What did Jimmy Deenihan achieve as first Irish diaspora minister?
Global Irish community representatives pay tribute and call on next government to retain post
Jimmy Deenihan with older members of the Irish community in Australia in 2015.
Jimmy Deenihan was appointed Ireland’s first ever Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs in 2014. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Jimmy Deenihan with participants of the Global Irish Parliamentarians Forum.
Jimmy Deenihan with young players from the Shannon Gaels GAA club in New York.
Ireland’s first ever Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs Jimmy Deenihan lost his Dáil seat last weekend. In recent days, representatives from Irish welfare, business and cultural organisations around the world have submitted tributes to the role he played representing their interests in Ireland and abroad, and call on the next government to maintain the ministerial post.
Chairman of Irish in Britain
The creation of a dedicated Minister for Diaspora Affairs has been of significant benefit to the Irish in Britain. As a nation with so many sons and daughters of Ireland spread around the globe, it is fitting that a senior ministerial post exists to be a voice for the Irish diaspora at home in Ireland; someone who listens to, meets and gets to know the Irish community in Britain and around the world; and someone who has a understanding of the needs of the Irish abroad and is in a position to help Irish community organisations address these needs.
The Minister for the Diaspora has greatly enhanced our relationship with the Irish Government through the work of Jimmy Deenihan and his office, and we would like to offer our appreciation for this and his unprecedented access and engagement with our community here in Britain.
Founder of Get the Boat 2 Vote and emigrant voting rights campaigner
In spite of my frustrations with the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour government, I was disappointed to learn that Jimmy Deenihan, Ireland’s first Minister for the Diaspora, missed out on a seat in his constituency of Kerry.
With one in six Irish-born people currently living abroad, the Minister for the Diaspora post is one with enormous potential. Whatever the make-up of the next government turns out to be, I sincerely hope they will retain this office.
During his relatively short tenure, Mr Deenihan oversaw the publication of Ireland’s first Diaspora Policy, which represented a major step forward in terms of the government establishing a sustained dialogue with citizens overseas, and encouraging return migration.
When Enda Kenny appointed him to the position, he said that one of Mr Deenihan’s key responsibilities would be to examine whether Irish citizens living abroad should be allowed to vote. He did exactly this, inviting organisations like We’re Coming Back and Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad to consult with him on the issue.
Last June, addressing delegates at the Global Irish Civic Forum in Dublin, he reiterated his support for a referendum on citizens overseas voting in presidential elections and further suggested that emigrants should retain all voting rights for up to three years after moving away.
Frustratingly for Mr Deenihan and for those campaigning for an emigrant vote, the cabinet opted to put discussion of these proposals on the long finger, making only vague promises of a referendum on presidential votes at some point in 2017.
So, I suppose there is something of a sad irony in the fact that many of those whose interests Mr Deenihan served in his role as Minister for the Diaspora had no opportunity to help reinstate him. Go n-éirí an bóthar leat, Jimmy.
Sarah Owen and Richard King
Crosscare Migrant Project, Dublin
For a country with as long a history of emigration as Ireland, the significance of having a Minister for the Diaspora cannot be overstated. It is an official acknowledgement that our diaspora is important and not forgotten, offering Ireland the opportunity to better connect with its emigrants. We thank Mr Deenihan and express our gratitude to him for his invaluable support during his time as Ireland’s first ever Minister of State for the Diaspora.
Richard King: “The ministry really helped us to promote the needs of the emigrants and returning emigrants we help, particularly those who are marginalised or have few supports at home or abroad. I’ve worked with emigrants for almost ten years, but the last year and a half has been by far the most eventful. It’s the first time I’ve felt that there has been a real national effort to connect with all parts of the diaspora, and it’s helped us hugely to be more outspoken in support of those we work with.”
Sarah Owen: “There is a sense amongst organisations working for the welfare of Irish emigrants that we must build on the positive developments since the review of Ireland’s engagement with its diaspora. Events such as the Global Irish Civic Forum last year gave Irish groups from around the world the chance to become more interconnected and learn from one another. Continuing to establish these links will undoubtedly be of benefit to the Irish community abroad, and help to ensure that emigrant issues remain on the agenda here in Ireland.”
Head of research and policy with the National Youth Council of Ireland
One of the recommendations of NYCI’s research on youth emigration published in May 2013, was the appointment of a minister to connect and engage with the current wave of young Irish emigrants. We were delighted that a year later, the outgoing Government appointed Jimmy Deenihan as the first ever Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs. During his ministry, NYCI met the Minister on many occasions in relation to his work with young emigrants.
He worked very hard to establish the role and to engage with the Irish abroad, and we always found him approachable and supportive. His dynamic style, energy and commitment to the emigrant community abroad were evident and we are sad to see him lose his seat.
It is very important that the incoming government retain this ministry, and that it is given the power to hold other government departments to account, to address the barriers to return migration that currently exist for many young Irish people living abroad. It is also vital to enhance the level of engagement and connection between Ireland and its emigrants on an ongoing basis, and extend voting rights to Irish citizens abroad.
