Ireland is finally recognising the potential of its diaspora
The Irish State since its foundation saw emigration as an embarrassment
‘This wave of emigration will affect the development of Irish society for decades to come, just the same as every other exodus during the past four centuries.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Ireland is a small country with a huge diaspora. It is estimated that more than 70 million people across the globe claim some degree of Irish ancestry or affiliation. This diaspora is a unique reservoir of goodwill, support and “soft power” for Ireland. No other western European country can draw on such an extraordinary resource. Scotland is following the Irish example in seeking to connect with ethnic Scots in North America and Australasia.
As acting taoiseach Enda Kenny said in a foreword to the first comprehensive statement of official policy on the diaspora, Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy, published just over a year ago, the history of the global Irish is integral to the story of the Irish nation:
“The voice of this small nation is hugely amplified by the many millions around
the globe who are Irish by birth or by descent or by affiliation. Our diaspora are an important part of our story as a nation. They are part of who we are as a people, what we have done and where we have gone in this world.”
We have-for the moment at least-the first Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan, and diaspora engagement is a core element of Irish foreign policy. The significance of the huge exodus of Irish people for at least four centuries is now finally recognised by an Irish State which, since its foundation in 1922, saw emigration as an embarrassment and affront to Irish self-government.
Some might say there is an element of opportunism when it comes to attracting tourists and investors. Remember Gabriel Byrne’s famous comment about the Gathering tourism initiative in 2013 being little more than a “scam”? But at least the diaspora is now firmly on the Irish political agenda after decades of neglect.
Votes for emigrants is quite another matter, however.
What about repaying some of the millions that Irish exiles sent home from North America, Britain and elsewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries? The Department of Foreign Affairs’ Emigrant Support Programme has awarded over €135 million since 2004 to Irish community organisations doing excellent work around the world. But relative to overall government expenditure, it is a very modest amount. For instance, the cost of just establishing Irish Water in 2014 was €180 million.
Or to take another example, the much-needed Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (1998-2010) cost €1.22 billion, most of which was devoted to buildings and facilities in Irish universities. Ironically the impressive building which housed the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies at UCD was funded by this programme. Flagged as a bold initiative to study the diaspora when it was first opened in 2005, symbolically this Institute has been dormant since 2011.
So what does the diaspora mean to modern Ireland today?
Personal contact between emigrants and family and friends in Ireland is of course the most tangible connection between Ireland and its emigrants. In one respect, the consciousness of a diaspora is found in the many relationships that now cross oceans and national borders. For the “lost generation” who have left since 2008, keeping in touch with home is a vital activity while living abroad. Family members may not describe their loved ones as being part of the global Irish, as they hope this exile will only be a temporary expedient.
This wave of emigration will affect the development of Irish society for decades to come, just the same as every other exodus during the past four centuries. Communities, families and homes will be different as each departure represents one more person whose life will be spent living outside Ireland.
But a diaspora is multi-generational, something rarely acknowledged in Ireland. The widely-derided and eventually abandoned Certificate of Irish Heritage scheme did at least recognise that to describe yourself as Irish, you do not need to have been born in Ireland or speak with an Irish accent.
Irish identity, as understood in Ireland, narrowly sees birthplace and nationality as
the key elements of being Irish. Immigrants who have settled in Ireland are well aware of these hierarchies of Irishness. Only when the Irish identity of generations born and raised outside of Ireland is taken as of equal standing to those born in Ireland can we be begin the long-overdue process of acknowledging these “exiled children”, in the famous words of the 1916 Proclamation. That would be a very fitting tribute of global dimensions to the 1916 Rising.
Enda Delaney is Professor of Modern History at the University of Edinburgh. He will speak at the conference on Conflict, Migration and Identity in Modern Ireland at VISUAL Carlow, organised in conjunction with Trinity College Dublin and Carlow College, from April 13th-15th. See visualcarlow.ie