Ireland is a small state with a relatively large diaspora (estimated to be 70 million people). That scale, in the context of historical, geographical and cultural dispersions over several hundred years, has produced a globalised identification with Irishness that persists in the 21st century. It is only in very recent years though, spurred by the economic crisis of 2008, that the Irish government has formalised a “diaspora policy” and sought to develop engagements with emigrants and their offspring.
Ireland was not alone in this policy turn for it reflects a broader refashioning of the world system in which forces of globalisation have accelerated movements of people, capital and information. Many states have come to view their diasporas as a soft power resource and moved to create ministries, institutions, and programmes to engage diaspora as agents of diplomatic and development goals. In this context, diaspora (often undervalued, even maligned generations of emigrants) are now celebrated as living transnational networks that extend nation-state capacities and resources. While there is much that is positive in this engagement, it is not without tensions, and the evolution of the state-diaspora relationship invariably throws up challenging questions about citizenship and about national identity.
Ireland’s engagement with its emigrants is older than the establishment of the state, such has been the impact of successive waves of departure and the maintenance of bonds between those at home and abroad. However, Irish governments have been wary of grasping the nettle of emigration policy lest they get stung by the unsettled and often unspoken politics of citizenship and representation.
Perhaps the most significant policy stirrings prior to the post-crash period were in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement when the government established a Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants that reported in August 2002. It created the Agency for the Irish Abroad in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and allocated to the DFA “overall responsibility for policy on emigration and for the coordination of support services to emigrants and Irish communities abroad.” In practice, the remit for emigrant engagement was quite narrow, focused on “support services”, particularly to meet the “needs of young and vulnerable” emigrants. The Emigrant Support Programme was a notable outcome and has been a valued and sustained initiative (its 2021 budget is 13 million euros).
Following the economic crash of 2008, which severely damaged the Irish economy and the country’s international standing as a “poster child of globalization”, the Irish government faced challenges in rebuilding an international reputation. Strategically, it began to more formally and fulsomely consider the Irish diaspora as a resource, stepping up its engagement with emigrants and their offspring across the world and in particular with those in the US.
Four Global Irish Economic Forums were hosted in Dublin between 2009 and 2015, bringing “influential Irish people” from across the world together to group think and advise the government. Among many initiatives was the creation of the Global Irish Network “to connect 350 of the most influential Irish people around the world and to bring them into dialogue with our government.” There was a core focus on developing the economy and the fora attendances were mostly made up of “economic stakeholders”.
In 2014 the post of Minister for the Diaspora was created and in March 2015 the first comprehensive statement of diaspora policy was produced: Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy. The document presented a “vision” of “a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other.” It was ambitious in rhetoric and broadened the impetus for diaspora engagement beyond economic development to cultural and civic outreach. Two Global Irish Civic Forums were hosted in Dublin, in 2015 and 2017, bringing together representatives of voluntary and civil society organisations dedicated to supporting the Irish diaspora around the world.
Ireland’s evolving diaspora policy has by and large sidestepped issues of enfranchisement while talking up “engagement”, “pluralism” and “inclusion”. In the diaspora policy document the “role of government” vis-à-vis the diaspora is said to “support”, “connect”, “facilitate” and “recognise” – all relatively passive terms common in the policy discourse of many governments as they seek to “engage” without being seen to direct state-diaspora relations. The “recognition” category in the document includes the Presidential Distinguished Service Award and the Certificate of Irish Heritage scheme, both meritorious but a long way short of a right to vote.
Ireland’s emigration policy reflects tensions in the relationship between the state, understood as the institutions of government within a bounded territory, and the nation, understood as an imagined transnational community. It is a relationship that is never seamless though political leaders often like to speak as though it is. At the heart of state-diaspora relations is an unresolvable tension about the meanings of the nation and of citizenship. Heartfelt rhetoric about belonging and inclusivity can founder on the reality of legal and economic exclusivity. When we think of Irish citizens abroad as a resource, a form of “human capital” in policy speak, we begin to lose sight of citizenship as a public good.
In 1995, addressing the Houses of the Oireachtas, then president Mary Robinson stated: “Our relation with the diaspora beyond our shores is one which can instruct our society in the values of diversity, tolerance, and fair-mindedness.” This proved a prescient observation ten years later as the referendum on same-sex marriage was charged by emigrant involvement.
The Global Irish policy document calls for a relationship “built on trust, respect and reciprocity” but there is some way to go in that building process. If Irish diaspora policy is to evolve in ways that more fully materialize Robinson’s vision of emigrants enriching our values of democratic citizenship, then the issue of enfranchisement must move from the silenced margins to the centre of diaspora engagement.