Irish Emigration is No Lifestyle Choice

Every St Stephen’s Day I play soccer with a group of school friends in Longford, my hometown. It’s not a pretty sight – 22 over-fed men, their prime fast disappearing over the horizon, huffing and puffing on the local Gaelic pitch – but it’s been a tradition for well over a decade, and old traditions die hard.

In recent years, our annual kickabout has taken on a decidedly international feel. Now we’ve got players jetting in from Dubai and Australia, Brighton and Barcelona (although, sadly, we’re still no closer to Barca-style tiki-taka soccer). There’s incongruous bronze suntans on show in the wan winter light, t-shirts bearing logos from bars half a world away and erstwhile schoolmates asking one another decidedly non-existentialist questions about ‘where are you these days?’

Doubtless my yuletide teammates – university-educated, under 35, upwardly mobile, ostensibly living it up in far-flung places – were the kind of people Michael Noonan had in mind when he waded into the emigration debate last week. ‘There are always young people coming and going from Ireland. Some of them are emigrants in the traditional sense, but simply there are people who want to get off the island,’ the Fine Gael Finance Minister said during a press conference on the Troika review of Ireland’s bailout program.

Noonan, who has been in the Dail since 1981 and earns a hefty six-figure salary for his troubles at Finance, went on suggest that it is wanderlust, not joblessness, that’s behind the rise in emigration: ‘For a lot of people going, it’s not being driven by unemployment at all. It’s being driven by wanting to see another part of the world.’

The most generous reading of Noonan’s remarks – elsewhere Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty described the minister’s comments as ‘deeply insulting’ – is that emigration for Irish people is a lifestyle choice, like changing hair colour or opening a Twitter account. Unfortunately, this establishment trope, echoed in 2010 by then Fianna Fail minister Mary Coughlan’s description of emigration as ‘not a bad thing’, flies in the face of reality. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, more than 40,000 Irish people emigrated in the year to April 2011. This figure is expected to almost double this year.

With unemployment running at over 14%, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, much less a social scientist, to work out the connection between an economy choked to death by a punitive IMF/EU bailout and a seemingly endless succession of austerity budgets, and the lengthening queues at long haul flight desks at Dublin airport.

And if Irish people are so predisposed to emigration, as Noonan insinuates, why didn’t more leave during the boom? Going back to my annual soccer game (the last time, I promise): five years ago almost every single player lived within the state, most drove down from their homes in Dublin or Galway for the Christmas holidays. They lived and worked in Ireland because that is what the vast majority wanted to do. Based at the time in Belfast, I was probably the closest our game had to an exotic import (and definitely had no tan to show for my travels).

Branding emigration as a ‘lifestyle choice’ isn’t just a crass and out of touch aside from an aloof government minister. It’s part of a wider shift that depoliticizes Irish emigration, reducing it to a personal choice to stay or go that each individual makes, a self-interested decision which Irish state and society has no right to influence. Government, then, is no longer responsible for stemming the tide of emigrants at home, and is able freely to abdicate its responsibility to provide real opportunities for young people beyond ‘here’s a decent education, here’s a plane ticket, good luck’.

Depoliticizing emigration has effects outside Ireland’s geographical borders, too. If the lads playing soccer on St Stephen’s Day are wide-eyed flaneurs, freely choosing to sell their labour around the world in a global economy, any claim to a political voice back home is severely weakened. You chose to leave so why should you have any say in how the country is run now?

It’s a tired argument rehearsed ad nauseam during debates about extending voting rights to Irish emigrants before the 2011 general election. Since then positive noises made by Fine Gael and Labour about emigrant voting on the campaign trail have dissipated somewhat in a climate where government paints emigration as a youthful jaunt around the globe, rather than a difficult, often unwanted relocation.

The appointment by President Michael D Higgins of former Hackney councillor Sally Mulready as emigrant advocate on the Council of State is to be applauded. As is the government’s announcement that the issue of emigrant voting rights in presidential elections is one that will likely be discussed in the Constitutional Convention that is planned for this year.

But as long as emigration is construed as a lifestyle choice, unmoored from the social, political and economic reality at home, calls for meaningful change in Ireland and wider political representation for emigrants abroad will continue to fall on stony ground.

 This piece originally appeared in the Irish Post.