Irish emigrants come from a small island on the periphery of Europe, and for over 250 years, our people emigrated across the world for a better life. They overcame enormous obstacles and took advantage of opportunities presented to them in their new homeland. Today, Ireland’s emigrants punch way above their weight on the world stage. They are involved in all walks of life, are captains of industry in almost every country in the world, and yet Ireland does not avail of the huge talent that is available to it through its diaspora in any formal way for the benefit of Ireland.
The question is, why not?
One thing that is certain, it is most definitely a lost opportunity for Ireland.
The Irish Emigrant Character
For the past 250 plus years, Irish emigrants had to embrace new surroundings in foreign land, and at the same time they remain loyal and connected to Ireland. In their host countries, they founded schools and social networking groups, such as voluntary county associations and fraternal societies. Their ability to survive and thrive in foreign lands is drawn from the indomitable Irish spirit of determination in the face of adversary. They are determined to hold onto their heritage. To the vast majority of Irish emigrants, Ireland, the land of their birth is “HOME” regardless of how long it is since they have left its green shores. Even in death, families of emigrants celebrate the deceased’s life by displaying photographs of trips to Ireland and placing shamrocks on headstones, as evident in the graveyards of the world.
Great value is placed on the richness of Irish history, music, culture, and traditions brought by Irish emigrants all across the world. Nothing is more evident of this fact than the huge number of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in almost every country of the world, (Japan alone has 17 St. Patrick’s Day Parades). One can visit large towns or cities in the world and find an Irish emigrant or descendants of Irish emigrants proudly playing Irish music, performing Irish dance, or acting in Irish plays.
The United States has the largest portion of the global Irish diaspora and they give generously of their time and energy to preserve and promote Irish heritage in the U.S. Their connection to Ireland is real, substantial and lasting and as a collective group they embrace their Irish identity wholeheartedly. During the North American St. Patrick’s Day marching season, valuable political and commercial engagements play an enormous role in supporting and securing economic, business investments, and political cooperation for the betterment of Ireland.
An Example of Diaspora Engagement
Other nations embrace their diaspora by establishing formal policies that recognize the connection between those at home and those abroad. One such country is France which has four levels of engagement with its diaspora.
France has 67 million domestic citizens and approximately 3 million diaspora expats, yet it has a limited but structured diaspora engagement with its domestic political institutions and its diplomatic representatives in foreign countries.
In the French National Assembly, the engagement of the diaspora has resulted in the establishment of eleven constituencies across the world by the French government and the election of 11 diaspora representative members to the 577 députés National Assembly in Paris. The engagement between the French National Assembly and the Diaspora Representatives has been overwhelmingly positive. The representatives present unique views (that were not there before) to discussions regarding government policy making decisions and to assembly considerations.
The diaspora representatives speak on behalf of their constituency who have a wealth of unique experiences and perspectives which is welcomed be it at committee level or in the French assembly itself. These views have opened windows to the world in new and practical ways for members of the national assembly. The emigrant perspective has helped to shape domestic and foreign policies of the French government for the betterment of the nation.
In addition to their presence as part of the French assembly, the French diaspora have 12 diaspora members to the 300 member French senate. The electorate for the senate are members of local government in France, similar to members of county councils in Ireland. The third level of engagement results in each diaspora country electing a local committee, entitled “Assembly of French Abroad”. The local committee work mostly with the consulates in diaspora countries and serve only as a consultative group addressing practical issues in a host country such as the founding of French schools, promotion of the French language, French culture and travel to France.
The French fourth level of engagement with their diaspora is their ability to vote in French presidential elections. Approximately 1.5 million French diaspora members are eligible and this block of votes is much sought after by presidential candidates. The courting of these votes has generated enormous good will with French citizens abroad and resulted in international benefits for France both economically and politically.
Why then is there no diaspora representation apparatus in place in Ireland?
To try to answer this question, one must first ask, why there is reluctance in Irish Governmental circles to establish formal connection / engagement with the diaspora? The French have four levels of formal engagement, yet the Irish have none.
The Irish diplomatic representatives in each country do excellent work in maintaining connections with host government institutions and political groups. However, as senior diplomatic personnel rotate in and out of their host countries it makes it difficult to establish deep connections with the everyday experience of the diaspora. This of course could be remedied by have formal diaspora representation.
The diaspora has always been available to Ireland as a strategic and practical resource in finding solutions to domestic problems, but that engagement has been haphazard and unstructured at best.
This needs to change!
Every year on Saint Patrick’s Day, the diaspora demonstrates and celebrates the breadth and scale of their contributions and achievements in the service of their adopted homelands. The social, economic and political potential that extends from this success is grossly undervalued and untapped for the benefit of Ireland. The government should recognize and welcome the benefits of the global contributions of Irish expats to the fields of arts, entertainment, education, politics, government, business, and science in Ireland in a more structured manner.
The diaspora should be recognized by the Irish government as a community with a vested interest in the success of Ireland, a community that has the desire to contribute meaningfully to national policy development and implementation.
It is the responsibility of the Irish government to show greater commitment and engagement with the diaspora worldwide.
There is considerable merit for Ireland to having permanent diaspora representation in the parliamentary structures of Irish government. This representation will benefit Ireland, benefit the diaspora, and, more importantly, benefit future generations of Irish citizens, both domestically and abroad.
Hilary T. Beirne, B Agr Sc, MS EOH Sc, is the Founding Chairman, NYC St Patrick’s Day Foundation