A symbolic landmark

 

IN A country where the memory of mass emigration is tightly woven into the national fabric, confirmation that more people are once again leaving the State than are coming here has been greeted as a starkly symbolic landmark. For the first time since 1995, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) estimates, net outward migration has resumed. In the year to April, emigrants outnumbered immigrants by 7,800, with the economic crisis appearing to have precipitated a dramatic slowdown in the flow of new arrivals while pushing emigration to its highest level in 20 years. After a decade of unprecedented inward flows, the number of new arrivals has fallen across all non-Irish categories, notably among those from the 12 states that joined the EU since 2004.

Significant shifts are clearly under way, and these trends may well have accelerated since April. But behind the headlines, the figures suggest a complex and fluid picture. While 65,100 people emigrated in the year to April, almost half of them were from the EU 12, and the total of 18,400 Irish emigrants is some way short of many predictions. Considered against the fact that precisely the same number of Irish people are estimated to have returned to the State in the same period, and that emigration among the Irish-born was over 15,000 even in 2006, claims of an Irish exodus are – for now at least – overdone.

The figures also expose the flawed assumption that immigrants would depart en masse once the economy began to contract. Despite being particularly vulnerable to the effects of the downturn, a remarkable 38,900 foreign nationals arrived here in the year to April. Moreover, while the departure of 46,700 foreign nationals over 12 months is a notable increase, it suggests that a great many more of Ireland’s immigrants have decided to stay put.

This raises important questions for Government. The McCarthy report proposed significant cuts in the area of social integration, including the abolition of the Office of the Minister for Integration and a reduction of 1,000 in the number of language support teachers.

The need to prune public expenditure is not in question, but such important decisions must be informed by a long-term strategy. It is worth stressing that the number of recent arrivals is still remarkably high. This, coupled with the fear that attitudes towards foreign nationals may be hardening in the recession, means the goal of incorporating newcomers fully into society remains as urgent as ever.