Call from home: reaching out to Ireland’s new wave of diaspora
Junior minister Ciarán Cannon wants to strengthen links between home and the Irish overseas, and help returning emigrants
Junior minister Ciarán Cannon: wants to change the Government’s traditional model of engagement with the Irish abroad. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
A globe stands in Ciarán Cannon’s office at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is helpful for connecting the dots as his portfolio covers one of the largest ministerial briefs: the worldwide Irish diaspora.
And that is his biggest challenge: the connecting. Whether it is helping returning emigrants move home and settle back in, or strengthening the links between home and the Irish overseas, Cannon’s aim is to look at ways of making the globe smaller and smaller for Irish citizens around the planet.
Take a simple example: obtaining a new driving licence for a returning emigrant.
“That is not easy. If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago,” says the Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development, sitting in his office.
Ireland has licence exchange agreements with some countries like Australia and Canada that makes this process easy for some returning emigrants. The problem is that driver education and testing standards in some parts of the US, for example, “don’t even remotely come close to the standards we impose,” he says.
This is one of the reasons why the Government has asked economic research body Indecon to examine a whole range of areas, from health and car insurance to PPS numbers to opening a bank account, that will help lower barriers and slash red tape for returning emigrants.
The number of homeward-bound citizens has made this a priority for Government. The latest census shows that about 100,000 people returned between 2012 and 2016 as the economy improves.
Cannon is hoping Indecon’s report will land on his desk in the middle of next month. “That will then set out for us exactly what the challenges are, why they arise and whether or not they can be solved and if so, how,” he says in his office at Iveagh House overlooking St Stephen’s Green in Dublin city centre.
The Fine Gael junior minister has heard directly from people affected. The weekend before our interview he met two men in their 30s in his Galway East constituency, a part of the country with a long history of emigration, who are returning home for good.
“Here are the children who have been flown to the four corners of the world deciding to study in Ireland. That to me is a very positive thing. And we are placing obstacles in their way. It is something I am not very happy with,” he says.
Cannon has claimed some wins from an inter-departmental group put together to iron out this difficult wrinkle. From late January, returning emigrants will only have sit a mandatory six driving lessons, instead of 12, to secure a licence. The department has signed up 45 returning emigrant entrepreneurs to “Back for Business” mentoring by Irish-based entrepreneurs since the programme began in November.
But the challenges remain many and varied. For example, the children of overseas citizens or returning emigrants still face having to pay EU fees, which can be about twice the level for domestic students.
“There is going to be an affinity, a relationship there with Ireland rather than us pushing back against that, we should be supporting it. I am anxious that we can find a mechanism to do that,” he says.
Helping the Irish abroad remains a focus for Cannon. He believes it would be “unwise and unfair” to build up the expectation that the undocumented Irish in the US could secure their own solution ahead of other nationalities in light of the heavier crackdown on illegal immigration by the Trump administration.
“At the same time, I think it is important not to scare the Irish undocumented community into thinking that the knock was coming on the door any time soon,” he says.
For future legal immigration to the US, the minister is banking on the possibility of a new working E3 visa – “or some sort of an evolution of the E3” – to help Irish travel and work there, perhaps by offering the carrot of a reciprocal arrangement for Americans working in Ireland.
For the wider diaspora, Cannon is fearful that the Government’s traditional model of engagement with the Irish abroad has been solely focused on the Irish community groups, from Birmingham to Boston, supported with €12 million in public money every year. Those groups work well with the people he calls “the first wave” of emigrants who left Ireland from the 1940s right up to the early 1980s.
St Patrick’s Day
Younger emigrants who left since then are a different matter. A recent survey by Amárach and US website Irish Central showed that the majority, 69 per cent, of the “new wave” do not maintain any connection with any Irish organisation in their own community. The junior minister sees this as a concern.
“They don’t see the point; they don’t see any value in that,” he says.
Next month Irish diplomats will return to Iveagh House for meetings to consider a strategic question over the coming years: how do we engage with that new wave of diaspora?
Ireland’s embassies have to move beyond the traditional St Patrick’s Day events and Irish society receptions, says Cannon, and he believes sports, culture and social media can play a much greater role.
“How do you amplify that and how do you restore and constantly affirm that thing that is very unique and very special to them? Most of that has to be through technology,” he says.
He sees “mostly all advantage” in Brexit now that the department has met the administrative challenge of coping with the surge of UK residents applying for Irish passports to remain EU citizens. New online applications have helped issue 162,251 Irish passports in the UK this year, almost double the 2014 level.
“It is a chance to grow the global Irish community and to say to people Ireland remains a committed member of the EU,” he says.
For Cannon, that means more burgundy Irish passports and an even greener globe to connect.