The generation of young people who emigrated during the 1980s returned in droves during the Celtic Tiger. Added to by an inflow of immigrants from elsewhere, particularly the eastern European countries that joined the European Union in 2004, this created a ready supply of labour for an expanding job market and was a key factor in Ireland’s long economic growth.
When the Tiger period ended, migration trends turned. As we moved into 2010 emigration started to overtake immigration. Almost 480,000 people left the country between 2009 and 2014, of whom 228,000 were Irish nationals.
That is an extraordinary outward flow of 3,000 Irish people a month over a six-year period.
Figures suggest that the foreign-national population was even harder hit by unemployment and that many returned home.
There are always flows of people in and out of Ireland. When you subtract the numbers coming in during the 2009-14 period from those who left, the net migration figure was just under 145,000. This is a big figure, although the net gain in 2005-08 was more than twice that number.
Central Statistics Office estimates suggest the net figure was negative again in the most recent year, although less so than in earlier years. Significant numbers of younger people in the 25- to 34-year-old age group continued to leave.
Will the tide now turn again, as the economy returns to growth? Things are different now from in the early 1990s, and the speed at which the Irish abroad will return is hard to call.
CSO estimates for the years to 2020 show that immigration could overtake emigration at some stage in the next three or four years but that just when will depend, crucially, on economic growth.
Those thinking of returning face a mixed picture. Unemployment is falling but is still close to 10 per cent, the tax burden has risen sharply in recent years and housing costs are on the up.
On the plus side there are clear skill gaps in areas such as IT and engineering, which will attract those with appropriate skills.
The human cost of emigration, for many, is huge, even if studies show that those who return tend to earn more than those who never went. The State also loses to the extent that educated younger people are leaving. That said, during the bust the departure of large numbers took pressure off the dole queues and saved the exchequer money.
There is also a wider point, relating to the willingness of Irish people to return and of skilled foreign nationals to come and work here.
“Ireland has access to a kind of globalised workforce,” says Prof Alan Barrett of the Economic and Social Research Institute. This is an attraction for inward investors and businesses here that can see that, if there are opportunities, Irish people now abroad may be willing to return; also, Ireland is seen as a good location for foreign nationals.
Ireland could now benefit from a reversal of migration tends. As the job market recovers, immigration is needed to fill key skill gaps – otherwise employers in sectors such as software will base activity abroad. People returning to work here also pay tax, spend and contribute to the wider economy. They are likely to be younger than the average population – another economic benefit as our overall population ages and more people move into retirement.
Returned emigrants could be a key dynamic in the years ahead – if they can be persuaded to come.