Referendum fever is crossing the Irish Sea

LAST Saturday, Tyrone defeated Derry in the final of the McKenna Cup at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Among the sell-out crowd was an unlikely acolyte of Ulster GAA: Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. While right-wing unionists decried the DUP leader’s first trip to a GAA match as treachery, Robinson appeared to enjoy the game, even signing autographs inside the stadium.

Robinson’s companion at Saturday’s match was Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Judging by the shared smiles and chatter inside the VIP area at the Athletic Grounds, it seems fair to say that the deputy and First Minister were talking more about sport than politics.

Whether McGuinness mentioned his intention to push for a referendum on the constitutional future of the north to Robinson during the half-time break on Saturday will probably never be known, but in an interview published in Monday’s Irish Examiner, the deputy First Minister stated clearly for the first time his party’s desire for a vote on Irish unification in the near future. “It just seems to me to be a sensible timing,” he said. “It would be on the question of whether or not the people of the Six Counties wish to retain the link with the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland.”

Referendums, it seems, are in the Irish Sea air. Both emboldened by and envious of the SNP’s recent success, Sinn Fein is keen to capitalise on the new, more fluid dispensation towards the UK’s constitutional future by putting the issue of Irish unity firmly on the political agenda.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum on Irish unification can be held no more than once every seven years. Any decision on such a plebiscite rests with the British secretary of state, although in practice it would require support from the DUP and even the Ulster Unionist party if it were to be given the green light.

McGuinness outlined a provisional timetable for such a referendum, saying that the vote could take place in the next Assembly term, possibly as early as 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising, the republican revolt that, eventually, paved the way for Irish independence. Comparisons with Bannockburn and 2014 have, unsurprisingly, not taken long to surface.

And yet, the political reality of Sinn Fein’s referendum gambit is very different to that of the SNP. Barring an act of God, a referendum on Irish unity in 2016 would be roundly rejected by Northern Irish voters. According to the 2001 census, just over 53 per cent of the population hails from a Protestant background, with 44 per cent from a Catholic background. However, the most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that 73 per cent backed the union with Britain: among that figure were 52 per cent of Catholics.

Putting the debate about a united Ireland on the political agenda appears to be the driving logic. Sinn Fein has watched with no little interest as the tenor of the independence debate in Scotland has shifted from process to specifics.

The ripple effects of the Scottish referendum are being felt across the UK: from Liberal Democrat power-broker Simon Hughes’ calls for an English parliament, to the wary glances being thrown northwards by Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones. But it is in Northern Ireland, with its long-established nationalist and unionist tribes, where any moves towards independence in Scotland are likely to be most keenly felt, and politically exploited.

Ironically it was McGuinness who cautioned Northern Irish politicians against getting involved in Scottish politics. Speaking before the Stormont Assembly last month he described Scottish independence as “an issue which could be used to create divisions in this house or even in our Executive or even between the First Minister and myself”.

For their part, Northern Irish unionists have made little secret of their position on the Scottish question. Speaking at a British-Irish Council summit in Dublin earlier this year, Peter Robinson spoke of his own Scottish roots and his desire for “Edinburgh to remain within the United Kingdom”. Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliot wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that “this is a time for us all, as unionists together, to support a continuance of a strong United Kingdom”.

A referendum on Irish unity would place Westminster in a bind. The Good Friday Agreement avers that the future of Northern Ireland will be settled by a majority vote of its people. Given the north’s turbulent history and its fractious relationship with Westminster, it would be difficult to countenance a Conservative or Labour leader wading in on the side of the union. Any repeat of the cross-party support marshalled against Scottish independence could have disastrous, even fatal, consequences in Northern Ireland.

All this talk of constitutional change omits one key player: the Republic of Ireland. In Dublin, appetite for unification is scant and getting scanter. The economic cost of absorbing the heavily subsidised Northern Irish state would almost certainly be beyond the Irish state in its current hairshirt incarnation. Indeed Sinn Fein owes its recent electoral success south of the border more to its left-wing position on social justice and employment than any tropes of republican history.

