We Bring Home With Us: Ireland and her Diaspora

We Bring Home With Us: Great Imagination and expertise is needed of we are to engage the Irish Diaspora.

The recent Global Irish Forum the visits of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama to Ireland and the increasing numbers of people emigrating bring attention once again to the Irish Diaspora. Ireland continues to refer to their vast Diaspora, yet attempts to connect with the larger community, lauded as a great resource can be difficult and cumbersome.

Alan Hilliard (Fr.) M Soc Sc
Bolton St.
Dublin 1

Member of the Board of the Irish Council for Emigrants at the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference and former Director of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants.
We Bring Home With Us: Great Imagination and expertise is needed of we are to engage the Irish Diaspora.

The recent Global Irish Forum the visits of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama to Ireland and the increasing numbers of people emigrating bring attention once again to the Irish Diaspora. Ireland continues to refer to their vast Diaspora, yet attempts to connect with the larger community, lauded as a great resource can be difficult and cumbersome

It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring ‘home’ with us when we leave. Sometimes it becomes more acute for the fact of having left.
(McCann, Colum, Let The Great World Spin, (2009), p 59.)

There has been a sizable increase in attention to the vagaries surrounding the emigration. The recent publication of the Irish Bishop’s Council for Emigrant’s Resource Pack highlights that once again those at the grass roots of the Irish Catholic Church are called upon to address the subject of emigration. Opinion columns are divided as to whether emigration is a good or a bad thing. Bottom line is that it is all too early to have an opinion. If emigration proves to be a short term rite of passage with a choice to return to favourable employment it could well be a positive and enriching experience. On the other hand if the emigration option is seen as the only option, then the experience is a different matter entirely.

Ironically, while the institutions of the country foster ties with the diaspora, thousands of emigrants are leaving our shores. There is no doubt that it is hugely advantageous to the country if appropriate links are fostered with those who claim Irish heritage across the world. How this is achieved is significant. For a country with a long history of emigration, Ireland is a relative newcomer to diaspora politics. There remains a glaring need to understand the diaspora, engage with the diaspora and to be imaginative if Ireland is to create diaspora policies that prove beneficial to Ireland and to those they claim to reach out to.

These matters provide an insight into the vagaries of the global phenomenon of migration which is of increasing importance to policy makers. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that by 2050 seven per cent of the total global population will be migrants. For a short and unprecedented period of our history Ireland experienced net inward migration. As we return to the more normal net outward migration that Ireland has experienced over the centuries it is fair to say that based on IOM figures our experience of migration will be above the global average. In this climate the IOM recommends that countries take migration more seriously, stating that there is a need to develop policies that adequately deal with migration so that the negatives can be turned into positives. This includes policy for diaspora communities. Considering our experience of migration, Ireland should be leading the field in migration and diaspora policy. While we may not be lagging behind, we certainly are not a world leader in this area when compared to other countries that have large populations abroad.
Understanding our Diaspora.

The term diaspora is used now with increased frequency. Ireland is a case in point. For many years Ireland has experienced emigration. Those who left our shores were seldom referred to as ‘diaspora’. Diaspora does not carry the harshness and weighty baggage of the term emigration. Diaspora is less evocative of the pain and necessity of forced emigration. There remains the further emerging challenge which is to keep a link between the diaspora and the emigrant; they are two aspects of the one reality we call migration. Diaspora denotes those that look in from afar while emigration brings unwelcome attention to a portion of our population that are forced out. Policies for emigration are more challenging than diaspora policies as they demand that a country faces up to the causes behind the push factors of emigration. For a country like Ireland, emigration has acted as a safety valve whereby ‘emigration dispensed with the need to do anything about its causes’ (Fanning, 2009). Talk of diaspora policies can ignore or distract from the painful reality of emigration.

For many years and for a variety of reasons respective governments were slow to address the needs of Irish emigrants and the Irish Diaspora. Apart from the global interest in diaspora policies promoted by organisations like the World Bank, a number of local factors have contributed to the emergence of diaspora initiatives in Ireland. One such factor is the signing and implementation of The Good Friday Agreement. This landmark in Irish history has provided a welcome opportunity for the Irish Government to engage with Irish communities abroad. Prior to the Agreement (and viewed from an Irish institutional perspective) elements of the Irish Diaspora were seen to be cultivated to provide support and funding for Republican organisations. Writing in the Catholic Herald (19/04/2011) William Oddie believes that the support from sentimentalist Irish organisations abroad contributed to the deaths of people during ‘The Troubles’. Another factor that contributed to interest in the Diaspora was the setting up of the Unit for the Irish Abroad at the Department of Foreign Affairs whose brief it is to engage with Irish individuals, organisations and groups living overseas.

