Address to the Conference on Ireland's attitude to the Diaspora, Dublin Castle, 4.4.07
Ireland’s Attitude to its Diaspora
Dublin Castle, Wednesday 4 April 2007
Dermot Ahern T.D.
Minister for Foreign Affairs
I am delighted to welcome you to
I extend a special and warm welcome to the Friends of Ireland US Congressional Delegation, and their leader Congressman Richard Neal, from whom we will hear shortly.
I am very grateful to Paddy O’Hanlon, who chaired the Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants, and Nickey Brennan, the President of the GAA, for being with us, and equally to Professor Terri Scott, who is on the board of the Industrial Development Authority, Dr Ian Adamson, formerly Lord Mayor of Belfast, and Tim Pat Coogan, Journalist and Author of “Wherever Green is Worn” about the Irish Diaspora. A special word of thanks is also due to Ambassadors Noel Fahey and Daithi O’Ceallaigh for coming from Washington and London respectively, and to the Irish Abroad team for organising today’s conference.
* * * * * * *
The theme for discussion today is Ireland’s attitude to our Diaspora. Just as the nature of our Diaspora has never been fixed, our attitude to it has changed with our nation’s fortunes.
The Irish Diaspora extends back to the 6th Century. The emigration of Irish monks to Europe is credited with helping to end the Dark Ages and reviving Christianity. This notion of
This heritage became a vital plank in the case for the assertion of national independence. Éamon de Valera made an eloquent if unique connection between those hardy monks and modern technology when he officiated at the opening of
He was of course, right to make the intuitive connection between the hill top fires of early Christian Ireland and new technology. Technology has been a key factor affecting emigrants. Safe transatlantic crossings were vital in encouraging the mass European emigration to
Jet aircraft and more recently cheap international air travel have transformed what it means to be an emigrant, greatly lessening the sense of being cut off from kith and kin. The internet, email and the ability to download broadcasts have revolutionised the way people can stay in touch with home.
After the monks, a thousand years would pass before we see the next wave of emigrants.
This year we commemorate the flight of the Earls in 1607, the famous exodus of Gaelic Irish Lords from the shores of Lough Swilly. This inaugurated a major theme that runs through Irish emigration for the next three hundred years.
That theme was emigration as exile. This exile was both political and intellectual. Europe became a haven for Irish intellectuals harried by the penal laws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Irish centres of learning sprang up in
The Irish for exile is “Deoraí” and this was often used to describe emigration in songs and stories. Many Irish emigrants to
So up until independence, emigration was viewed largely as a consequence of conquest and colonisation. The emigrant and the Irish at home were united in this common world view and united in the national struggle for independence. It should be recalled too that emigrants’ remittances were a key means for economic survival for many of those who stayed at home. A debt of gratitude was owed, and I often think that the traditional Irish welcome for American visitors is informed by this memory of support from abroad in tough times.
Logically then, the view that emigration was all Britain’s fault could not be sustained after independence, save on the issue of
By the 1950s, the level of emigration was seen to augur a potential crisis as the national population continued to decline. Seán Lemass, and his chief official Ken Whitaker, grasped this issue
and used it to launch the first programme for economic development. From that point onwards, the Irish Government saw economic growth as the key indicator of national success.
Our current economic success did not come easily. The 1960s saw progress, but the 1970s saw it reversed. With a persistently sluggish economy in the 1980s and more opportunities in America, Irish emigration surged, leading to undocumented Irish in the United States. Emigration was solved by the economic boom that gathered pace from the early 1990s onwards.
At the time, the issue of the undocumented was resolved by the Morrison visas. The Government then, as it does now, pursued this issue with vigour because we believe our responsibilities to our citizens do not end at Dublin or
Many of our emigrants of the 1980s came home and helped create the Celtic tiger, bringing with them expertise, energy and innovation. America, in terms of the White House, Congress and the Irish American community, played a key role in helping establish and sustain the
This Conference is timely because the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Celtic tiger have transformed
My own view, and one that I have sought to implement as Minister, is that we need to give recognition. We can never acquit the debt of gratitude we owe to generations of emigrants.
But we can, and should, share our new resources to cherish our Diaspora.
We expressed our deep and enduring connection with our global Irish family in Article 2 of the Constitution, which now states that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.”
To place our Diaspora in a current context, over 1 million people born on the
They have brought great credit on themselves and on Ireland. Emigration is not simply a sad chronicle of sorrow and regret, it has also been a powerful story of courage and of opportunity.
Our people spread to almost every part of the world. The main destinations traditionally were Britain and the
They integrated well into their adopted communities, and many have kept a strong sense of their heritage and continue to affirm it through involvement in Irish community associations and participation in Irish sporting and cultural activities. Increasingly, too, people born abroad of Irish descent seek to express the Irish dimension of their identity and this has contributed to the renaissance in Irish language studies, history, music and dance in recent years. While the numbers leaving have reduced dramatically, Ireland continues to benefit from the rich seam of good will and community interaction generated by the many Irish men and women living abroad. While many things change, this strong connection remains undimmed.
