Emigrants won’t return to Ireland if they feel they don’t belong
There are too many obstacles in the way of people who want to move home from abroad
‘Those who return for family reasons usually have the persistence to deal with difficulties thrown their way, but those who are single and coming home for a better lifestyle have less patience with obstacles.’
This year, as many emigrants explore the possibility of returning to Ireland, they are likely to encounter a strange fusion of feelings relating to belonging and insecurity.
The Government’s #HomeToWork project, which seeks to attract emigrants back to Ireland, will give expression to the need that people have for belonging, but it will also highlight the heightened sense of insecurity that people encounter when they are in transition.
Politicians, public servants and plain old marketing people are dreaming up ways to entice our young and energetic population back. The nods and winks have started: “Things are on the up”, “There’s skill shortage in the tech sector”, “ah sure the bad old days are over”, “things must be good, the traffic on the M50 is awful”, and “the austerity of austerity is long gone”, they say.
But to create policy for returning emigrants based on economic attractions alone is to completely miss the point. A quick scan through the most read articles in 2015 on the Generation Emigration website shows that the existential issue of belonging or feelings of not belonging are to the fore in many of the stories, whether the person is living in Ireland or overseas.
There are many who can return seamlessly to Ireland because their companies facilitate their return with bonuses and incentives, but for many others, returning home can be loaded with very difficult and unforeseen challenges. Strangely enough, many returnees can feel more estranged from their Irishness and Ireland when they are back here than they ever felt when they lived overseas.
Some trades and associations make it difficult when people return. They have rules and bye-laws that inhibit belonging because people haven’t got particular certificates or minor qualifications, or they lack Irish experience in the sector, which funnily enough goes hand in hand with being away from home.
Some who return with families find it particularly difficult. If you are married to someone you met while living overseas, you have to prove your marriage is genuine, while your husband or wife lives in a dubious vulnerable state until they eventually get citizenship. If you have children, difficulties can arise when they return to college; depending on how long you’ve lived abroad, they could be classified as overseas students, subject to paying full tuition fees which are exorbitant.
Some who return to Ireland continue to work with companies abroad, but once they are outside major cities the broadband signal is nothing short of laughable, inhibiting their ability to function, perform and belong. Many see the broadband issue as evidence of an increasing gap between rural and urban communities, and the subsequent problem of the housing price differential between the city and the country.
Many initiatives to encourage emigrants home are tied up in knots due to the Habitual Residency Scheme, which since 2004 allows the State to decide who has the right to reside here. Emigrants who return home to look after an elderly or sick relative can find this legislation particularly punitive, but this is one group that should have an automatic exemption from its rigid protocols.
Others find simple things like taxing and insuring a car totally frustrating. It is expensive to insure a car without the benefit of a no-claims bonus, despite having had no accidents while living overseas. Furthermore, most institutions won’t touch you unless you have a home address, utility bills and a bank account, and as the old song goes “you can’t have one without the other!”
It goes without saying that the present difficulties accessing the housing market cannot be ignored; investing hard-earned money in rented accommodation long term is not good for morale. After all, one of the reasons why people travel to work abroad is to help them get a foothold in the housing market. This was particularly true of those who travelled to the UK in the 1950s and 60s. Our banking institutions, and even our Credit Unions, are not as customer-friendly they used to be. Some mention setting up a “one-stop-shop’” for returning emigrants, but this will serve no purpose if it doesn’t actually smooth the path and achieve outcomes for those hoping to return.
All these examples have a subtle message for those who encounter them, and the subtle message is “you do not belong here”. This message runs counter to all the billboard campaigns encouraging Irish people to return home, which cannot be solved by clichés. Those who return for family reasons usually have the persistence to deal with difficulties thrown their way, but those who are single and coming home for a better lifestyle have less patience with obstacles.
If Ireland Inc is serious about bringing people home a lot of gutsy work needs to be done. Present campaigns appear sugar-coated, but may contain bitter contents when you bite into them. Rather than basing incentives on questionable economic indicators, the key to attracting people home is working out how we remove obstacles that inhibit a greater sense of belonging. This rather imaginative but necessary approach would reap untold benefits, both for those who return, and those who are responsible for building the social fabric of our nation.
Fr Alan Hilliard is coordinator of the Chaplaincy Service in Dublin Institute of Technology, and a board member of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants.