Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

‘I want to return home, but that means a new career’

I have worked all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East helping to organise democratic elections with the EU and UN, but I still see Ireland as home and would love to return full-time someday, says NIALL McCANN

Fri, Nov 16, 2012, 10:33


I have worked all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East helping to organise democratic elections with the EU and UN, but I still see Ireland as home and would love to return full-time someday, says NIALL McCANN

Niall McCann pictured in Al Saleh Mosque, Sana'a, Yemen. 'I still see Ireland as 'home' and want to return full-time someday'

On a shelf in my office in Brussels I keep a collection of flags from countries where I have spent more than two months working. I have 13 now, from all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East. I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to live and work in places that many Irish people have never seen.

My first job after I graduated from social science in UCD in 1992 was with a small policy-research company in Dublin. The work was interesting, but I was only 23 and wanted to travel. I came across Voluntary Services International, and one month later I started working in a refugee camp in Croatia, teaching English and doing crafts and sports with the kids. These families had fled the war in Bosnia, and many were traumatised. It was hard work, but I felt blessed to be there.

I spent a short time working in warehouses and bars in the US after that, but Bosnia was always on my mind. The war ended in 1995, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was mandated under the Dayton peace agreement to supervise the first post-war elections.

Two and a half thousand supervisors were required to assist, one for every polling station. Ads appeared in the Irish newspapers looking for volunteers. I applied and was selected.

From then until 2000, I spent most of my time living between Bosnia and Croatia, working for the OSCE and for the International Crisis Group think tank. It was a tough environment, the peace agreement in Bosnia was not working and there was little optimism for the future. I started getting sick regularly, suffering from headaches, back pain, fatigue. I finally realised it was my body’s way of saying “enough”.

I felt utterly burnt out when I returned to Limerick in 2001. I decided to do a Masters in international studies, to be “at home” for a while. I had plans to settle down, and went back to my old job doing social-policy evaluations for the Department of Finance, where I worked until 2005. I met some great people and enjoyed my work, but began to get restless again as my contract was coming to an end. The “Tiger kids” had taken over Dublin and I felt ready to move again.

Niall working with election organisers in Sudan

Back on the road

I had continued to take unpaid leave to supervise elections with OSCE in places such as Hungary, Romania and Croatia for a month or so at a time. A team of about 15 of us would travel out to the country before an election, to analyse things such as voter registration, campaign finances, and any legal issues around their electoral system.

One boss of mine recommended me to the UN, where my first job was assisting with the organisation of the Liberian elections in 2005, which resulted in the first democratically elected female president in Africa. Since then, I have lived in Romania, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Zambia, Sudan and Lebanon, working as an electoral assistance adviser for the UN and the EU. At the beginning of 2011 I moved to Brussels, where I am still based.

When a country applies to the UN for help with their elections, I travel out to analyse any current systems that are in place, make recommendations, and design a programme of assistance. I liaise with the EU and other bilateral aid donors to raise the money needed to implement the plan.

Over the past two weeks I have been to Botswana, Mozambique and Lebanon, with just one night in Brussels between flights. Moving around so often means I have to be socially adaptable and make new friends quickly. I have met some fabulous people – many of them Irish – in the places I have lived over the years. Strangely enough, the smaller and more isolated the country, the easier it sometimes is to make friends, as your “circle” is smaller.

The Irish always find each other. The young ones often say “I didn’t come to Africa to hang out with Irish people”, and I respect that. But the reality is, the way of life and the difference in your economic circumstances is so different in some of these countries that the vast majority of people become friends with other expats who are in a similar position.

Niall in Johannesburg last year

Work-life balance

As I get older, my perspective on my work versus social life is changing. When you are younger, you arrive in a new place full of excitement and adrenalin, attempting to visit every bar every night. But in your 40s, the focus on work and what you are actually in that country to achieve, becomes sharper. Paradoxically, I am also looking for more of a work-life balance. It is no secret that your personal life suffers when you live this kind of existence. I see many colleagues single or separated.

Because I travel so much, I hadn’t felt integrated in Brussels life since I moved here. But watching the hurling quarter-finals two months ago, I got chatting to some Limerick girls involved with the Belgium GAA Club. I posted on the Facebook page to ask, jokingly, if they needed a 42-year-old goal keeper. Within 20 minutes they had replied and I was at training the next day. It amazes me away how organised the GAA scene in Europe is, how committed everyone is, and how welcome they make everyone feel.

I still see Ireland as “home” and want to return full-time some day, but it would possibly mean a new career. Guys like me are of little interest to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is unfortunate, as we would have a lot to offer.

My mother is 73 now and alone since dad passed away, and I have an intellectually disabled brother in Limerick. I get home every couple of months. Sometimes I see fantastic jobs with the UN in places like Fiji or the Solomon Islands, but these days I need to be closer to home.

My current contract will take me to the end of this year but I expect it to be extended. I don’t look too far into the future, I can’t with the work I do. But isn’t it wiser folk than me that tell us to live in the present? Isn’t life what happens when you’re busy making plans?

- In conversation with CIARA KENNY

This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today and on the main website here.