when the city is a direct personal interest for even more Irish families, commuters and emigrants the decision to close it is but another reflection of the State and its bodies’ indifferent attitude to the Irish Abroad.

In a recent Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times survey, 72% of respondents said they would prefer to return home.

Ireland at the moment is losing the most educated generation that it ever possessed thanks to the free third level education provided by previous governments. The dynamisms of youth are being lost in Ireland to other states worldwide. Ireland’s youngest generation is being denied not only a political say due to their lack of vote but the chances to develop Irish society anew from the corruption that burned through Ireland for the past 40 years. However, the phoenix has emigrated and we are left with the burnt out ideals that dominated turning the wheel again.