Maintaining and strengthening links with our Diaspora is a key priority of the Government and my Department. Through engagement with Irish people abroad, the Government and social partners saw the need for a more structured and strategic approach to our emigration policy. The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness 2000 included a commitment to “address the special needs of those Irish emigrants abroad who are particularly marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion”. The Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants, which was established by my predecessor and chaired by Paddy O’Hanlon, paid particular attention to pre-departure services, services for emigrants overseas and services for returning emigrants and produced a major report, supported by a background study, which provided a framework to guide policy in this area.
We have made very significant progress in advancing policies and supporting services in keeping with the Task Force recommendations. The establishment of a dedicated unit within my Department, the Irish Abroad Unit, focused entirely on matters relating to our emigrants, has enhanced our capacity and effectiveness in this area. It is driving forward progress on all of the important areas identified by the Task Force. I am determined to ensure that this progress is maintained. It is central to the strategic mission of my Department.
The Unit’s remit is to co-ordinate the provision of Government support to Irish emigrants, those considering emigration and those who wish to return to Ireland. This includes supporting voluntary agencies working with Irish emigrants and, in accordance with Article Two of the Constitution, strengthening links with the Irish and people of Irish ancestry living abroad. Our commitment to support our community abroad is reflected in the unprecedented level of funding secured for emigrant services. This year, €15.165 million is being disbursed to assist our communities abroad, an increase of 26% on 2006. Overall, this represents a fifteen-fold increase since 1997.
Most of the available funding is directed to Irish community organisations in
In 2006, grants amounting to €10.13 million were made to groups in Britain. We supported over 140 Irish community organisations last year, from
Glasgowto Portsmouth. Services for the elderly are strongly supported. In addition to the very significant funding directed to Irish community groups that support our older emigrants, last year I introduced an initiative based on the Irish tradition of reaching out at Christmas to the most vulnerable by approving a round of grants of £1,000 to £5,000 to Irish clubs and associations around Britain. I plan to continue this into the future.
Another important area relates to initiatives that support homeless Irish people. The Simon Community in London estimates that the number of homeless Irish in central London has fallen from over 600 in 1999 to under 100. Simon credits Irish Government funding with playing a key role in this. It bears out our commitment to supporting the organisations working to promote the social inclusion of our community in Britain.
The pre-1953 pension that I introduced in 2000 as Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs continues to benefit a very significant number of our older emigrants. Under this scheme, over €126 million was paid out in 2006 to more than 24,000 pensioners worldwide. Almost half of that amount was awarded to people resident in Britain. I am very pleased that such a significant amount is directed to older Irish emigrants.
This Government has also extended the Centenarian Bounty to all Irish citizens born on the island of
Additional funding has made it possible to support a development partnership with the GAA in Britain and North America. Over many years, GAA clubs throughout the world have helped their members and supporters to maintain and enhance their links with
I am especially pleased that nine Congressmen and Congresswomen in the Friends of Ireland Delegation are with us today. Along with their leader Congressman Richard Neal, they fully appreciate, as do Ambassador Fahey and his team, the Irish Abroad Unit, and the Chief Executive of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, who is also here, that another major priority area for the Government is our undocumented community in the United States.
We take every opportunity to convey to US political leaders the urgent need to address the issues involved. In particular, we emphasise our strong support for measures that would enable the undocumented to regularise their status and have open to them a path to permanent residency. We are aware that some undocumented Irish people resident in the
During the traditional St Patrick’s Day visit to
In a development on the 22nd of March, a bipartisan comprehensive bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Representatives Luis Gutierrez and Jeff Flake. I warmly welcomed this significant advance in the debate. It is clear, at the same time, that securing the necessary bipartisan consensus on this complex and divisive matter remains a considerable challenge.
Although the legislative situation is fluid and the final outcome uncertain, the introduction of the bipartisan bill in the House marks a significant advance in the debate. In the weeks ahead, I will be attaching the highest priority to our efforts on behalf of the undocumented Irish. I know that my efforts on their behalf, as well as those of Ambassador Fahey and his team, will be strongly complemented by the very effective work of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, which I have been happy to support financially.
Call for a National Debate
I said at the outset that our attitudes to our Diaspora have never been fixed, but have constantly changed over the ages. We need to regularly reshape our policies in this vital area. Today I am calling for a national debate on this country’s attitude to our overseas communities. Policy in this area should not be the preserve of any group or faction but rather should be national in the true meaning of that word. I see today’s conference as the opening of that debate.
In conclusion, let me leave with you the strongest affirmation of the importance of our emigrant community, both as a vital strand in our history and in our cultural identity and heritage today. Our Diaspora have always been, and continues to be, a part of who we are.Top