Monica’s Place, Birmingham
I run a project in Handsworth in Birmingham, offering accommodation to mainly first generation Irish gentlemen. In January 2015, Jimmy Deenihan received a warm welcome from the lads living at Monica’s Place. He gave a little speech and made us all feel so at ease. He talked with the lads about sports and his involvement with the diaspora. His passion shone through and he connected with us all. One resident at the time was not in receipt of his Irish pension, and the Minister asked for details and assured him he would look into this matter for him. True to his word, this 76-year-old Irish gentleman was delighted and received his reinstated pension within weeks. It is very sad to see Mr Deenihan go.
Founder of GlobalIrish.ie and co-founder of VotingRights.ie
Jimmy Deenihan knew when he was appointed as Minister that his tenure was likely to be short before the next election. He pledged to move fast, and he leaves behind a record of accomplishment. The launch of the Global Irish Diaspora Strategy and the Global Irish Civic Forum stand out as obvious highlights, for example.
I personally treasure the Minister’s active role in ensuring that the needs of RTÉ’s longwave listeners in Britain and beyond were not ignored when RTÉ announced that it wanted to prematurely shut down this valuable link with home. His attention to the outcry, and subsequent announcement that the Government would fund research into the needs of this community, many of whom are elderly and isolated, was a most welcome move. It demonstrated Mr Deenihan’s responsiveness to the needs of Irish communities abroad, and his respect and concern for some of Ireland’s more vulnerable citizens, to whom Ireland owes a tremendous debt.
It would be an enormous step backward if the post of Minister of State for the Diaspora were to be abandoned. It would certainly be a move that would not go unnoticed by the Irish abroad - many of whom will be expecting increasing political inclusion to match both Ireland’s intensifying economic diaspora outreach, as well as changing realities of global norms regarding emigrant citizenship and political participation.
Instead, the post should be made permanent and strengthened, and accompanied by an emphasis on increasing the awareness of the needs, aspirations and contributions of Irish citizens abroad throughout the political system. The retention of the Minister for the Diaspora post should be just one of many steps the government should undertake to strengthen the relationship between the nation and its overseas citizens, particularly the one in six Irish-born citizens who have lost the right to vote through emigration. We are, of course, awaiting moving forward with the Constitutional Convention’s recommendations on emigrant voting in Presidential elections, as well as the policy review on emigrant voting as outlined in the Global Irish diaspora strategy. The Seanad Reform Working Group’s recommendations, which would extend the Seanad vote to citizens abroad, also remain outstanding.
The appointment of Jimmy Deenihan as Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs was a genuinely innovative step that was welcomed by so many in the diaspora. Ireland needs to continue to demonstrate how seriously it takes its relationship with the Irish abroad - this is more urgent than ever as we commemorate the events of 1916, and contemplate how closely we adhere to the ideals of a movement that called for a Republic “elected by the suffrages of all her men and women” and made a commitment to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”.
Aileen Leonard Dibra
National coordinator, Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, US
The Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers (CIIC) and its membership across the United States are extremely thankful for all the support and encouragement received from Jimmy Deenihan during his term as Minister for Diaspora Affairs. The choice of Mr Deenihan was a natural one, particularly from a US standpoint, given the many years of support and access he has given to the Irish diaspora in the US both as a sportsman and a politician. As a champion of the inaugural Global Civic Forum, Mr Deenihan highlighted the critical importance of diaspora organisations, the substantive work accomplished by these groups and the significance of the people they serve.
It is our expectation that the new government will continue to prioritise diaspora affairs, expanding on the great work of Mr Deenihan, namely connecting groups that serve Irish people around the globe, recognising the importance of these organisations, and solidifying the link between Ireland and its people abroad.
Chair, Jersey Irish Society
The first Global Civic Forum in Dublin Castle last year was an uplifting few days, during which 200 people from all parts of the world came together and shared their concerns, problems, ideas, and experiences of life as an emigrant. Jimmy Deenihan spoke with passion and sincerity about his role as Minister for the Diaspora, and the reception he received from those present was testament to the need for such a government minister.
I have since heard him speak at the Irish Embassy in London, and again, his interest in, and understanding of the needs of the generations of Irish spread around the world, was evident.
Irish born people who live outside Ireland continue to have an interest in the country of their birth, as do other generations of Irish. The Minister for the Diaspora provided a clear link to the Department of Foreign Affairs, and in turn, to Ireland; to events of importance in the political arena, as well as cultural and business, and provided a recognised channel for emigrants wishing to return home. The role also turned the spotlight on the concerns of Irish people leaving Ireland for the first time, and how best they might be helped in their new country.
I sincerely hope that the new government will have the foresight to continue this role in Government.
