Government ‘needs to be honest’ with emigrants, says Joe McHugh
‘Open invitation’ to return not practical when issues persist, says Minister for Diaspora
Minister of State for the Diaspora Joe McHugh has said Ireland needed to be “more targeted in attracting people back” here, as there would not be jobs for all. File photograph: Getty Images
The Government needs to be honest with emigrants about their prospects on returning to Ireland rather than offering them an open invitation to come back, newly appointed Minister of State for the Diaspora Joe McHugh has said.
The previous government created the #HomeToWork social media and poster campaign over Christmas as part of Fine Gael’s commitment to attract 70,000 Irish emigrants back by 2020.
However, in an interview with The Irish Times, Mr McHugh said Ireland needed to be “more targeted in attracting people back”, as there would not be jobs for all.
“Do we just ask them to come back and everything will be grand? I think we need to be honest about the barriers that are there, and try to address them,” he said.
Mr McHugh said gaps were emerging in certain sectors such as science and engineering, and people with the relevant skills were the ones Ireland needed to attract home.
“It is important that I as Minister work closely with the companies that are seeing gaps relating to skills or education, and be a bit more targeted, use the global Irish network that we have, rather than putting out a call,” he said.
Mr McHugh said the majority of Irish people who emigrated in recent times were highly educated and highly skilled, and they should be asked “what their wants and needs are” if they were looking to move home.
An interdepartmental working group on diaspora affairs, chaired by the Minister, is examining issues including the high cost of car and health insurance, and difficulties applying for mortgages or planning permission, which have been identified as deterrents for emigrants who want to return.
Mr McHugh said he has asked Government officials to prioritise the examination of giving overseas citizens a vote in presidential elections, but is not committing to holding a referendum on the issue.
“If we are serious about the global diaspora, it would send out a very strong message,” he said.
But he added: “It is complex work, and there are issues about whether we [set up a voting system] through electronic means, through embassies.”
Following the success of the Gathering in 2013, which saw more than 250,000 extra visitors travel to Ireland from abroad, the Government is considering holding a second year-long diaspora tourism initiative in 2019.
Mr McHugh said the focus of the next Gathering was under consideration, but could involve “marrying education with tourism”.
Critics of the 2013 Gathering, including actor Gabriel Byrne, accused the Government of “shaking down the diaspora for a couple of quid”, but Mr McHugh said the relationship between Ireland and its diaspora must be “based on respect”.
“In the early stages of engagement, especially during difficult economic times in this country, we looked to the diaspora for a way to help Ireland, but I think that is the wrong approach,” he said.
“I think a lot of people who have emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s and 60s left on the basis that they were making it easier on the ones who stayed. They were sending back remittances. We have to be very conscious of that.”
Mr McHugh is also examining the possibility of granting free public transport to Irish-born pensioners living overseas, but said it would be up to the Department of Social Protection to introduce this.