With hundreds of thousands of people having left the country since the last election, and recent OECD figures showing that one-in-six Irish people now lives outside of Ireland, one would expect emigration to figure heavily in the political parties’ policy proposals for the current campaign.
Yet in over 600 pages of manifesto ideas and commitments, emigration is only mentioned a small number of times, generally in the most generic terms: finding anything on the issue requires going through the documents with a fine-tooth comb. The complex issues behind emigration and return, and the varied lives of Irish citizens living abroad, are barely addressed in the parties’ plans, reflecting our continuing lack of a proper national discussion about the subject.
Fine Gael are the only party to have a specific manifesto section on emigration, titling one of their 29 sections ‘Bringing our Friends and Family Home’. Here, and in their much-vaunted ‘Long-Term Economic Plan’, the party is emphasising a target of 70,000 return emigrants by 2020. While at first the figure may seem large, it equates to just 14,000 per year, a relatively small increase over current levels: in the year ending April 2015, 12,100 Irish people came back. Even during the height of the recession in 2011-12 return migration was much higher, approximately 20,000. During the booms of the late 1990s and 2000s, annual return figures often exceeded 25,000, peaking at nearly 31,000 in 2007. Fine Gael’s target for 2020 - 12 years after the crash - would be exceptionally low for Ireland’s recent history.
This perhaps explains why Fine Gael’s manifesto identifies many issues relevant to emigration - quality employment; housing costs; regional growth; opportunity in the public sector; a ‘more inclusive, fair, diverse and progressive society’ - while avoiding specific commitments or policy details. The misleadingly low target and lack of specific proposals makes it feel like returning emigrants are window-dressing for the party’s recovery narrative, a suspicion reinforced by the party’s sale of its signature tax cut as something which will ‘encourage’ emigrants to come back - something which the Taoiseach has repeatedly claimed - despite there being little evidence that tax cuts are an issue of any concern for emigrants. The party is simply using vote-less emigrants to sell an election pledge.
Labour mention emigration just twice in 132 manifesto pages, generically stating that ‘by building up all our regions, we can reverse the cycle of emigration and provide sustainable opportunities in rural communities’. There is almost no detail on how decades of regional imbalance will be addressed other than the promise of very vague-sounding ‘Regional Growth Strategies’, and mention of the underwhelming ‘nearly €4 million’ spent on ‘Rural Economic Development Zones (REDZ)’.
One might expect the government parties’ conservative approach to (or relief at) high emigration would be met by radical alternatives from the opposition. Sadly this is not the case. In the 134 pages of its ‘An Ireland for All’ manifesto, Fianna Fáil address emigration just once, promising to maintain a Minister for the Diaspora and to fund the tiny (€3.5m) ‘Emigrant Support Programme’.
Sinn Féin squeeze only a handful of mentions in their 58 pages, mainly a back-of-the-envelope promise for a pilot programme of €5,000 grants to emigrants returning to rural areas.
The Social Democrats clock two references in 59 pages, with the main one-line idea being an vague recruitment drive to bring back doctors and nurses working abroad for their proposed 'Irish NHS'. People Before Profit note an 'unofficial state policy of encouraging as many [young people]as possible to emigrate', calling for raising youth welfare payments and a reversal of public sector cuts to new entrants since 2010. In 78 pages, Renua manage to find space just to mention that emigration exists.
Proposals on addressing the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens living abroad are limited at best. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Sinn Féin propose extending the franchise for Presidential elections to citizens living in Northern Ireland and abroad, but none propose giving them a voice in electing the Oireachtas. Labour would allow emigrants to stay on their home electoral register for 5 years, limiting emigrant citizens’ right-to-vote to those who can afford a day off and a plane ticket for polling days. The Social Democrats want an independent Electoral Commission to decide on such matters, and state that it ‘might’ propose extending voting rights to those abroad. Renua and People Before Profit don’t mention emigrant voting at all.
Given the way that the ‘democratic revolution’ of political reform promised by the outgoing Dáil withered with barely a whimper, it is hard to be optimistic about how much political will there will be to follow through on even these very limited promises. It is also arguable that a referendum on giving citizens abroad a say in electing our largely-ceremonial President will be seen as ‘enough’, and will effectively kill off any chance of emigrants having a vote or representation in the Oireachtas.
Irish election campaigns remain dominated by politicians offering populist sweeteners and local pandering to voters. Emigrants possess no votes to chase, and no constituency to be wooed, so it is sadly not surprising that the issue barely registers in the endless lists of policies and promises. Without votes, emigrants will remain ignored in Irish politics.
Dr Christopher Kissane is an associate researcher at the London School of Economics & Political Science