Ireland’s first Minister of State for Diaspora - Jimmy Deenihan - was appointed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2014. As Leo Varadkar prepares for his expected election as Taoiseach on Wednesday, Declan McSweeney writes an open letter from Liverpool urging him to retain the junior ministry.
Dear Dr Varadkar,
As an Irishman in Liverpool, I congratulate you on becoming leader of Fine Gael. As you prepare to be elected Taoiseach, I would urge you to reflect on your own family story when it comes to diaspora policy. In this regard, I would ask you to retain the post of Minister of State for the Diaspora and, specifically, to retain Joe McHugh in this position.
Having been one of a group which met him recently, I was genuinely impressed by his listening skills and empathy and feel he should be given a chance to continue in this work.
Given that your mother, Miriam, and your father, Ashok, met when they worked in Slough, and later moved to Leicester, your very existence is linked to the path which has drawn generations of Irish across the sea, as well as those, like your father, who made the long journey from India to the old imperial power.
In that context, I would hope that you will continue to ensure assistance to organisations working with the Irish community here. It is worth stressing that there is a fundamental distinction between such welfare groups and those with a purely social function.
Irish welfare groups carry out invaluable work with elderly Irish, many of whom sent money back to Ireland when working in the UK building industry, its public transport network or, as your mother did, in the NHS. This is a generation whose existence is too often forgotten by the younger Irish.
However, the groups also assist many younger Irish who have to leave Ireland, not just for economic reasons, but for a range of personal reasons, and those who fall on hard times.
It should not be forgotten that, alone of all immigrant groups in the UK, the life expectancy of the Irish in Britain is lower than in their country of origin. This is a phenomenon which requires greater research to establish its causes.
I would also urge you, in the context of dealing with the UK authorities in the Brexit talks, to ensure moves towards greater mutual recognition of each others’ qualifications and work experience. While on paper Irish citizens have the same rights in the UK as those born there, in reality many employers do not recognise Irish qualifications.
I realise the same applies in reverse in the Republic, whether towards British citizens who have settled there or returning Irish who have studied in Britain. Both for the sake of the two diasporas, and in the context of relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it is essential that the two governments should discuss this with each other, and not allow the other to get away with the argument that employers have a right to insist on whatever qualifications they wish.
Such discussions should take account of the fact that the experience varies greatly in different parts of the UK.
Irish diaspora policy has tended to focus on the undocumented Irish in the US, and while I would acknowledge that this is an important issue, I would urge you not to forget about the Irish in Britain, who can play a key role as our two countries renegotiate their relationship in the context of Brexit.
Wishing you well in your new role.