Joe McHugh: ‘We need to find out what emigrants want’

New Minister for Diaspora on voting rights, encouraging emigrants home, and a respectful relationship

Joe McHugh was recently appointed Minister of State for Diaspora and Overseas Development Aid, the second junior minister to hold specific responsibility for the Irish abroad. As a non-Irish speaker, he rose to the challenge posed to him when he was given the junior ministry for the Gaeltacht in the last Dáil, becoming fluent by the end of his term. Will he be as determined and committed looking after the diaspora and development aid portfolios? What are his plans and priorities for his time in office? The Irish Times had a chat with him this week to find out.

How did you react when the Taoiseach called to tell you about your new post?

This is the fourth job he has offered me. He appointed me chair of the Good Friday Agreement Committee, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the Ministry of State for the Gaeltacht - I think everyone knows that story, I nearly fell through the chair when I got that call - but this time I was shocked because I was totally expecting to go back to the Gaeltacht.

When I heard the word diaspora, two things were on my mind. I have a young family, and I also have responsibility for my constituency. As every day has progressed I have seen more value in the role I’ve been given with the diaspora and international development, but the Taoiseach has definitely given me another challenge, in marrying these two briefs in the one department, and in exploring giving the diaspora a vote in presidential elections. I look forward to working hard on that.

What link do you see, if any, between diaspora and overseas development aid?

We have a legacy of missionaries going abroad right back to Columbanus, and now there is a strong infrastructure of Irish people working in overseas aid organisations, humanitarian programmes, and intervention development projects, especially in education and health. But outside that, we have global leaders in many fields, many of whom won’t be moving home and will be staying and contributing to the country they are in, and there is an opportunity to [DEVELOP]that communication between them and the people working in the humanitarian sector. This is an opportunity which has presented itself to me as Minister, because it is the first time diaspora and development has been put together in one portfolio... We need to acknowledge that Irish people are a fundamental part of the solution to global problems.

Do you have personal experience of living abroad?

The first time I was on a plane was to go to work on the building sites in London back in 1990, in the middle of the World Cup. This gave me a good perspective because I was working for an English company and staying with English people, but inevitably, I ended up watching a lot of the matches in Kilburn and was surrounded by the Irish then. I had a sister working in the World Bank in DC, so I spent some time travelling around DC, Philadelphia, Virginia and New York.

Following two years of teaching in Donegal after I graduated, I felt as a 24-year-old that I needed to spread my wings. I was one of the lucky ones, I wasn't forced to emigrate, because I had a job back home, but I wanted to try out Dubai and worked for a year in a school out there, teaching history, geography and economics. That was an amazing insight into a set up with a lot of expats and local Emiratis all in the one school. It was also an insight into an economic model reliant on low-paid workers from Pakistan and India.

How healthy is the relationship between Ireland and its diaspora?

We already have the relationship, it is about what we do with that now. There is already a lot of capacity built up, between the people working in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish people abroad, from Manchester to Philadelphia. Jimmy Deenihan (the previous Minister of State for Diaspora) performed a very important role in meeting these respective communities, and we can take that further. What do we do with that network? How do we develop a relationship which is based on respect? In the early stages of engagement, especially during difficult economic times in this country, we looked to the diaspora for a way to help Ireland, but I think that is the wrong approach. I think a lot of people who have emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s and 60s left on the basis that they were making it easier on the ones who stayed. They were sending back remittances. We have to be very conscious of that.

What about the 100,000s of Irish who have emigrated in the past decade?

I do treat that block of emigrants differently. A lot of my friends left school early in the 1980s and went to London, working manual jobs. But this flow of emigration, most of them are very highly skilled and educated, and are working in legal practices, as engineers, as quantity surveyors. We have to find out what their wants and needs are. I have been focusing for the past week on the barriers to return, including the high cost of car insurance and health insurance, barriers to getting mortgages or planning permission. I will be working on these as chair of the interdepartmental working group on diaspora affairs.

What about the people who left for economic reasons, and felt Ireland couldn’t offer them a place?

