A stronger diaspora still needs the mother ship

Irish people living abroad may be better off than in the past but they still require support

Initiatives such as the Gathering seek financial input from abroad but sometimes the money needs to flow the other way. Photograph: Alan Betson

Initiatives such as the Gathering seek financial input from abroad but sometimes the money needs to flow the other way. Photograph: Alan Betson

Thu, Jul 31, 2014, 01:00

“Most people [in Ireland] don’t give a s**t about the diaspora except to shake them down for a few quid,” was Gabriel Byrne’s immortal condemnation of the Gathering before it had even begun last year.

While the tourism initiative to “bring the diaspora home” largely proved a success, Byrne’s words rang true for many emigrants, especially those who had not left by choice, who felt genuinely aggrieved that the State was attempting to reap a financial reward from them, after not giving them the opportunity to stay in their own country.

Ireland has been increasingly looking to the successful members of its communities abroad for a helping hand economically since the recession hit. They have appealed to them to do their bit for Ireland through initiatives such as the Gathering, and the three Global Irish Economic Forums, which have brought international Irish business leaders together for an annual think-in since 2009.

Number of Irish migrants 2008-2013

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But it came as a surprise to many emigrants recently interviewed by the Clinton Institute in University College Dublin that financial support between Ireland and its diaspora actually flows both ways.

When the Government last reviewed its diaspora policy 12 years ago, the relationship between Ireland and its communities abroad was quite different to today.

In 2002, the economy was on the rise, outward migration was comparatively low, and the country was finally in a position to repay the debt it felt it owed its emigrants, particularly the elderly and vulnerable.

Out of this grew the Emigrant Support Programme, a dedicated fund to support organisations working with Irish communities overseas.

Over the past decade the scheme has provided about €115 million primarily to welfare-oriented groups, particularly in the UK.

Since the recession hit in 2008, Ireland has once again became a country of net emigration. More than 200,000 have left in the intervening years, and although some are beginning to trickle back as the economy recovers, many others have put down firm roots in their new homes and may never return.

The outflow has had a profound impact not only on the society these emigrants left behind in Ireland, but also on the communities they have joined all around the world.

The “shrunken” and “ageing” Irish diaspora which two National University of Ireland researchers identified in a diaspora strategy proposal in 2008 has been much bolstered by this new wave of emigrants, who are generally younger, more highly educated, and more networked than ever before, as several recent studies have shown.

But it would be a mistake to think the new generation of Irish abroad are without needs and vulnerabilities.

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