Ireland and the Wider World
To paraphrase the old maxim ‘no nation is an island’ and not even an island nation such as ours can pretend that it exists or can behave as if in isolation from our interconnected modern world. We should be unashamed about charting a course that is distinctive and in tune with the best of our traditions and which learns from our experiences. We must be an example of the best of what small countries can be and we must be able to offer assistance and guidance to others who may be following in our footsteps.
Emigration, Immigration and the Asylum process
As a child of emigration, I am well aware of the challenges that families and individuals face when they are forced away from home. My parents left Ireland in the 1950s and I had to repeat the cycle myself by emigrating in the early 1990s. The feeling of distance and separation, the loneliness, the sense of isolation, of not quite fitting in and not belonging all add to the mundane and everyday difficulties of looking for work, making a life for yourself and paying your bills. This is not to say that the experience of emigration is wholly negative, you get make new life-long friends, have new experiences that you might never have had and with any luck end up a better person. The stresses and strains of daily life are combined with the delight of the unfamiliar and the excitement of the unknown. Yet the choice should be yours to make for positive reasons, not one that you embark upon with the fork of unemployment at your back as you board the bus, plane or boat.
I recognise that Emigration is and of itself not necessarily a bad thing, a certain percentage of our people will always wish to sample the fare of foreign fields and more power to them. However, it does constitute a negative when the choice to emigrate is made primarily because of economic necessity. Rather than someone exercising a positive choice to experience a different life or take up an opportunity that would simply not be available at home, it is then a cause of concern. Then it becomes a potent symbol and symptom of our failure to manage our economy on a long term sustainable basis, instead succumbing to the temptation of short term booms followed by the inevitable bust. As a nation our aim must be to have a sustainable economy that will ensure that there are enough jobs for the new entrants into the jobs market each year. The truth is that we had managed to get to this point from the early 1990s to the early 2000s. It was only in the mid 2000s that the seeds sowed in the late 1990s were allowed to bloom strangling and misshaping our economy to one that was overly dependent on construction. These seeds came in the form of a failure to manage the initial boom in houses prices, and to remove uncompetitive restrictions in fields like law and medicine, combined with a culture of non-enforcement of existing regulations and cronyism in public appointments to lead us headlong into an exorbitant plunge into overleveraged borrowing as we trade back and forth the same pieces of ground and property for ever increasing prices. Anyone who sought, at the time, to query this peculiar new orthodoxy was sidelined and accused of a lack of patriotism.
As the child of emigrants & an emigrant myself I know what it is to leave home & loved ones in search of work, my parents left from Kerry for England in the late 1950s, where they meet, married and had two children. My dad, coming from close to the harbour in the parish of Kilmackillogue outside of Kenmare, had worked on the trawlers and a small farm holding to support his mother and young siblings at home before then working primarily on the buildings for most of his time in England, though he settled down to the stability of work as a school caretaker once the children were on the scene. My mother, who had trained as a seamstress had worked before being married in a clerical role with the gas board. In 1974 they returned to Kerry with my sister and me. My father spent a considerable period out of work as his efforts to start a cleaning business meet with a lack of success. He subsequently became the caretaker for the new Killorglin library building which he was until his retirement in the early 90s. Around the same time after graduating from college, I headed to Japan like nearly 15% of my graduating class of electronic engineers. It was a mixed experience. Long before the time of the ’net it might seem quaint that one’s morale was quite up with letters, clippings from newspapers and the odd bag of tea. I believe the experience stands to me to this day; it made me more willing to stand my own ground and to do so in a polite and measured fashion. My own experience and that of people I knew of the harshness of an overly bureaucratic mentality has made me conscious of the need for a human approach to dealing with people far from home.
We need to resource support facilitates for the Irish Abroad as part of our embassy network. Too often the experience of Irish people once outside the country is that their embassy far from being a bridge back to home and a comfort in times of difficulty is more of a bridge from the Irish department of Trade and Industry to the institutions of the state they are in. While individuals working in the embassies can and do try to assist individuals the fact is that our embassies are not tasked or resourced to assist our own people. It should be possible to do both to represent Ireland abroad to others and to be a gateway to home for our own.
