Ciara Kenny

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

What do Irish organisations abroad want from the new diaspora minister?

From Canada to Australia, representatives working with Irish people abroad share their hopes for the new ministry

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:00


Ciara Kenny

Amid all the hoo-ha about the Cabinet reshuffle last week, the establishment of the State’s first Minister of State for the Disapora aroused little comment. The appointment to the new post of Jimmy Deenihan is a major coup for organisations working with Irish communities around the world. So what are their hopes for the new ministry?

Diaspora policy
Piaras Mac Éinrí, director of the Emigre project, University College Cork

Diaspora policy up to now has emphasised the potential role of the financially successful and the well-connected (the Global Irish Forum and the Global Irish Economic Network) or the revenue-earning potential of the diaspora (the Gathering). These strategies have their place and, in fairness, successive governments have also provided practical financial support for the community and voluntary sector in the Irish diaspora working with the Irish abroad.

But none of this amounts to a comprehensive and holistic diaspora policy.

Emigrants need to be given the vote. A Council for Emigrants and the Diaspora should be established (the latter term recognises that the descendants of Irish-born emigrants should also have their say), and baseline research on the diaspora is needed to document not only who is leaving and where they are going, but also the factors which facilitate or act as barriers to the possibility of return, including welfare, pension and fiscal issues.

Mary Hickman, professor of Irish studies at St Mary’s University, London and chair of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad campaign

The Irish Ambassador to London, Dan Mulhall, speaking in Berlin in 2012, described how the Irish government had come to realise as it sought to “develop our national brand”, that “our Irish communities abroad are a very significant source of influence and impact”. In this assessment the Irish Government views the diaspora as part of the “wealth’”of Ireland. Let us hope that Jimmy Deenihan’s appointment signals more than a determination to maximise that wealth.

Knowing your diaspora and building trust are two key attributes of engaging diasporas according to a recent report of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), based in Geneva. In Ireland’s case this means going beyond a dichotomous view of the diaspora as made up on the one hand of successful Irish entrepreneurs and creatives and on the other of people who have fallen by the way side and need help through the Emigrant Support Programme (highly valued though that is). The diaspora is multi-generational and varies from country to country and region to region.

Get to know the diaspora in the round – this necessitates comprehensive data collection and listening to a wide range of diaspora members to understand not only what they have to offer but also how their wish to maintain affective ties with Ireland can best be supported. Building trust requires strong two-way communication and robust consultation mechanisms – a Consultative Council as in Mexico? – that go beyond the usual charmed circle of businessmen. It also requires fully ending the disenfranchisement of Irish emigrants.

Immigration reform
Joanna Joyce, emigrant officer, Irish Bishops’ Council for Emigrants

Through its centres and outreaches, the Irish Apostolate USA sees daily the difficulties facing the 50,000 Irish undocumented immigrants living in the US, who are unable to travel home to visit family or to attend weddings or funerals. Immigration reform would enable them to come out of the shadows and to contribute actively as members of their local community. Emigrants today still face many of the same challenges as previous generations, and some struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Through its chaplaincies overseas, the Irish Bishops’ Council for Emigrants is aware of the high rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide affecting Irish communities abroad. Emigrants must be supported both prior to and following their departure so that they are adequately prepared for the experience and can reach out for help when they need it.

Voting rights
Conor O’Neill (Belgium) and David Burns (France), co-founders of We’re Coming Back campaigners for recent emigrants

Mr Deenihan has a long history of interest in the diaspora. It is, as the Taoiseach put it, his “niche”. What’s important now is that he uses this position to enact the change he has historically supported – that the establishment of this portfolio is not seen as an achievement in itself.

He should start by enabling our citizens abroad to participate in Irish elections. Last September’s Constitutional Convention, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of an emigrant vote in Irish Presidential elections, awaits a response. The vast majority of modern democracies have enacted provisions that count and account for their citizens overseas.

Noreen Bowden, diaspora consultant and founder of

Emigrants are affected by policies in ways that few in Ireland ever contemplate. Some are paying tax on homes they own in Ireland, or on pensions and accounts held in Irish banks. They can be affected by policies around taxation, consular services, emigrant support, broadcasting, citizenship and both private and state pensions.

If they decide to return, they will be affected by the economy, spousal and family immigration legislation, residency policies affecting their access to social welfare, and the pricing of third-level education. The vote is not an issue of sentimentality or symbolism – it’s about ensuring all citizens have a say in decisions that can profoundly affect their lives.

Reaching out
Ciaran Staunton, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, US

This is the first time an Irish Government has reached out to its exiles, and said we recognise you are out there, we want to work with you and we need your help. Too many previous governments have viewed the diaspora as a giant ATM machine.

