You do not miss something until it is gone. After repeated iterations of lockdown, I can imagine that many are reminiscing fondly about their old normal or harkening back to a time when life had not been upended by a global pandemic.
However, perhaps, the old adage (of missing that which is gone) does not ring quite as true for Irish emigrants. Ireland has had a curious relationship with her diaspora, who, for many years, felt as though they were gone, but quite forgotten. Many emigrants have reported feeling abandoned or disconnected from home as the years went by. Official disinterest and waning social ties only exacerbated the feeling of alienation from Ireland.
Maybe history has had a part to play. Did we in Ireland try to bury the collective trauma of the Famine that forced over a million emigrants to board the coffin ships? Was there a sense of national guilt, given that so many of our young had to leave after the foundation of the State? Was there resentment from those who remained towards those who had left? These are poignant questions, which historians and commentators alike have mused for decades, but one thing is clear: it has only been in recent years that Ireland has meaningfully engaged with her diaspora of 70 million people worldwide.
In 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny created the first post of Minister for the Diaspora and in 2016 appointed me to Seanad Eireann, as Senator for the Diaspora, to represent the Irish living overseas. I was no stranger to the emigrant story, having been born into a dairy family in Galway but finding my way to the restaurant industry in Chicago.
It was there that I encountered first-hand a vibrant Irish community that also included the undocumented Irish of America. They were going through many of the challenges that you would expect from a vulnerable population; far from home with no safety-net services or legal status. When they asked for help, I formed the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform and campaigned for US immigration reform that would provide them legal status and state drivers’ licenses (which would at least allow them to get to work without fear of being deported).
We were successful in 2013 in passing the Illinois Temporary Visitor Driver's License law that saw 250,000 undocumented immigrants from all ethnicities secure a license (and more importantly the proper insurance to be on the roads). To its credit the Irish government supported the undocumented, however, if I am honest, I often wondered how Leinster House could advocate for emigrants’ rights abroad but not at home.
In addition to the recent arrivals to America (with visas and without), many emigrants arrived in the post-war era and were soon joined by a second wave in the 1980’s. Despite their generational differences, they often claim a desire to one day return home, or at the very least a strong desire to stay connected to Ireland. The emigrants of the 1950’s did their part in the post-independence ‘lean years’ of the state by sending home remittances and each successive wave kept the political pressure on Washington to bring about the Northern Ireland peace agreement in the 1990’s. Their commitment to Ireland has been unwavering, so why has Ireland’s approach to them been so tepid?
Many of today's emigrants do not fit the stereotype of the son or daughter who left never to return. Young emigrants today tend to be highly educated or equipped with a skilled trade. They leave, either with a wanderlust or a desire to gain new experience, but they always express a strong desire to return home in the not-so-distant future. Emigration is now temporary. This new face of the diaspora requires us to rethink our relationship with boomerang Irish citizens with deep roots to home, which are only strengthened by the virtual world.
For this reason, I welcomed the government's commitment to support a referendum on voting rights in Presidential elections for Irish citizens living abroad and in Northern Ireland. As a founding member of VotingRights.ie, I immediately saw the benefit of extending the franchise to Irish people who still felt they had skin in the game. They may leave for a period of time, however, they still want to stay connected and relevant to home. This was made very apparent when the Home to Vote movement took off and many engaged, young people returned home to cast their ballots in the Marriage Equality and 8th Amendment referendums. The appetite is certainly there among the Irish electorate and if 24 of the 27 EU countries can do it, then why can’t we?
If the recent COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that our greatest treasure is our people. The diaspora should be viewed as Ireland's greatest asset beyond its physical borders. If we are serious about owning our moniker as a ‘global island’, then all attempts should be made to keep our people abroad invested in Ireland's future. We are facing the biggest challenge since the foundation of the state, as we dig ourselves out of the COVID-19 pandemic; the economic implications of which will be felt for generations to come.
I would encourage the government to build upon the model of diaspora representation in the Seanad with actual members of the global Irish community representing itself in Leinster House. We bring a very different dimension to the work of government by highlighting the lived experience of the Irish abroad. We personally know the impact of government policies, or lack thereof, on returning emigrants. If you have never had to deal with securing an Irish driver's license or getting access to a primary school for your children upon return home, you should count yourself lucky. I made it my mission in the Seanad to highlight these stumbling blocks and while progress has been made, much more remains to be done. With representation in the Seanad and a right to vote in Presidential elections we can set a new course for diaspora engagement for the 21st century.
As we build back after COVID, I have no doubt that our diaspora communities in America and beyond will play a crucial role in reshaping a prosperous future for all of us. They stand ready to help and ask only to be engaged by the Irish at home.