In Ireland right now, it’s a referendum that might not happen that’s prompting the most public discussion. A recent Red C poll showed that 72 per cent of the Irish electorate wants a plebiscite on the latest EU treaty. If Irish voters do get their wish, this’ll be one political game Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont will all be watching with interest.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, February 1.

At Edinburgh Sheriff Court

Supporters of Occupy Edinburgh were thin on the ground at the city’s sheriff court on Wednesday, 25 January, Robert Burns Day. Only 15 or so activists went to protest against their eviction from St Andrews Square, outside the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland (whose chief executive has just received a £963,000 bonus). ‘Oh, you’re with that lot,’ the security guard manning the metal detector said when I asked where the Occupy case was being heard. ‘Should have got rid of them months ago.’ After rummaging through my rucksack and confiscating my Dictaphone, he pointed in the direction of Court 13.

The case against Occupy was brought by Essential Edinburgh, a city-centre initiative representing various high-end retailers, including Harvey Nichols, RBS and Virgin Money, with interests in the lucrative and mostly privatised shopping streets around St Andrews Square. The occupation began on 15 October, with considerable popular and (largely opportunistic) party political support. Since then, however, numbers have dwindled amid negative press coverage, most of it focused on anti-social behaviour and alleged anti-semitism as well as concerns about the movement’s direction, or lack of it.

‘We want to present ourselves in the right manner,’ the veteran socialist Willie Black told the sheriff, Katherine Mackie. Unlike Occupy LSX outside St Paul’s in London, the Edinburgh protesters had agreed to vacate their site before the eviction notice was even served. Courtroom drama was in decidedly short supply. There were no Guy Fawkes masks or grandstanding statements, just a mundane exchange as counsel for Essential Edinburgh pressed for an eviction notice from the court. Sheriff Mackie demurred, ruling that the occupiers had the rest of the day to clear St Andrews of all remaining persons – namely the many homeless people who had congregated around the camp in ever greater numbers – and their belongings.

Outside the sheriff court, Jamie, a fourth year journalism student with a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ badge on his jacket, said: ‘This is global, this isn’t the end.’ Chris, a 24-year-old freelance copywriter responsible for Occupy Edinburgh’s Twitter feed, said the movement needs to regroup and refocus but will live to fight another day.

In front of a single TV camera, Black spoke of the need to protect the vulnerable in society, especially Edinburgh’s growing homeless population. ‘You can take our square but you’ll never take our freedom,’ shouted a middle-aged woman with long purple hair. Another protester held up a whiteboard that said, in red marker: ‘It’s coming yet for a’ that.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Talking Scottish Independence with Pat Kenny

I appeared on the excellent Today with Pat Kenny program on RTE on January 12, talking about Scottish independence referendum vote and what an independent Scotland might look like. As the Today with PK site says, ‘This is shaping up to be the UK’s most serious constitution crisis since southern Ireland quit the union in 1922.’ I’m on for 10 mins or so, c. 1.05 in.

Today with Pat Kenny

Stormont needs to take a leaf out of Scotland's book to eradicate sectarianism

From Irish Times comment pages, November 16.

OPINION: SCOTLAND’S “SECRET shame” is anything but a clandestine affair these days. Between Uefa’s clampdown on repugnant chanting at Rangers and Celtic’s European nights and First Minister Alex Salmond’s pledge to “eradicate” bigotry, sectarianism in Scotland has never received so much attention.

Speaking at the Scottish National Party’s conference in Inverness last month, justice minister Kenny MacAskill was unequivocal. “These are songs of hate and there is no place for them in a modern Scotland . . . It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916. It’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”

Scottish sectarianism is, thankfully, no longer structural – in 2004, for example, just four cases that appeared before employment tribunals in Scotland had any sectarian connotations – but it lives on as bigotry, particularly inside Old Firm stadiums. A controversial Bill to outlaw sectarian singing at football matches is currently progressing through the Holyrood parliament.