While trying to understand the Irish Diaspora one must realise that diasporas generally preserve many aspects of an Ireland they left behind and which may no longer exist in the contemporary experience of those that remain in Ireland. The author Colum McCann describes this when he says ‘we take ‘home’ with us when we leave’. Diasporas not only take their own home place with them but they carry the political and cultural landscape that they were enmeshed in when they or their antecedents departed. What some one sees as sentimentalism is in actual fact a substantial slice of Irish life from another time. These values are more than mere sentiment. For Irish settlers to the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century, Catholicism was practically outlawed by the dominant white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, W.A.S.P. culture. Similarly, in the early days of settlement in Australia, officials such as Dunmore Lang and Sir Henry Parkes argued for limiting Catholic influence and Catholic migration. These adverse circumstances forced people to rely on deeply held beliefs and values that gave hope and strength in difficult circumstances. A valuable coping mechanism, these beliefs and values are often preserved in families and communities across generations. While their slice of Ireland remained largely unaffected by changing social circumstances in the home country, diasporas can express views, opinions, practises and sentiments based what their parents or grandparents passed onto them and less on the current values, beliefs and practices of contemporary Ireland. For instance, those in countries like American and Australia who claim Irish heritage have preserved an Irish Catholic or a Nationalist identity find it hard to understand young immigrants who do not hold the values that their families have preserved over generations.
This aspect of the Diaspora has certain advantages. There are many instances where the survival and continuity of a nation are dependent on the action of Diaspora communities and individuals. When countries experience political turmoil, the Diaspora can offer stability and leadership both during the turmoil and when the turmoil comes to an end. The members of the Diaspora can hold on to a vision for the country based on the values that pre-existed strife and warfare. Oftentimes a future leader can be chosen from the diaspora. Such a leader may have been expelled by those that caused the political discontent or may have chosen exile. One example that comes to mind immediately is that of Liberia. Following a tragic Civil war the new President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, emerged from the Liberian Diaspora community in the United States. Other examples of people who brought ideas back to their home country after spells abroad include Mohandas Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah and Ho Chi Minh . Indeed Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was brought to the Archdiocese of Dublin as an Irish exile who was perceived as having something to offer a Church whose local management was tarnished by allegations of mismanagement of Child Abuse Scandals. Furthermore recent Episcopal appointments to Down and Connor, Killaloe and Ossory followed this pattern. As The Economist (2003) once observed, ‘now something new is taking place: diasporas are increasingly exerting influence on the politics of the countries they have physically, but not emotionally, abandoned’.

Engaging our Diaspora
In the mind of the diaspora community, Ireland inc. extends beyond the current travails. As a matter of fact the difficulties and troubles of life in the past often preoccupy memories and stories among families and communities abroad. Marketing Ireland means marketing the Ireland that ‘was’ as well as the Ireland that ‘is’. This may go against the grain of our modern sophisticated ways as those who wield power and influence may want to promote to the model of a modern, secularist, value free Ireland that’s currently open for business. Let’s be mindful that if today’s Ireland is to be marketed to our diaspora it needs to connect with the intrigue that members of the diaspora have with the Ireland that formed the character of previous generations. Even modern diaspora studies admit that it is difficult to detach religious sentiments and beliefs from other cultural aspects of diasporic identity. While modern Ireland may want to downplay religious identity, diasporic communities may want to cherish this aspect of Ireland Inc.

A marked absence at the two Global Irish Economic Fora is the voice of the religious organisations who continue to serve emigrants and the broader diaspora communities. While the current administration may value the input of religious based organisations in local communities abroad, they appear not to value the legacy that religious based organisations have made to emigrant and diaspora policy in the past. The Department of Foreign Affairs may want to ‘dumb down’ the pastoral input of some centres it is worth noting that most Irish institutions provide funding for specific Pastoral Care Services. This includes hospitals, schools, colleges and prisons. If one is in any doubt as to the contribution that Irish Church based organisations have made to emigrant and diaspora policy, one only has to refer to a study undertaken by Dr. Patricia Kennedy of the Department of Applied Social Policy at UCD which charted the contribution of service by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain over a fifty year period . The report specifically documents the contribution the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain made to public policy for emigrants and the diaspora. This work is awaiting publication and will be warmly received considering the renewed interest in emigration and diaspora policy. A further reason for involving a broader range of voices including that of the church is that one of the successful outcomes of the first Global Irish Forum namely Ireland Reaching Out (IrelandXO) is parish based. The basic concept which has been developed by the businessman Mike Feerick has encouraged parishes in the South-east Galway region to establish links with the descendants of those that left the parishes in previous generations. Twenty-five parishes have expressed an interest in the project for 2012 .

