Task force on emigrants 'energises community'


LONDON LETTER: Economic prosperity and net immigration are the realities of a modern, confident Ireland. Yet 20,000 people from a population of less than 4 million still leave Ireland every year seeking a new life and employment, and the majority of emigrants come to Britain, eventually settling in London.

Most are young and successful. But many fall between the safety nets of friends and social services, seduced by drugs or ending up on the streets.

In addition to the new emigrants' story there is the story of the settled Irish community in London, and many have a range of needs such as housing, health and employment.

To better address the needs of emigrants worldwide, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, launched the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants last year.

It has a remit which includes an assessment of the adequacy of pre-departure services, the needs of Irish emigrants worldwide and measures to encourage the return of vulnerable emigrants.

The task force, which has visited the US and Australia, was in London and other parts of Britain this week to talk with Irish organisations and will present its recommendations to the Government at the end of June.

One of the most sensitive issues for elderly Irish emigrants is money sent back to Ireland from the 1940s onwards. The task force's chairman, former SDLP MP Mr Paddy O'Hanlon, describes it as Ireland's "second national debt".

While he does not put a figure on the money, he insists it would be "irrational" not to recognise that there was a "one-way process from abroad to Ireland for many years".

The task force has yet to sit down and draw up its report from six months' consultation, but Mr O'Hanlon says issues such as vulnerable youth, the poor take-up of pre-departure services and free travel for the elderly come up time and time again during discussions with Irish organisations.

Mr O'Hanlon welcomes the fact that the consultation exercise in Britain has "energised the community and triggered debate" about the relationship between Ireland and its emigrants.

The London Irish Elders Forum, one of the organisations which met members of the task force this week, says it wants a "verbal acknowledgment" from Dublin on the issue of emigrant remittances.

It also wants the task force to bring pressure on Dublin over the issue of a Euro pass enabling returning or visiting elderly emigrants to travel free in Ireland. It is a complicated issue with legal implications across Europe, but forum co-ordinator Ms Dervilla Keegan is adamant that securing the pass is not just about pensioners' rights.

A victory on the travel pass would represent an important "visible" recognition by Dublin of the economic contribution and social significance of elderly Irish emigrants.

"It is an emotive issue among the elderly," says Ms Keegan, who says many Irish pensioners believe there should be a dedicated minister with responsibility for emigration issues.

"There is an ongoing reiteration among our members that Ireland has forgotten its emigrants. But there is a valuable commitment from the task force and an acknowledgment that this is a good exercise and that this will be a learning curve."

For Stella Houlihan, manager of the Irish Support and Advice Service, in Hammersmith, west London, the youth and the elderly are still the most vulnerable sections of the Irish community.

She estimates that between 15 and 20 Irish-born and second and third generation Irish visit the drop-in advice centre every day seeking help with housing, welfare services or one-to-one counselling for drug and alcohol dependency, of which the latter affects mainly elderly men and women.

"We are still getting vulnerable youth from Ireland turning up on our doorstep," says Ms Houlihan. "It's not really surprising that they're still turning up because some people are left behind when the economy takes off.

" They rather naively think that if they can't get housing in Dublin then they can come to London and get housing where, if anything, the housing problem is horrific.

"And the problems of the elderly - isolation, poor housing - are still there. We are banging on the same drum and the need for more funding but the story is still the same for the elderly and the vulnerable."