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    “Irish in Britain” event debates diaspora role

    By Noreen Bowden | December 3, 2009

    I did up this report for the Irish Emigrant newsletter at

    UCD’s John Hume Institute brought its third annual Irish Diaspora Forum to London this week, bringing together politicians, historians, writers, business executives and others from the Irish community.  UCD president Hugh Brady joked that the “Irish in Britain” event allowed London to become “Connemara East” for the day. He called the forum series “a rolling conversation exploring the nature of the relationship between Ireland and Irish people and people who identify with Ireland.” The first two  forums, which were co-organised by Irish America magazine and The Ireland Funds along with UCD, were held in 2007 in New York and in 2008 in Dublin.

    The speakers at this year’s event, which drew about 100 people, included academics Mary Daly, Diarmaid Ferriter, Declan Kiberd, Mary Hickman and Cormac O’Grada; writer Frank McGuinness; Olympian John Treacy; legendary sports broadcaster Micheal O Muircheartaigh;  former Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald, and many more. The panel sessions explored three themes: the Irish Diaspora as agents of political change, Diaspora as creative impulse, and cultural branding in the Diaspora. The final session asked the question “What does the future hold for Ireland and its Diaspora?” It was a day of lively debate, with contrasting views of the Diaspora and the future role of emigrants emerging.

    One of the highlights was the awarding of the UCD John Hume Medal to former president Mary Robinson. While the award recognised the work Ms Robinson had done on raising the profile of the Irish abroad during her presidency in the 1990s, she made it clear that there were many in Ireland who had not appreciated the importance of the diaspora at the time. She described the response in the Oireachtas as she gave her ground-breaking speech, “Cherishing the Diaspora”: “it was going down like a lead balloon… there was no doubt in my mind that members of the Oireachtas did not want to hear [about the diaspora]“. She said she left the speech, deeply depressed, but then “messages started to come in from all over the world,” and Ms Robinson realised her speech had meant a great deal to the Irish abroad. Ted Kennedy even entered the speech into the US Congressional record. The contrast between the response of the Irish in Ireland and the global Irish response “reinforced my sense that we underestimated our diaspora”, she said.

    Much has changed since then, and the Irish Diaspora, of course, is enjoying a high profile in Ireland these days; the recent Farmleigh Conference in particular has raised questions about what role the Irish Diaspora might play in Ireland’s future and its economic development. But the crisis that served as the impetus for this new outreach to the Diaspora has also sparked a renewed uptick in emigration by the young unemployed. It was this dual reality that was at the heart of one of the differences that emerged in the day: whether the dominant image of the Irish worldwide was more accurately portrayed as that of a global professional, entrepreneurial class or that of a sometimes vulnerable, potentially marginalized, migratory workforce at the mercy of the global economy.

    Most of the attendees and speakers were at the professional end of the spectrum: this was an event that was pitched at UCD alumni living in London, and with a 55-euro fee and a setting in the Royal Society, the event would probably have seemed inaccessible to less affluent members of the Irish community.

    It was a consideration of the most vulnerable Irish emigrants, however, that provoked the most passionate contribution of the day, from writer Frank McGuinness. He discussed Children of the Dead End, the classic emigration novel written by Patrick MacGill, describing MacGill as “one man who spoke out to give voice to the voiceless”. McGuinness outlined MacGill’s depiction of the Irish dispossessed, who had been failed by their families and their society: “their bodies are their own only insofar as they can be rented out for other’s benefits”, and their “contact with home would eventually be reduced to letters that said ‘Send money home’.”

    McGuinness said, “May we be forgiven for what we did – and continue to do – to our poorest”. Adding that the vast majority of the new class of emigrants are construction workers who left school young, he suggested that he would “give everyone emigrating a copy of this book”. It would serve as a warning: “You’re up for a fight – and be prepared for it.”

    One contributor, former Esat Digiphone CEO Barry Moloney, bridged the gap between the two visions of the diaspora when he envisioned that global Irish professionals had a role to play in preventing emigration in the future. Describing the diaspora as “the single most important thing that can help” in developing Ireland’s economy in the future, he said, “I take that responsibility very seriously”. He said that in forums such as this and the Farmleigh conference, economic strategising by the diaspora was “the number one agenda item if we’re going to help so our kids don’t have to go abroad again.”

    The issue of emigrant voting arose during several of the speaker’s contributions. Diarmaid Ferriter was the first to bring it up, noting how Polish politicians had courted the vote of the Poles living in Ireland. He asked, “Would the Irish political situation have been different had the Irish of the 1950s had the vote?”

    Mary Hickman noted that the issue of emigrant voting rights was “more taboo” than in the past, even though 115 nations allow emigrant voting rights. She also suggested that the diaspora, Northern Ireland and new immigrants presented a three-prong challenge to Ireland, noting that despite the reform of Article Two of the Constitution, “the national territory and its governance remain ring-fenced”.

    This issue provoked the most heated discussion of the day, as former Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald suggested that the American Revolution’s famous rallying cry for democracy, “No taxation without representation” needed to be inverted in an Irish context into “No representation without taxation”. He also expressed fears about the candidates that the Irish in America, in particular, might vote for.

    Dermot Gallagher, the former secretary-general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, also voiced opposition to the idea of emigrant voting, citing a potential example of a woman in California with one Irish grandparent being eligible to vote (although Mary Hickman had explicitly stated that she was not proposing voting rights for second or later generations). Mr Gallagher did welcome an exploration of the idea of political participation by emigrants through representation in the Seanad, however.  Judging from the emotional response to the debate, the role of emigrants in Ireland’s political structures in the future is an issue likely to arise in the future.

    Mary Robinson, in one of the closing comments of the conference noted that the Irish diaspora doesn’t just want a connection with Ireland; there is “a notion of being able to reimagine Ireland because we’re making more of a link?. She pointed to the diaspora’s ability to bring greater understanding of our history, to act as a bridge on climate change, and to unite to create huge numbers of jobs as potential benefits of making and remaking connections within the diaspora.

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    One Response to ““Irish in Britain” event debates diaspora role”

    1. India working to allow expat vote, says PM | – about Irish emigration and the diaspora Says:
      January 8th, 2010 at 11:35 am

      [...] perhaps “debate” is too strong a word. As Mary Hickman stated at the recent Irish Diaspora Seminar hosted by UCD in London, the issue of emigrant voting rights is taboo in Ireland. As the Irish Post [...]