Around 500,000 people (200,000 of them Irish citizens) have left the 26 counties since 2008. Where are they gone, who are they with, what are they doing, who is in contact with them, and how are we going to be ready to try to entice them back to Ireland to invest and to raise their children there? There is a 70 million-strong diaspora that needs to be tapped into. When we see how other countries manage to do it so well, from a tourism and investment point of view, there’s huge potential. Who are the future leaders in corporate America who will replace Irish-American philanthropists and investors like Don Keough and Chuck Feeney, who have brought so much to Ireland? This is something a diaspora minister should be working on.

The issue of immigration reform is something that will be dealt with politically within Irish America. This Government has already done much more than all their predecessors. The issues Mr Deenihan will be able to affect, more than US domestic policy, will be issues of Irish domestic policy relating to the Irish abroad, and the factors which lead so many to emigrate.

Clearly Enda Kenny didn’t pick someone just to fill the role. In Jimmy Deenihan, a TD from Co Kerry, he picked someone who understands what it is like to come from a county where its community is scattered all over the world. He has a big job ahead of him now, with a new constituency of 70 million.

Place to return to
Alex McDonnell, Aisling Project co-ordinator, UK

Behind many emigrant success stories there are those who leave home only to fall on harder times. It is those who are most disadvantaged that really need our help.

The Aisling Project has been raising money for the last 10 years to open a resettlement centre in Ireland for vulnerable emigrants who wish to return home but are unable to do so independently. We would ask the Minister to co-ordinate the various Government departments involved to make this possible. The centre will be a permanent legacy not only for those who need our help today but also a promise to tomorrow’s emigrants that should they fall on hard times, they will always be welcome at home.

Emigrant register
Joe O’Brien, policy officer with Crosscare Migrant Project, Ireland

Earlier this year we put a proposal to the Department for Foreign Affairs for an Irish Emigrant Register to stay connected with the diaspora, and to notify people who left in recent years about vacancies in Ireland, to help bring people home. We will also be bringing the Minister’s attention to the obstacles to homeless services for vulnerable returning emigrants.

Network of diaspora organisations
Gary Dunne, director of arts at the London Irish Centre

Each community organisation working with Irish people abroad represents Ireland to their local community. Our role is to care for members of the community when they are in need, and to act as a support structure and locus of a confident cultural identity and connection with Ireland for emigrants more widely.

The Irish diaspora is extremely far-reaching, and as with international business networks, there may be a case for a global network of Irish community organisations, through which best practices, and learnings could be shared and discussed to benefit the whole community.

Facilitating return
Marie-Claire McAleer, National Youth Council of Ireland

A Minister for the Diaspora is even more relevant today in the context of large-scale emigration of young Irish people, many of whom wish to remain connected to Ireland and to return home some day if there is an opportunity. A key priority for Mr Deenihan should be a strategy to support returning emigrants and to ensure adequate housing and social services for them.

Supporting young & old
Jennie McShannon, chief executive of Irish in Britain

The impact of welfare reform in Britain has seen Irish families, including the most elderly, living in greater poverty and at risk of homelessness. Among the new Irish, expected to thrive, many report isolation and risk depression and anxiety which they find difficult to admit to. Memory loss amongst older Irish has become a critical problem. We work closely with the All-party Parliamentary Group on the Irish in Britain to ensure British parliamentarians are involved in community issues. The appointment of Mr Deenihan is the beginning of a corresponding infrastructure in Leinster House which we hope will include a Cabinet Committee that he convenes, chaired by the Taoiseach.

Claire Barry, director of Mind Yourself, London

At Mind Yourself we are dedicated to improving the emotional, physical and mental wellbeing of the diverse Irish community living in London. We embrace the issues that may have played a role in why someone left Ireland in the first place – including identifying as a feminist, as gay, not being Catholic, or a survivor of institutional abuse or state neglect. We are unafraid to take these issues to the Minister, and we hope he is unafraid to look beyond traditional Irish identities.

Crisis support
Claddagh Association, Western Australia

In recent years, Claddagh has seen a significant increase in requests for assistance on serious health issues and medical emergencies, homelessness, mental health, social isolation, and severe financial hardship. We ask the Minister to consider including emergency funds and other support services for Irish citizens in crisis abroad. We would also like to see detailed information available to people on visas, so they are better prepared. This should include advice on the need to obtain travel insurance and a return flight prior to leaving Ireland.

Driving licences
Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto

Our constituents have asked us for continued movement on the Ireland-Canada drivers licence agreements, with the hope of getting an exchange programme with each Canadian province which would allow Irish drivers to have their licences recognised, since Ontario signed the agreement last week.