Executive director of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre, Toronto
The 2015 inaugural Global Irish Civic Forum hosted by then Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan was of significant value to the Eamonn O’Loghlin Irish Canadian Immigration Centre. Here the centre was able to voice the experiences of our clients, turning attention specifically to issues of isolation and depression, to the need to better prepare those leaving Ireland, and to the need to mitigate expectations of those entering the Canadian labour market.
For those of us working with Irish emigrants worldwide, the forum allowed us not only to share best practices, but more critically, to think about how we might work together. International Irish support centres funded by the Emigrant Support Programme and gathered by the Minister for the Diaspora at the 2015 forum claim a global uniqueness: we all serve the same clients. Whether in London or Edmonton, our clients will have left Ireland for the first time; or, may be trying to return to Ireland; or, may not have made just one move-from Ireland to Canada or Ireland to Australia-but often many moves as they negotiate the challenges of the recent economic climate(s) in not only Ireland but the countries to which they emigrated. The Global Irish Civic Forum amassed these experiences-the ideas collected need the opportunity for serious development.
Chief executive of SIFA Fireside, Birmingham
SIFA Fireside is a service working to tackle homelessness and social exclusion in Birmingham. The creation of the post of Minister for the Diaspora, and Jimmy Deenihan’s personal contribution, raised the profile and awareness of the work going on with Irish communities in the UK. Mr Deenihan’s visit to Birmingham was a particular highlight for us. The Global Irish Civic Forum in July 2015 was a huge milestone for the Irish diaspora, and created a positive momentum for communication and change. We very much hope that the new government will continue to recognise the value and importance of this post.
President of the Irish Network USA
Long before taking this post, Jimmy Deenihan was committed to keeping links between Ireland and the US strong. The Government’s creation of a Minister for Diaspora Affairs solidified that commitment on a more global scale, and they certainly had the right man for the job.
Mr Deenihan was always a welcome presence at Irish events and conferences on this side of the Atlantic, and at least as far as Irish Network USA is concerned, there is a standing invitation for him to continue to be a part of our efforts to encourage Irish, Irish Americans and “friends” of Ireland to invest in Ireland.
Both the Global Irish Civic Forum and the Global Irish Parliamentarian Forum hosted by the Minister last year provided a critical outlet for those of us committed to engaging the global Irish to share best practices and improve our own communications. These events part of his legacy as minister.
As a former Kerry footballer, Mr Deenihan knows the nature of contact sports better than anyone, and this election’s results certainly proved that politics can be as rough and tumble as some of the matches he played in during his illustrious career with Kerry. There is no doubt that when it comes to being a presence on the Global Irish stage this was not the final whistle for Jimmy.
Those elected have a long road ahead, and while they must abide by the old adage “all politics is local”, I hope they will keep a keen eye on the desire of all of us around the world that consider ourselves Irish, and want to be a part of the continuing effort to build a stronger Ireland.
Mary J Hickman
Chair of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad group and professor of Irish Studies at St Mary’s University in London
The establishment of a Minister of State for the Diaspora in 2014 was greeted entirely positively throughout the Irish diaspora. In the wake of heavy renewed migration from Ireland since 2010, the fourth major phase of emigration from Ireland in the past 75 years, the need for emigrants to have a direct voice in Ireland was an increasing sentiment in the diaspora. It is to be hoped in the current period of political uncertainty that the issues this appointment and the publication of Ireland’s Global Diaspora Policy addressed do not get lost. One indication of ongoing serious intent would be a new appointment of a Minister for the Diaspora. In particular, it is vital amidst the calls for political reform of the Dáil that the issue of votes for Irish citizens abroad is included in any review of its workings.
Director, Irish Community Care Merseyside, Liverpool
As a community organisation providing vital community support services to members of the Irish diaspora who are vulnerable in the North West of England, we would like to thank Jimmy Deenihan for his invaluable support in our work, both as Minister for the Diaspora and in former roles.
Our diaspora is a vital element of the Irish nation state and plays a very significant role in promoting Ireland and all things Irish across the world. It’s reach, size and diversity is extensive. Our people have embraced new opportunities and made invaluable contributions in business, education, economics, politics, health, culture, sport and indeed in every aspect of life across the world. Our people have brought innovation, new skills, business, tourism back to Ireland and have strengthened international links with home. Our people have also struggled to survive and be safe and well, and many continue to be very vulnerable as migrants across the world.
The appointment of Jimmy Deenihan as the first ever Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs in 2014 was a very tangible demonstration of Ireland’s commitment to and value placed on Irish people living overseas, their children and their children’s children.
Minister Deenihan worked to ensure the publication of the first ever Global Irish Diaspora Policy and played a very important role in the successful Global Irish Civic Forum at Dublin Castle in 2015. We need to ensure that we continue to build on the momentum of this forum and achieve the key tasks in the Diaspora Policy.
We strongly feel that it is crucially important that the new Government continues to recognise value and support the Global Diaspora. Central to this is sustaining and appointing to the role of Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs.