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19 September 2002 Edition

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Diaspora double standard

Can government deliver justice for emigrants?

The right to live and work with dignity and security in Ireland is perhaps one of the most fundamental conditions of any truly just society. It is also one of the most overlooked.

Dublin government economic failures and neglect in the last century forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave Ireland, as their right to live and prosper here was abandoned wholesale.

Many have made a success of their new lives abroad, but still thousands endure some form of hardship or deprivation.

A report from the Dublin government's task force on emigration sets out what's needed to look after not just the Irish who are living abroad, but the 20,000 people still leaving the 26 Counties annually.

JOANNE CORCORAN reviews the Task Force report and asks will it be acted on or is it just another dust gatherer. The task is made difficult by the double standard of a government that says it is concerned about the welfare of the Irish abroad but whose economic policies openly exclude and discriminate at home.


Ireland holds a remarkable place in world emigration terms. Throughout history, our large number of emigrants has been completely disproportionate to our relatively small population. That population decreased from 8.2 million in 1841 to 4.2 million in 1961. In the last 50 years, there have been two periods of substantial emigration - in the '50s and the '80s, due to difficult economic and social conditions. The '70s in particular saw large numbers of people emigrating from the Six Counties as a result of the political climate and hardship.

A new report from the Dublin government's Task Force on Emigration has shown that despite increasing levels of prosperity in recent years, approximately 20,000 people are continuing to emigrate annually from Ireland.

The Task Force was commissioned by the government in 2001 to provide a report for the government on emigration and to establish a set of principles for providing support for the Irish abroad.


Economic and social developments in Ireland recently provide a new context in which to view the phenomenon of Irish emigration and present an opportunity to put in place a new approach to meeting the needs of Irish emigrants. The Task Force's report deals with a number of ways to cater for the Irish Diaspora abroad, but contradictions can be spotted straight away in the levels of support the government is willing to offer the 'vulnerable Irish abroad' and the vulnerable Irish at home, including those just up the road in the Six Counties.

The report's objectives include making sure that those who emigrate do so voluntarily, and on the basis of informed choices, and devising a plan to support the Irish abroad, particularly those who felt forced to emigrate and those who find themselves marginalised and at risk of social exclusion. It adds that the return to Ireland of emigrants should be facilitated and supported, and that the Irish abroad who wish to express their identity as Irish people should be encouraged and helped.

Ironically, there are hundreds of thousands of Irish people in the Six Counties who feel marginalised and socially excluded who could do with this sort of support and recognition from the 26-County government. The government, however, is only willing to offer support to Irish people providing it is not treading on anyone's toes.

The report is encouraging for emigrants from overseas seeking recognition from the Dublin government. Among its 'Action Plans' are: to provide a pre-departure service, including education courses for students in schools on independent living in multicultural societies; to increase financial assistance for agencies involved in helping the Irish abroad; and to provide services for people living abroad such as 'A Holiday in Ireland' scheme for elderly people who can't afford to return home.


The Department of Foreign Affairs, responsible for looking after the vast Irish emigrant community, is promising an increase of staff in its department at home and abroad to deal specifically with emigrants, and a significant increase in funding for emigrant services. A figure of ¤18 million is proposed for 2003, building to ¤34 million in 2005.

The report opens up by stating that 'the government has a responsibility to assist and support Irish emigrants abroad who are in need'. It then goes on to say that a number of fundamental principles should apply in the provision of assistance to the Irish abroad. These include 'transparency, accountability, and a consultative process' to ensure that the agencies supported get 'value for money'.


The report goes on to discuss the 'Vulnerable Irish Abroad'. It reckons that the vulnerable Irish should receive all the support the government can offer them in affirming their Irish identities. This should be done by setting up education institutions for those abroad, by encouraging and providing financial assistance for the GAA and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí éireann, and by promoting the Irish language.

Instead of mentioning the fact that Irish people north of the border could well do with this sort of support, the report contains three small paragraphs on emigration from the Six Counties. It even refers to the growing 'mature' relationship between Britain and Ireland as a result of Article 2 in the Constitution, amended as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. As a result of this, the Task Force feels that every support should be given to the Irish living in Britain, who may have suffered as 'a result of the troubles'.

A section on the need to look after emigrants returning to Ireland. This includes the setting up of a scheme to help those returning avail of affordable housing and other related services. It states the importance of giving returning emigrants 'special assistance' in relocating here.


This is the fundamental problem with this Task Force on Emigrants report. Yes, it outlines excellent strategies for dealing with our emigrants and ensuring them the right to return to live in comfort in Ireland or help them abroad.

However, it entrusts this work to the very government that was supposed to ensure our welfare in the first place, which failed badly in the past and is failing again today. We can and should target aid to our emigrant population, but why do they have to leave Ireland before it is recognised that they need "special assistance"?

There is the fear that the same government that believes it is actually lowering domestic poverty in Ireland when it clearly isn't, also believes it is helping emigrants when it is clear that it isn't.

It needs more than a new report to help emigrants. It needs a sea change in the government view of what the problem really is.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1