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    “I don’t want to be here”: Reflecting on our “huge and willing” diaspora

    By Noreen Bowden | September 30, 2010

    Two voices on the radio caught my attention yesterday. I am sorry I did not catch either of their names. One was a young graduate on Pat Kenny talking about how she was planning to go the UK for six months and then move on to Australia. She said that most of her graduating class was out of work. She was clearly a reluctant emigrant. “I’m not really looking forward to having to emigrate. If I had a choice I would much rather stay in Ireland,” she said.

    The other was a man on the afternoon Joe Duffy call-in show. He was in his 50s, a business owner whose business had failed. He had been an 1990′s-era emigrant, and had returned to Ireland 11 years ago. Now, he’s in Qatar on the Persian Gulf, and his family has just joined him – his wife, and three children, aged 7, 12 and 15.

    He spoke really movingly of his experience, and again, he made clear he was a reluctant emigrant. When his daughter arrived to live with him in Qatar, she greeted him with the words, “I don’t want to be here.”

    His reply? “I totally understand. I don’t want to be here either.”

    He told Duffy, “It’s very difficult emotionally, but we have no alternative.” He said that he was finding some solace among the growing Irish community abroad. He stated he had just met a recent arrival from Galway, noting that the emigration of “mature” people, in his experience, was “widespread”.

    He can’t see himself returning to Ireland for work, ever – “which is very sad, after coming back” from abroad to raise his family at home. He is still hoping that his children might attend college in Ireland, and will work to allow them to keep strong links to Ireland.

    This man, while clearly sad, wasn’t exactly bemoaning his fate. He was getting on with his life. He noted, “We’re appreciative of the opportunity. The wind changed; we’re left adrift and we had to do something. We’re fortunate we’re mobile.”

    We’re fortunate we’re mobile“. I think of several commentators of recent months, all comfortably ensconced insiders in Ireland, downplaying the disruption of emigration when it’s an involuntary departure. ┬áTanaiste Mary Coughlan declaring young Irish people were entitled to emigrate to enjoy themselves, Avoca executive and Your Country Your Call judge Amanda Pratt on PrimeTime to blithely tell young people to wait out the recession by going off to work in a chipshop in the Phillipines, Senator Mary White’s cavalier appearance on Newstalk where she declared that emigration was not only good for the country, but for families.

    On one point these insiders are right: emigration is good for the country. Journalist Karlin Lillington recently, and rather belatedly in the light of everything that’s happened since last year’s Global Irish Economic Forum, called for a reconsideration of emigration. “But is emigration necessarily a problem in the first place?” she asked. No, it’s not – not to voluntary emigrants, and certainly not to the insiders who aren’t going to have to go anywhere but will still reap the economic rewards of the departures of others; they’ve taken up the notion wholeheartedly. Take a look at the Smart Economy strategy, launched this week by the Taoiseach. It is positively infused with a dependency on the diaspora for Irish economic growth; at the launch, the Taoiseach declared that the “huge and willing resource” of the Irish diaspora would be an asset in its implementation.

    Karlin Lillington further proclaimed, “The idea that 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.”

    It’s like the 1980s all over again – except now not only can’t we all live on this small island, but full employment here has become a Really Bad Idea. And of course, the talk isn’t about the brain drain of the 1980s; it’s about diaspora networking, opening new markets, encouraging global business deals. And our policy makers are perhaps all too aware of the value of sending out our unemployed to serve as the foot soldiers in the global Irish economic army. If some of them wind up as economic cannon fodder in this global downturn, well, at least they’re off our welfare rolls. (And thanks to the habitual residence condition, there’s no guarantee we’ll let them back on.)

    I say this, of course, as someone who is genuinely excited about the potential of our relationship with our diaspora. But we need to be sure to maintain a balanced view. I can’t imagine there’s anyone left in Irish policy circles who needs to be convinced of the economic value of our diaspora. It’s those darn reluctant emigrants who sound less than willing in their task.

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