There is a target figure of 70,000 that we are hoping to bring back (by 2020). Do we just ask them to come back and everything will be grand? Or do we be honest with them? I think we need to be honest about the barriers that are there, and try to address them. That said, there are skills gaps. There's a company Randox in Donegal which is finding it very difficult to recruit scientists and engineers for the last two years. It is important that I as Minister work closely with the companies that are seeing gaps relating to skills or education, and be a bit more targeted, use the global Irish network that we have, rather than putting out a call, or putting a minister on a plane on St Patrick's Day. I think we need to be more targeted in attracting people back.

The Fine Gael pre-election manifesto pledged to ‘fully explore the matter of voting rights for Irish citizens resident outside the State, with a view to holding a referendum’. Where do you stand on emigrant voting rights?

I had a meeting last week with my officials, and I asked them to prioritise that. Responsibility falls under the Department of Housing. A lot of work needs to be done around the practicalities, before we even consider what might be considered in a referendum on the issue.

Is there a timeline for this, or a deadline for the group to report back?

No. It is all about momentum. The day the Taoiseach appointed me, he mentioned he is very interested in this issue, and I have a strong interest in it as well. It is being given priority, and I can’t see anything that would hold back that momentum. How long will this Government last, two years, three years, we don’t know, but it is about teeing it up properly.

Are you committing to holding a referendum on the issue in this Government term?

No. It is complex work, and there are issues about whether we [set up a voting system] through electronic means, through embassies. It would be such a phenomenal opportunity for us if we are serious about the global diaspora, it would send out a very strong message.

A second Gathering tourism initiative in 2019 was also mentioned in the manifesto. What do you think of the idea?

We were very fortunate to have a very successful Gathering in 2013. It came at a time when we needed to lift all boats, and it got a very positive reaction at a parish level. The organisers were conscious of the experience in Scotland, which was not as successful, and we learned a lot from their experience. We learned not to just go blindly. This time we can look at a different focus, could we marry in education with tourism for example. We don’t have a blank page here but we need to learn from the last one, and build on something that was very successful, especially from the grassroots up.

Is your home county of Donegal leading the way when it comes to that grassroots level local diaspora engagement?

Jimmy Deenihan said Donegal was way ahead of the country in terms of the diaspora work it has done. There is a great unit in Donegal County Council, and the county held its diaspora conference last week and I was delighted to open that in Letterkenny just a few hours after being appointed. It is an integral part of the Donegal calendar now, up there with the Rory Gallagher International Festival, and the Mary from Dungloe Festival.

US president Barack Obama’s executive action, which would shield up to 5 million undocumented immigrants - including thousands of Irish - from deportation if they were the parents of American citizens, is tied up in the courts, with a ruling expected later this month. Will the issue of immigration reform for the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US fall under your brief?

Immigration reform is a difficult topic at the moment. There was a lot of excitement over Obama’s executive action, which is on hold, and I know a lot of single people over there who don’t have children, so won’t fall under this even if it is passed. There are weaknesses. I will be looking forward to seeing the outcome of that. There is a high level of communication going on between the embassies, and that is critical if we are going to have a solution. As a Donegal man it is a very pertinent issue, and I know people can’t come back for a funeral or even a wedding. I know one guy who hasn’t been home in 18 years. That is a nightmare scenario. These people have been paying their taxes and have contributed in so many ways to America. We have to keep a sharp focus on this issue.

Your predecessor Jimmy Deenihan seemed to be always on a plane, jetting off to meet the Irish around the world. How do you feel about all the travel ahead?

In order to do both the diaspora and international development jobs justice, I have to be very calculating about how I spend my time. I think with all the communication systems now, I don’t need to be up in the air all the time with this job. Jimmy Deenihan has done a lot of the work already in terms of networking. As a practicing politician for 17 years I [ALSO]know the importance of keeping in touch with my constituents.

You have mentioned the possibility of free travel for Irish-born pensioners living overseas. Can you tell us more about that?

That will come under the Department of Social Protection, and will be a budgetary issue. I have asked the officials to explore the idea, thinking of people who have to come home at short notice, for instance, in an emergency situation. I think it is about time to make things as easy as possible for Irish people and people who see themselves as Irish, and are just separated (from the country) by geography and time, and to think of different ways of embracing the return of our emigrants, whether they are coming on a short-term basis or a long-term basis. I would be looking to the interdepartmental group as a mechanism for exploring all those issues. We need to be very conscious of the fact that a lot of Irish people left our shores, most people for economic reasons, and we as a Government need to rise the challenge of embracing all over the world.

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