To understand the nuances of the Irish Diaspora one must realise that like any Irish town or village it has all shades of life. There are those that have power, wealth and influence and those whose power, wealth and influence may not be as obvious. Just as there is the temptation to engage with one end of the town in Ireland so the same temptation might exist when dealing with the Irish Diaspora. The Exclusive events such as the recent meetings in Farmleigh and Dublin Castle should not distract from the influence and support of those who may not frequent these formal gatherings. There are many lives that have created a web of connections and extended family networks that are proud of their Irish heritage. These connection and networks thrive at local level and may not receive the attention they deserve. While it may be important to attract business people to conferences and summits, it is the other cohorts that bring in the tourist dollars.

Compared to the era prior to the setting up of the Unit for the Irish Abroad at the Department of Foreign Affairs those working with and for the Irish abroad have much to be thankful for. The Unit has created a one-stop-shop for emigrant issues and funding by government has increased. However, as with all organisations, further developments are necessary. Firstly, the benefits that arise when people gather together have been lauded by the organisers of the Global Irish Economic Forum. The organisers of the recent forum have widely advertised the positive effects of the engagement of minds and the power of networking for the economic development of Ireland. However, similar events aimed at gathering together those involved in front line emigrant care were discouraged by the Unit for the Irish Abroad. When the Emigrant Advice Network (ÉAN) was in existence two such successful events were organised in Dublin in 2004 and 2005, however the Board was advised that further funding would not be available for future events. At this point in our history when emigration figures are growing steadily a similar engagement of those involved in front line emigrant care could provide immense benefits for those preparing for emigration. Such an event would provide first hand information on the opportunities, procedures and pitfalls for the modern day emigrant. Secondly, the Global Irish Economic Forum has created opportunities for members of the diaspora to sit on boards on companies in Ireland thus underlining the importance of good governance. One of the major shortfalls in policy for the Irish abroad has been the failure to provide funding and training for board members of Irish Emigrant groups and centres. The failure to insist in proper governance has created problems and has contributed to situations of confused accountability. Indeed many of these centres would reap untold benefits if some of those that attended the Global Irish Economic Forum were involved with local emigrant centres. Such a measure would foster good relationships between emigrant communities and what could be perceived as the more elitist diaspora organisations.

Imaginative Policies
The number of diaspora institutions has increased dramatically across the world in recent years. A large number of countries in the Developing World have ministries dedicated to their diaspora communities. No doubt they have an eye on remittances which aid development. Many other countries have sub-ministry level diaspora institutions and others have national and local level institutions. An overview of these organisations and a review of the various diaspora policies undertaken by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) highlight five important elements in diaspora policies. Firstly a countries policy must have a clear set of goals. Secondly, the information about the diaspora is vital. Though difficult to achieve, policy cannot happen without knowledge of the whereabouts, capacities and characteristics of diaspora communities. A communications network that is mutually beneficial to the home country and those living abroad is of the utmost importance. Modern methods of communication offer untold opportunities for the future but they must be engaging and creative to make an impact. Fourthly, coordinated efforts are particularly important when the client group is so widespread and diverse. Policies, information and communications need to have a professional coordinated focus avoiding duplication and providing easy access to resources. And finally, new initiatives must have something concrete to offer to the diaspora communities.

Initiatives such as the one announced by the Taoiseach in New York offering a three thousand euro reward for every job created by individuals will not engage the diaspora. Creating benefits is a necessary step in cultivating diaspora links but they must hold a deeper significance. While members of the diaspora may be motivated by financial reward they are also motivated by recognition and identity that rises above the tackiness of nostalgia and sentimentalism. It must be remembered that the global scene is changing rapidly, emigration is no longer viewed as disloyalty, host nations are more supportive of dual citizenship, and governments of sending countries work more closely with receiving nations on behalf of their diaspora communities. These factors amongst others provide more opportunities than ever to cultivate links with our diaspora; however, one must not underestimate the difficulties involved in creating diaspora policies. The most notable trait in the efforts of various countries to bridge the gap between the homeland and those living abroad is the distance between ambition and capacity. It is difficult for any country to operate outside its borders which in turn contributes to the inconsistency and ineffectiveness of diaspora policies. History shows that there is something quite unique about the Irish Diaspora that recent administrations have lacked the imagination to harness. Looking back at support among the Irish Diaspora for Republican causes and the feverish activity generated by the Irish Hospital Sweepstake (once described by the American edition of Reader’s Digest as ‘the greatest bleeding heart racket in the world’) there is immense potential to make imaginative leaps to cultivate the support of the Diaspora as we chart our way through uncertain waters.

The present focus on business generated links may suit economic agendas but it will not on its own merits capture the imagination of those who claim Irish heritage. Future policy needs concrete measures fuelled by imaginative initiatives that will reach to the hearts and minds of the potential client base of 80 million. Teams comprising people other than business leaders and civil servants are required to share their expertise if these endeavours are to successfully engage the Irish Diaspora. There are many reasons why initiatives should be taken, some of which are offered in this article. There remains however one good reason; it is time to establish if the 80 million whom we constantly refer to actually exist.

Ends /3000 words

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