The emigration question


WHY DO Irish people emigrate? Are they forced by economic necessity to leave? Or do they go as a matter of personal choice? These questions are keenly debated whenever emigration is discussed. And people differ greatly on what motivates emigrants to opt for a new life in another land. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan was criticised in January for saying that for many, the decision to work abroad reflected a lifestyle choice. Nevertheless, a survey of recent emigrants – conducted by Ipsos/MRBI for The Irish Times – supports Mr Noonan’s view. That said, it is impossible to ignore the huge loss of opportunity that has resulted from economic decline or the negative impact of family separation, however voluntary the decision to emigrate.

Accurately surveying those who have left Ireland is inherently problematic because the absence of a reliable measure of the emigrant population makes it impossible to apply the controls and weightings associated with standard opinion polls. However, Ipsos/MRBI has taken steps to ensure its findings are robust. The survey suggests that most who leave Ireland do so more from personal choice than from economic necessity. All, however, depart with regret and most hope to return.

The conventional wisdom – rooted in Ireland’s long experience of emigration – has been to regard it as an inevitable, but regrettable, necessity. For many, emigration has been a mixed experience. Some who left as part of that great human exodus in the 1950s were poorly prepared and ill-equipped to meet the challenges they encountered in their country of adoption. However, Irish attitudes to emigration began to change in the 1980s. In response to the prolonged economic downturn here, a fresh wave of emigrants sought a better future elsewhere, mainly in the US. Many were keen to seize the opportunities that a world, transformed by globalisation, had to offer. When some later returned, it was with enhanced skills that enabled them to become active participants in the decade long economic boom.

Irish emigrants remain Irish citizens while becoming citizens of the world; a world in which distance has contracted, in which travel is easier and cheaper than ever and communication, via the internet and Skype, narrows the physical gap and eases – although never fully eliminates – the pain of family separation. That changed reality of this new emigration experience is reflected in the survey findings, where those questioned are well qualified for employment. Most had third-level qualifications and they reveal, in what are difficult and uncertain economic times, a surprising measure of self-confidence and optimism. Among those who were unemployed before they left, nearly all are now at work.

In the past, the spectre of emigration haunted the land. Those who left were unlikely to return. Today emigration lacks that finality. For many it is a transitional phase – as reflected in the survey finding that 72 per cent of emigrants hope to return home. Should that hope remain unfulfilled, however, another dimension will be added to the narrative of Ireland’s economic decline: the loss of some of the best and brightest of our youth.