Time to rethink the way we view emigration


NET RESULTS:An appetite to gain international experience has won the Irish a great reputation, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

DUE TO this island’s history, the word “emigration” is the most emotive of terms. Freighted with adverse associations, the word is deliberately used to score political points.

Take the “Right to Work Campaign” march last weekend in Dublin. A small number of people – about 300 – marched through the centre of Dublin demanding more jobs and protesting that an “estimated” 70,000 young people have been forced to emigrate in the last year.

Where did this “estimate” come from? It seems to be little more than a scaremongering, made-up “statistic” being used to buttress an argument that people leaving the country to work elsewhere is always a terrible thing – rather than perhaps, as it historically has been, the likely foundation for a future wave of economic growth (but more of that in a moment).

Back to that mystery figure of 70,000 young people packing their suitcases and heading abroad. There has been no formal statistical update from the Central Statistics Office since last September on emigration figures. At that time, the CSO said 65,100 people had emigrated in the previous 12 months up until April 2009. Given that we all know the 16 months following April 2009 have been particularly dire, one could expect to see emigration rising significantly. Still, that 70,000 figure of young people alone would really mean a phenomenal increase – more young people leaving than the total figure for approximately the previous year.

But it seems extremely unlikely that this number could be correct. Of those 65,100, Irish nationals made up less than a third: just 18,400 people. That’s right – the smallest number of people leaving the country were Irish nationals.

So it really stretches belief to accept that, a year later, 70,000 Irish nationals have left the country, much less 70,000 young Irish nationals as a subset of a larger emigration group.

Even if this were to be the case, though, as former UCD computer science academic (now at St Andrews University) Aaron Quigley pointed out on Twitter during the week, in roughly the same period 79,986 PPS numbers were given out.

“Not saying all 79,986 PPS number holders found work but some must. Are they getting jobs which young Irish are unwilling or unqualified for?” he tweeted.

It’s a good question. When you look at the key countries for immigration into Ireland, they include nationalities that would have filled many of the service jobs that the Irish nationals seem to have disdained. But they also come from such nations as India and China, known for providing well-qualified technology professionals. So perhaps there are gaps in our current jobs market which Irish young people are unwilling or unable to fill. Certainly, the head of Google in Ireland, John Herlihy, has often noted that Google struggles to find properly qualified Irish graduates.

But is emigration necessarily a problem in the first place? Ireland, as we are constantly reminded by the pundits, is a small island nation. The idea that this small land mass can provide jobs for its entire population doesn’t make sense – and even if it did, having everybody employed here would be an extremely limited and dead-end economic vision.

For two decades of a boom economy, Ireland prided itself on its international sensibility – especially among its young people, who were famously marketed for a time as the “young Europeans”. It was precisely this appetite to go abroad and gain international experience that has given the Irish a great reputation as knowledge workers at home and abroad.

But even more important, it is this experience, brought home during the boom years when those 1980s economic immigrants decided to head back, that helped drive Ireland’s growth economy.

Both indigenous and multinational companies in Ireland have emphasised they were able to develop, create and expand their companies and job possibilities in Ireland because of this reimported skills base.

In other words, a strong economy in a small country like Ireland is always going to be predicated on Irish people heading abroad to gain the critical experience they can’t gain in a tiny country with a limited number of companies and employment sectors.

Which raises the additional question of how many of those young emigrants are not “emigrating”, but just heading abroad for new experiences, and international jobs, in the same way they would have five years ago. Going abroad to work for a time is not “emigration” in the permanent sense of the term, as Ireland’s 1980s and early 1990s “emigrants” demonstrated over the past two decades. It is not the “emigration” of the Famine, or of other extremely distressing periods of Irish history.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t many painful individual cases. Obviously, we are in the middle of a recession, and finding a job is not easy for anybody. Many will indeed go abroad in search of work they cannot find here, and given Ireland’s greater economic difficulties in comparison to many other nations, one would expect there to be a larger outflow at this time.

But surely it is time we stop using the word “emigration” as if it implies some shameful exile abroad?

Especially so, when the term is misleadingly used in conjunction with figures, based on little real evidence, that ignore the low level of actual Irish emigration within those overall figures.