I support efforts to allow people who have left Ireland but who were resident and would have either been on the electoral register or who would have expected to be upon turning 18 to retain for a reasonable period (probably less than ten years) their voting rights for national elections. I don’t support the notion of giving voting rights to anyone who happens to have an Irish passport or eligibility for one. It might be sensible as part of broader local government reforms to include a formal notion of residence to have a citizenship levy that could be directed towards projects outside the state. I would be interested in fostering an open minded discussion on any such proposals as to its practicality.
For too long we have had the view of the Diaspora as some offshore resource to be tapped when we felt like the need, We need to look at how we can provide those private groups than seek to support culture centres that serve the dual purpose of providing links with home and also act as promotions of Irish culture and industry. The two intentions need not be in conflict.
Immigration and Asylum
The time has long since passed when we have to admit to ourselves that we failed to manage or anticipate the influx of people post the admission in 2004 of the ten accession states to the EU. In a sense we were bounced into this by the decision of the UK to allow people from the accession states to work, had we gone another way we would have been faced with the loss the free travel zone we enjoy with the UK. I believe that both governments acted in error in allowing full movement in advance of our European colleagues. The increase in available cheaper labour meant that we poured petrol on an overheating construction sector. We can’t no reverse that decision, but we have to learn from it. I realise that I am speaking with the benefit of hindsight but I believe that if we can’t admit and understand where we have acted in error then we will fail in learning the lessons of the past.
This is not to say that I am opposed to the European Union’s freedom of movement in either principle or in practice; it is simply that the timing with respect to our economic cycle was poor and the management or any sense of forward-planning for the immigration that occurred was sorely lacking. We should have planned for this better by cooling the housing market.
The migration of people is as old as the human race itself. We should be open to people to wish to come here and make a contribution that enriches our society. Immigration is not something to be stopped or rolled back, rather it, like much else in our society, needs to be managed so that it is fair, transparent, consistent and sustainable. The implementation of our asylum policy must be clearly structured but also fair to the individual circumstances of each case. Measures such as background checks for clearance for taxi licenses or working with children should encompass the time that people sent working in other lands. That goes for returned Irish people just as it should for new immigrants.
Our immigration and asylum policy has for too long been resourced on the basis that if we spend as little as possible on it then it might just go away. It won’t and we shouldn’t. We need to make timely decisions for those seeking asylum and we need to review the current process that leads to many decisions to deny asylum being overturned on appeal. Evidently something is very wrong with our current system. This is not to suggest that we should allow ourselves to become a soft touch for people who might be seeking asylum on a bogus basis, but we should not harden our hearts simply because we do not wish our generosity to be taken advantage of. Our system of assessing people for asylum should be fair, transparent and consistent.
We must also ensure that asylum accommodation is respectful of people’s basic human dignity. Aiming for the cheapest short term option can prove very costly in the long term. As a mature developed country we have an obligation to uphold the highest standards that we have the right to expect in any of our public institutions. In asylum accommodation, problems of overcrowding, patchy hygiene, a bland repetitive diet and inappropriate nutrition should not be a matter of mere money. It should not be difficult to allow people more freedom in these areas without breaking the bank. Such accommodation should not be reminiscent of prisons with people lying about bored from having with nothing to do all day. At a minimum we should be able to ensure that people are offered classes in both English and Irish if they wish to avail of them. We need to encourage people who come to Ireland to live whether for the short or long term to partake and be respectful of our many cultural traditions. And we need for such accommodation to be reflective of the best of our own traditions, of the Ireland of the Welcomes.
I believe that our commitment to achieving the UN target of 0.7% of GNP has become, like promises to drain the Shannon, or establish the national language as our premier spoken tongue, a political plaything. Rather we should have the more practical aim to be in the top 10% of nations in terms of our support to developing economies and we should add to this by ensuring that the global average increases every year until it reaches the 0.7% figure. Far more useful that we would seek to be an advocate and example for increased spending in this area by cajoling and encouraging larger economies than ours towards that figure than we seek to do so in isolation.
We should also seek to be more targeted and deliberate in our support of aid programs. We need to have clear measureable goals. We must ensure that money goes as directly as possible to those that most need it and is not sidetracked into the coffers of corrupt regimes or the pockets of petty officialdom. The targeted model being used by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation amongst other private philanthropic efforts is worthy of close examination.
Ireland has a long tradition of working on the ground in numbers out of all proportion to our population. As the numbers of religious declines in this area we should consider if targeted funding might be made available to support more 3rd level students or school leavers who might undertake such work as part of work experience placements or perhaps in exchange for funding which in college.