THERE IS no contradiction whatsoever in maintaining both that young people are mostly being driven against their will by unemployment to the emigrant ship, and that, for some, emigration is, as Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has put it, “a free choice of lifestyle”. A charge of complacency or insensitivity, in the face of what, for most, is an agonising choice, might fairly be laid against the Minister had he only spoken on Thursday of the latter. But he did not.
Nevertheless, Fianna Fáil’s street-fighter-in-chief Willie O’Dea insisted on an immediate apology for “insulting remarks”. “I was disgusted,” he said, “to hear Michael Noonan describe emigration as a ‘free choice of lifestyle’.” Editorialists sounded off, and genuinely heartbroken families of emigrants were rounded up to denounce the Minister. Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said it was outrageous that Mr Noonan had even mentioned lifestyle choice while talking about emigration.
Politics and spin. Half-truths woven from half-quotes, that the public will easily see through. And Mr Noonan has a broad back and thick skin, scarcely needing our words of comfort. But there is an important issue at stake here about understanding the truth of the emigrant experience, one that both Mr O’Dea and Mr MacLochlainn appear not only to want to deny, but even to suppress in the name of political correctness.
That truth is that emigration for some is, and always has been, in good times and bad, a positive choice. Mr Noonan spoke truthfully of his own not-unusual family situation – three of his grown-up children, living outside Ireland by choice. “It’s not being driven by unemployment at home, it’s being driven by a desire to see another part of the world and live there,” he said.
And the reality of “voluntary” departures has another dimension to it. Historically, it might seem paradoxical, albeit driven out by unemployment and poverty it was often the brightest and best who left first, often precisely those who would have taken the few jobs going around. And the drain on the society left behind was all the more for their departure. Now what perhaps has changed most is that this leaving generation, for the first time, had no expectation that emigration would be its lot, and they now leave with fainter hope of ever returning.
What drives emigration is a complex mix of circumstances, the personal, political, economic... To address the challenges, and the real cost it imposes on our society, it is important to understand and debate that complexity. Uncomfortable truths and all.