Diaspora deserves the right of return

Many Irish-Americans would love to work in Ireland but it needs a change in law, writes Rose Foley

Many Irish-Americans would love to work in Ireland but it needs a change in law, writes Rose Foley

I'VE BEEN trying for 11 years to get a job in Dublin, but I haven't been successful. It's not because I don't have skills - I'm a newspaper editor and reporter with more than 20 years' experience. My "problem" is that I'm from the United States.

I love Dublin and I would love to be able to live and work here full time but I'm not entitled to seek work here. Although I'm an Irish-American - six of my eight great-grandparents were born in Co Kerry, mostly in Ballydavid - the Irish Government says that doesn't matter. It's too long ago.

But it does matter. I have a vested interest here and I'd like to be a contributing member of society. I lived in Dublin for a year from September 1995 to October 1996 and earned a master's degree in peace studies through Trinity College at the Irish School of Ecumenics.


While a student, I volunteered with The Big Issue, now The Issues, magazine, working with vendors like Winnie McKay and Denis Kenny, who became friends of mine. I'm now helping Winnie, who is so severely disabled by cerebral palsy that she can move only her right hand, write a book about her life story.

I became so attached to Ireland and my interest in peace studies and wanting to make a positive difference in this world that in 2002 I left my job temporarily with The Boston Globe newspaper to volunteer for six months in Belfast with Mediation Northern Ireland. I came back the next summer and volunteered again with the same organisation. I tried seeking employment during those years but my nationality was always a stumbling block.

History tells us that Boston once greeted Irish immigrants with Help Wanted signs saying "No Irish need apply". Now in Dublin, in the new Ireland of opportunity, it's "Most Irish-Americans need not apply".

Yet I feel that Ireland is a part of me. It's in my soul. I've formed wonderful friendships here and I'd like to keep them. Ireland often feels more like home than my own home does.

After I was made redundant last year, I returned to Dublin in October. I went to employment agencies but was told basically that in order to get a job I would need a visa and in order to get a visa I would need a job.

I phoned the US embassy to find out what steps I could take to gain a work permit and visa. This is how the conversation went.

Embassy employee: Well, first we have to find out if you're entitled to work here. Were you born in Ireland?

Me: No.

Embassy employee: Were your parents born in Ireland?

Me: No.

Embassy employee: Were your grandparents born here or are you married to someone from Ireland?

Me: No, but my great-grandparents were Irish.

Embassy employee: No. Too far back.

In other words, I'm just not Irish-American enough.

The embassy employee then explained that even if I had an employer to sponsor me for a job - which has to be full-time with a minimum salary of €30,000 per year - the employer would have to prove that no one in Ireland or the EU could do the job before a non-EU member could be hired. Given that there are more than four million people living in Ireland and nearly 500 million in the EU, this is highly unlikely.

It's a law that prevents most Americans and other non-EU members from working here. The embassy employee told me that some work permits are approved, but only in specialised fields such as nursing and computer work.

It's sadly ironic that Americans are not allowed to seek employment in Ireland, a country that for years relied on sending its people to work in other countries, particularly the US. And it's even more ironic that Americans of Irish descent are not eligible to work here yet citizens of EU countries with no ancestral connection are welcomed.

In a global economy, shouldn't we all have the right to seek employment in that economy, wherever it is? If corporations can outsource jobs to other countries, shouldn't workers be allowed to seek employment in other countries as well?

My great-grandparents, James and Ellen (nee McLaughlin) Foley, John and Catherine (nee Kennedy) Murphy, and William and Rossana (nee Sullivan) Murphy, were some of the nearly one million people who fled Ireland and immigrated to the United States during and after the Famine years. Descendants of Irish immigrants, including myself and my six siblings, make up the 70 million-strong Irish diaspora, according to author David McWilliams, who holds that Ireland's future prosperity is dependent upon these descendants.

"People are the natural resource of the future and we have the smartest and most numerous global diaspora," he wrote in his book, The Generation Game. Yet Irish immigration and visa laws don't acknowledge this potential.

"These people are potentially pioneer immigrants," McWilliams writes. "People who want to come home, with a deep, vested interest in our culture and we snub them ... They are emotionally drawn to us, they are our history and yet modern Ireland gives them the finger."

The time has come to welcome us back.