If a week is a long time in politics then what about a year, especially the past year?! Just over 12 months ago, I wrote an opinion piece for the Irish Times advocating for the new Irish government to repair the broken relationship that exists with many recent emigrants, especially those that I have encountered here in Canada since 2008. The reaction to this article was mostly positive and given what happened soon afterwards, I’m very glad I wrote it.
In light of COVID-19 and the pain it has brought to many families and communities since last March, issues like diaspora voting rights and even general elections seem very trivial. And the reality is that they are. However, while the most acute aspects of the pandemic cannot be underestimated, nor should they ever be, it is important to remember that the virus has had a series of knock-on effects—effects that Irish emigrants and their families at home in Ireland haven’t been immune from.
The events of the last 12 months have shown us that regardless of the countless Zoom quizzes and virtual meetings we’ve been part of since last March, the world no longer feels as small as it did before 2020. Just last week, Air Canada has cancelled 17 flights from airports across Canada—including popular routes like Toronto to Dublin and Vancouver to London. This is terrible news for the growing population of Irish emigrants across Canada but I also feel that there is an opportunity here for the Irish government, and the country more broadly, to engage with the diaspora in a more meaningful way now that travel to and from home isn’t as easy. This is even more important as many members of the Irish diaspora are using COVID-19 as a catalyst to move home permanently. But what does Ireland in 2021 look like for a returning emigrant?
Before we tackle that question, we need to know what led them to leave Ireland in the first place?
When I left Ireland for Vancouver in early 2008, I knew very little about the city or the country that I was moving to. I was vaguely familiar with the mountains out west and the fact that it gets quite cold in the winter but that was more or less it. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that the connection between our two countries was hundreds of years old. I soon learned that Irish emigrants have been welcomed to Canada for centuries and I am very grateful that they have again welcomed Irish people like me with open arms over the past decade.
In 2011, I decided to pay the welcome I received here in Canada forward and launched Moving2Canada.com—through it, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to help thousands of Irish citizens make a new life for themselves on this side of the Atlantic. However, it hasn’t always been easy. Some of the stories I have encountered over the past ten years have been really harrowing and I feel that it’s critical that we understand that emigration was not a choice for many Irish people who left home between 2009 and 2014—but rather a necessity.
From there, I felt a duty to support our returning emigrants more directly and, as a result, launched Moving2Ireland.com in 2018 to bring that sense of duty to life. It was a passion project and ultimately made little commercial sense but I did learn a lot from the two years of the platform’s existence.
First off, I was completely underwhelmed by the lack of engagement afforded to recent emigrants by successive Irish governments. In many ways, it appeared that there was a real “take it or leave it” approach when emigrants raised concerns around the obstacles they faced both living abroad and as they planned a return home.
I don’t say this lightly but my experience working with the Irish diaspora in Canada has led me to the opinion that the Irish government spends most of the time pretending that all Irish emigrants are abroad by choice and fails to acknowledge the events that lead to their departure— most notably, the severe austerity measures from 2009-2014.
The failure by consecutive Irish governments to address many of these obstacles has left a sour taste in the mouth, a sour taste that has resurfaced in recent months as many have expedited the move home to care for elderly or vulnerable loved ones affected by COVID-19. Some of the issues that featured most heavily in this respect include; a lack of recognition of qualifications obtained overseas, being unable to access free third-level education like their siblings and friends at home, PRSI quandaries that disincentivized moving home, the list goes on.
Look, it isn’t all bad news. For one thing, I do think it is important to acknowledge that in recent months the Irish government has agreed to an emigrant-led strategy entitled Ireland’s Diaspora Strategy 2020-2025. This strategy is primarily tasked with trying “to heal relationships” with emigrants who left Ireland in crisis. I really hope that it can achieve its desired success but I am definitely adopting a “wait and see” approach before I am fully convinced. That may sound cynical but it is where I am in 2021.
I often refer to Ireland’s relationship with its emigrants as being somewhat of a broken relationship—the failure of the referendum on voting rights exemplifies this. The goal with the proposed referendum to extend voting rights to the diaspora for presidential elections was an opportunity to have an open conversation and explore the many options that most other western countries afford to their emigrants. Instead, by shelving this referendum for almost two years, I believe that we are missing a golden chance to engage the diaspora and, as a result, are going nowhere fast.
To me, the diaspora voting issue is much more than a decision on who is entitled to vote. To my mind, it’s symbolic of our nation’s inability to understand the simple fact that creating better engagement and channels of communication with those outside the island can bring positive consequences to those within it. It’s worth noting that Portugal—a country very similar to Ireland in terms of size and diaspora—has taken the lead and developed strategies to bring their emigrants home, while successive Irish governments seem far more ambivalent on the matter.
I am of the opinion that the positive impact that returning emigrants can play in Ireland extends far beyond the economic side-of-things. I feel that we owe these emigrants and their families the chance to make a real-life for themselves in Ireland should they wish to return home. Doing so could add energy and vitality to parts of the country badly in need of a boost, especially after the year that we have just put down, but it won’t happen without a proper plan being put in place.
Let’s hope that in 2021 there is action from the Irish government to acknowledge the challenges felt by many recent Irish emigrants during the past decade or so. Whether through the Irish Diaspora Strategy 2020-2025 or elsewhere, it is vital that this generation of Irish citizens aren’t lost to the history books like previous generations in the 1980s and 1950s were.
For me, this doesn’t have to mean full voting rights but it does need to mean establishing a meaningful and inclusive dialogue to ensure that the concerns of those returning home, and those that remain content living abroad, feel part of the future of the country that they still call home.
Ruairi Spillane, who is 38 and from Beaufort, Co Kerry, emigrated to Canada 12 years ago; he is the founder of moving2canada.com.