IRELAND AND THE IRISH DIASPORA
Ireland is waiting for the Budget, possibly the most important and harshest in the history of the state. It has to address a situation which is unsustainable, where revenue from taxes only covers two thirds of government spending. The country has been running on empty since September. It is sobering to reflect that, since I wrote in the September issue, the government has been obliged to borrow six thousand five hundred million dollars just to keep going, an amount which increases by three million plus every hour.
The debate on what to do, who should pay, and how, and where Ireland is going as a society has intensified in recent months as denial has begun to give way to a reluctant acceptance of reality. Arguably this debate will lead to a better and more mature understanding at all levels of who and what we are, and, after the Lisbon vote, what our position is in the world of today. One aspect of this could include some redefinition of the relationship between Ireland and the greater Irish nation overseas. I touched last time on the Global Irish Economic Forum held in Dublin in mid-September. This brought together a sizeable number of the great, the good, and the successful from among the Irish diaspora, the name currently in vogue to describe collectively those of Irish descent living outside Ireland. The forum tossed around ideas and initiatives which might assist Ireland in her current situation. The deliberations of the forum make interesting reading and can be accessed through the Department of Foreign Affairs website. Follow-up will be interesting.
The forum was organised by the Irish government but owed some inspiration at least to promptings from the Irish economist David McWilliams, who, as I have written earlier, has argued for some time for a new relationship between Ireland and the overseas Irish family. McWilliams has pointed to Israel and the Jewish diaspora as an example which Ireland might usefully take on board. His basic point, advanced before Ireland fell down its present hole, is that there is huge untapped potential for a fruitful interaction between the two, something that Ireland should not ignore.
The forum can be seen as a significant step in the process of drawing Ireland and the Irish family closer together, at a time when Ireland can do with help from any quarter. It comes several years after the report in 2002 of a special task force on policy towards emigrants entitled “Ireland and the Irish Abroad “. The document, though full of the rhetoric of the Celtic Tiger years, merits reading. It has proved a fruitful basis for subsequent government action, including substantial increases in financial assistance to groups assisting disadvantaged Irish outside Ireland.
The report was drawn up when money was no object and was pitched primarily at the perceived need then at last to do something for Irish emigrants requiring a helping hand, particularly those of the 1950s wave of emigration to Britain. It also addresses the wider issue of Irish communities and those of Irish descent worldwide. It acknowledges that there are a number of different Irish communities in the world, all with specific needs and aspirations, and that, in devising an official policy towards emigrants, one size definitely does not fit all. However, and unavoidably, given its remit, it draws a distinction between Irish citizens and those of Irish descent, with the bulk of its content and recommendations focused on recent emigrants from Ireland with special reference to the vulnerable and those in need of assistance and recognition.
The report falls far short of meeting the high watermark of the suggestions made by McWilliams but it is important, nevertheless. While not fully embracing the “mother ship” concept, it has established a benchmark for future official relations between the Motherland and the greater Irish nation and made a number of useful observations and recommendations. In citing Article 2 of the Irish Constitution ,with its reference to the Irish nation cherishing its’ “special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad”, and in its follow-up references, arguably it has begun the process of fleshing out just how to support those wishing to express and share the Irish dimension of their identity. Fully to do justice to this topic would require a separate report.
I would like to touch briefly on some of the issues broached in the report and which crop up whenever the subject of Ireland and the Irish abroad comes up. A central issue is that of citizenship and recognition. There is no halfway house where Irish citizenship is concerned. Every Irish citizen has the same rights, with the proviso that, in terms of voting and taxation, rules of residence apply. The Irish constitution provides quite generous access to citizenship, even if in recent years some of the provisions have been tightened. However, there is a clear cut off point at grandparent level, which, while making practical sense, excludes crudely most of the great family of Irish Americans, whose Irish origins stretch back further.
The unique nature of Irish emigration, proportionately far larger historically than any other, leaves little scope for future expansion of access to citizenship through descent. For consideration, in my opinion, is whether or not some form of statutory recognition of Irish origin could be introduced, which would confer recognition and some advantages to those qualifying, but would fall short of actual citizenship. It could perhaps be hung upon the reference in the Constitution to “special affinity”. While the practicalities of this may be difficult, at a time when Irish membership of the European Union involves giving access and advantages to those from other EU countries, it is surely appropriate to contemplate doing something for our own.
For those already citizens the issue of the right to vote in Irish elections arises. This issue raises particular emotions among many recent emigrants, who feel they have been driven to emigration and consider they should have a right to redress through the ballot box. The more detached acknowledge the practical difficulties and accept the logic of the argument that voters must be resident, together with the additional point that there should be no representation without taxation. (The issue of taxation of Irish people living abroad has resurfaced this year but purely as a domestic issue aimed at certain high-profile personalities on the Irish scene who pay no Irish tax.) For consideration here, and the report refers to it, is whether some seats in the Irish Senate could be reserved for representatives of emigrants.
The report suggests giving recognition for Irish achievement overseas through the establishment of an annual awards scheme. This idea has some merit with regard to high achievers but misses the point of doing something for all. Moreover, the fact that Ireland has no honours system for achievers within Ireland means that any movement on this for the Irish abroad will not be in the short term. The British award to Teddy Kennedy shortly before his death, threw into sharp relief our inability to do likewise. On this, as on much else, swift action is needed.