Will Irish emigrants come home?

For five years people have been leaving in droves. Now employers and the Government want them back but housing and lifestyle barriers make it hard

The sight of thousands of people lining up outside the Working Abroad Expo at the RDS in Dublin in 2012 has become a defining image of the recession. The biannual recruitment fairs, which used to sell more than 12,000 tickets, have attracted far fewer potential emigrants recently.

The next one won’t be held in Ireland until September 2016. In a remarkable market turnaround, Irish recruiters are heading down under, to Working Abroad Expos in Perth and Melbourne this August, seeking to lure Irish workers to fill vacancies here, particularly in construction, healthcare and accountancy.

Earlier this month Minister for Health Leo Varadkar announced a recruitment campaign targeting Irish nurses in the UK, to draw staff back to the country.

Minister of State for Skills and Innovation Damien English said last week the country needs to attract 100,000 people back to live here in the next two years, as the economic recovery gathers pace.


The subject of how to attract them home will be discussed at the first Global Irish Civic Forum, in Dublin next week, to be attended by 170 people working with Irish communities worldwide.

Encouraging emigrants to return home is a central part of the Government’s first diaspora policy, published in March. Speaking at the launch, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he expected 2016 to be the year when the Irish returning would outnumber those leaving, after seven years of high emigration. Will it happen?

Return trend

Despite the poor economic conditions, 132,000 Irish people returned to live in Ireland between 2008 and 2014. This was about half the number who emigrated. Most were young people returning after their working-holiday visas for Australia, New Zealand and Canada expired.

But the figures for returning Irish have been falling as the numbers applying for permanent residency and citizenship abroad have risen. In the 12 months to April 2014 just 11,600 Irish came back to live here, down from 15,700 the previous year and almost half the figure from 2008. On these figures there would need to be a remarkable turnaround for the Government’s ambition to be fulfilled.

Unemployment stands at just under 10 per cent, the lowest rate since the crash, down from a peak of more than 15 per cent in 2012. About 40,000 jobs have been created in the past year.

“In Ireland now, across all sectors, there is an experienced skills shortage,” says Stephen McLarnon, who has run the Working Abroad Expos in Ireland and internationally for the past 11 years. “The market here is missing 28- to 35-year-olds with 10 years’ experience, the managerial-type person. These are the people who have emigrated over the past few years and gained all their experience abroad.”

Many of them want to return. A survey published this week of 100 members of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce found that almost 80 per cent definitely wanted to move back to Ireland or were undecided about staying in Australia. Three in four were at middle-management level or above.

Piaras Mac Éinrí of University College Cork, who conducted the large-scale Emigré survey in 2012-13, believes the Government's projections for return migration are "wishful thinking rather than evidence-based".

He says the benchmark is the wave of 1980s emigrants who came back in the mid 1990s and early 2000s. “About 50 per cent of the 500,000 that left in the 1980s cohort returned. But we had an economy that was growing rapidly, with real jobs on offer. The workforce effectively doubled. Are we going to see that sort of growth again? I doubt it,” he says.

“Yes, jobs are being created now, and return migrants probably have a better chance of getting them, as they have a competitive advantage. But our unemployment rate is still almost 10 per cent. I don’t see how we are going to generate enough jobs to reabsorb all the unemployed and an increased number of returning migrants.”

After a recent trip to Australia, where he visited four Irish welfare organisations in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Crosscare’s networking officer Joe O’Brien believes that positive reports about the Irish economy are encouraging more emigrants to consider returning but that they could also be creating false expectations.

“The Australian economy has taken a bit of a dip, especially in Western Australia. A lot of Irish went out there because of the mining boom, but the jobs market is not as active now, so the message from there is that a lot of Irish are thinking of moving home or on to more stable economies,” O’Brien says. But the Dublin archdiocese’s social-care agency is working to ensure that emigrants have accurate information about the availability of jobs and housing in Ireland.

“We are not convinced, especially in terms of housing, that Ireland is ready to have people come back in large numbers. It is not even in a position to deal with the people who are in the country at the moment . . . especially in Dublin, where there is essentially a housing crisis.”

Diaspora strategy

Under the remit of Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan, the Government says it is trying to improve conditions, to encourage return. The diaspora strategy outlined plans for a newsletter for the Irish abroad highlighting opportunities in Ireland. It also committed to minimising "logistical challenges", such as having qualifications and driving licences recognised, and accessing affordable housing.

Marie-Claire McAleer of the National Youth Council of Ireland says that although the diaspora strategy contains significant plans “to foster engagement with the Irish abroad”, it lacks specific practical measures to address barriers.

Respondents to a council survey about return migration were concerned about the availability of affordable accommodation; the provision of good, stable jobs with opportunities for career progression; recognition of their overseas experience and qualifications; costly health insurance; high taxes; high cost of living; and, for those with children, accessing school places and the high cost of childcare.

“While there is recovery in the Irish economy, it is not enough to inspire people to move back,” McAleer says. “There needs to be something more concrete to attract them.”

And the clock is ticking. Life-stage factors play a huge role in the decision to return or stay abroad, according to Mac Éinrí. Those who were in their mid 20s when they emigrated in 2009 and 2010 are heading into their 30s now, and facing decisions about whether to buy a home, take that next career step or have children.

“Once people reach their mid 30s their professional and familial and social circles are more embedded, and the likelihood of return after that age diminishes quite rapidly. Once their kids start in school, often that’s it,” he says.

“There is a presumption that, all else being equal, all Irish emigrants want nothing more than to return home. I just don’t think it’s that simple. Their quality of life and their career opportunities” at home “must be commensurate with what they would be leaving behind, and at the moment I don’t see any incentives. They won’t come back for second best.”

Emigrants on returning: ‘The Joe Duffy moanbag culture is probably the single biggest barrier’

We asked emigrants about returning to Ireland. Here’s a selection of comments.

Pennister: I live in Belgium. I would like to move back, as I miss my friends, family and the sense of familiarity that comes from really understanding the culture, but the cost of childcare and the difficulty of finding work would hold me back. Having two kids in creche in Ireland would mean that financially it wouldn't make sense for one of us to work. Also, my husband and I both work in third-level education, and new entrants are being offered poor contracts with higher teaching hours and lower rates of pay compared with existing staff. It will be five to 10 years before I seriously look at returning, or maybe by then my roots here will be too deep.

doherta5: Although I miss the ease with which Irish people can handle social interaction in comparison with Canadians, it would be very difficult to go back to a country that doesn't invest in municipal infrastructure, from community centres or swimming pools to camping facilities. In Canada many jobs provide extended healthcare, which means drugs, physiotherapy, massage therapy, even acupuncture are subsidised. While the people can be boring here there's nevertheless an optimism about North Americans that's quite liberating. The Joe Duffy moanbag culture is probably the single biggest reason I left Ireland and the single biggest barrier to my coming back.

ReturnedExpat: Having recently returned myself, I would say the barriers (in no particular order) are the absence of: tangible plans to address the lack of housing in Dublin; a financial incentive structure to lure expats back; a tax break during the first year back, or tax relief on rent for those who come back and have to pay rent while job-hunting; a plan to clean up inner-city Dublin – compare it with Melbourne, Copenhagen or Boston and it's not pretty; and accessibility to mortgages for educated younger people who will probably continue to earn decent money all their lives.

NollaigShona: Moving home in approximately 12 months. Left in 2007. Lots of obstacles to moving home: high rents, no job, no permanent contract, etc. Too many too mention really. However, to all those "Why would you want to come back to this kip?" folk, that's simple. Family and friends. Ireland wins. Case closed. What obstacles?