Ciara Kenny

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

Definitions of ‘nation’ need to widen as the world changes

Migration into and out of Ireland has drastically changed its make-up in recent years, writes David Burns

Melenga Nabiseselo, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and living in Monaghan, after she became an Irish citizen on Monday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Wed, Jan 22, 2014, 11:57


David Burns

Leopold Bloom, Dubliner and central character to Joyce’s Ulysses, describes a nation as “the same people living in the same place”. At first glance, it’s a strange thing for an immigrant to Ireland to say, especially as he says it in a pub surrounded by sodden Catholics. It seems a statement from the start of the 20th century; one with little bearing in contemporary Dublin.

The capital and the country from which Joyce exiled himself is one increasingly shaped by migration. Six years ago, Ireland had the highest average rate of immigration in Europe. Today, according to Eurostat, Ireland now holds the highest EU net migration rate, with more people flying out proportionately from Ireland than from Poland or Lithuania.

However, figures indicate that while emigration continued to rise in 2013, the number of immigrants increased also by 6 per cent, and Monday saw 3,120 people join the country in the Dublin Citizenship Ceremony.

Old definitions of what constitutes a nation need to widen as the world changes. The question of sovereignty and independence and its importance at the start of the last century needs to be re-examined. Sharing the same currency as 18 other, often larger, countries is one reason. The recent economic rebound being based largely on our export market and foreign investment is another.

Similarly, new values need to be sought. An Oxfam report currently going viral states that the equivalent to half the world’s wealth is held by 85 of the world’s wealthiest people. As Ireland continues to be talked about as an economy rather than as a society, and the Government aims to make us the Best Small Country in Which to do Business, the need to re-think this country as a nation grows more apparent.

A good place to begin would be the promised “democratic revolution”. People come and go in search of work but they still have families, friends and personal ties to Ireland; the place and the State. Notwithstanding the continuous cuts to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, there is still a vibrant culture and a strong sense of community and these things remain; because of that, the Gathering 2013 was a success.

We lack a sunny climate and we’re not rich in natural resources but if we have a draw and a “70 million strong” diaspora, it’s down to the ineffable charm of Irishness. That, rather than a nomination from Forbes magazine and European endorsement for austerity, is something to be proud of. It is also something to build on.

A nation is not a lot of people living in one place; that’s a high-rise apartment. A nation is a community loosely bound by shared identities. Ireland is a nation of travellers. Every religious denomination, every ethnicity, everyone of every colour in Ireland belongs to a people that have a long history of migration. Despite this fact, however, there are permanent residents here who pay tax but cannot vote in any but local elections.

By way of comparison New Zealand, an increasingly popular destination for the Irish abroad, allows permanent residents to vote in national elections by way of an external vote. This external vote is also granted for a period of three years to approximately one million Kiwi citizens who live overseas.

Were an external vote to be granted to all the Irish overseas since the start of the financial crisis, in 2008, it would enfranchise less than 200,000 people. Were it to be offered for a period of five years, that figure would be closer to 100,000. Politically involving both groups in the election of the President, whilst largely symbolic, would be a step towards progress and towards recognising and reforming for a country which has changed significantly since 1948.

After all, even Leopold Bloom revised his idea of a nation as being simply the same people living in the same place by adding: “Or also living in different places.”

David Burns teaches at La Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. He is a founding member of the campaign group representing young emigrants, We’re Coming Back, a sister organisation to We’re Not Leaving. Read his previous articles for Generation Emigration here.