Since 2006, Scotland is the only place on the planet that possesses both a sizeable Irish Catholic and Protestant population and an anti-sectarian strategy. The contrast with the situation across the Irish Sea could not be starker.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government has no anti-sectarianism policy. More than 13 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement and the ending of a conflict that cost more than 3,000 lives, Stormont has yet to agree a formal strategy to address the sectarian division.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act the Executive must formulate a policy for encouraging “good relations”. This requirement led, in the early years of the last decade, to A Shared Future, essentially a blueprint for a post-sectarian society based on reciprocity and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the document was published in 2005 into a political vacuum. When Stormont was finally reinstated two years later, the policy, which cost millions to formulate but was tainted by association with direct rule ministers, was shelved by the DUP and Sinn Féin, and a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, offered in its place. Silence followed.

Finally put out for public consultation last year as a condition for the devolution of policing and justice powers, the document is lightweight, insubstantial and implausible. Responses, which can be accessed on the web, are almost universally critical, accusing the strategy of relying on an unhelpful, static view of identity, failing to build on existing work and lacking a clear vision for moving beyond sectarianism.

Forget cordite, the whiff coming off the Stormont administration smells more like bromide. Time and again First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reiterate their commitment to working together to improve Northern Ireland’s lot, but the results belie the rhetoric.

There is still no agreed programme for government and little indication of how a public sector-dependent economy will weather Westminster-enforced austerity, which saw £500 million lopped off Stormont’s block grant this year. Meanwhile, the Executive has established an all-party working group to advise on revising the strategy. An action plan is due by Christmas – but so far the working group has met just three times.

The cost of the North’s failure to address sectarianism is colossal. According to Alastair Adair of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, duplication of services, particularly segregation in education and housing, costs about £1.5 billion.

But the financial implications pale into insignificance compared to the social damage caused by tribal division. As Robin Wilson pointed out recently, violence declined from 2002 to 2007 but has risen since the reinstatement of the Assembly. The annual Northern Ireland Life and Times survey attests to deteriorating public optimism about community relations, and the sectarian “Other”, since 2007.

Despite the peace process successes, the possibility of resectarianisation remains. Belfast is still by far the most residentially segregated city in Europe. This legacy of division won’t disappear of its own accord.

The Executive needs to take a leaf out of Scotland’s anti-sectarian book. Tackling Northern Ireland’s shame requires a robust, thought-out policy with coherent objectives and political will.

On the Money

This feature on Irish comics and the recession appeared in Fest magazine ahead of this year’s Fringe.

“Why have estate agents stopped looking out the window in the morning?” begins a gag that has been doing the rounds in Dublin for the last 18 months or so. “Otherwise they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.”

In Ireland, a wry, gallows humour about the nation’s financial misfortunes permeates. Across the country people exchange increasingly bizarre real-life tales: the estate where one woman lives surrounded by hundreds of empty houses; the train station in a derelict field near Dublin Airport, built to service a massive development that never happened; the former property magnate who now cleans windows on O’Connell Street.

It’s often said that comedy does well in a recession – and the big ‘R’ is firmly in the sights of a host of Irish comics at this year’s Fringe. “I call this my bailout tour. Last year, I was in Greece, this year I was in Portugal. I pity wherever I go next year,” says Keith Farnan, whose fourth Edinburgh outing Money, Money, Money is billed as an exploration of “Ireland’s brief love affair with vast amounts of money and fiscal meltdown.”

Mementos of this failed romance with global capitalism lie dotted around the country’s capital: ubiquitous for sale signs, unfinished apartment blocks, grandiose pieces of public art. Dublin, of course, is not all Rome after the fall. There are still plenty of salubrious city centre hotels, the kind of places where you find piped jazz music, chintz sofas, ladies who lunch… and, er, amiable Irish comics who bear a passing resemblance to Zach Galifianakis.

“I didn’t realise this place was so fancy,” Keith Farnan admits when we meet, on his suggestion, in Dublin’s upmarket Westin Hotel. In front of him, on a glass-topped table, sit a pair of sunglasses, a plate of biscuits and the business section of The Irish Times. Since he started writing Money, Money, Money back in January, the financial pages have become required reading – and have led the hirsute funnyman to some sobering conclusions. “This is the worst recession we’ve ever had. We’ve been poor in the past, but we’ve never been stressed and poor before. It’s not a good combination.”

Farnan himself is no stranger to straitened circumstances. Back in 2006, at the zenith of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger frenzy, the Cork native swapped a comfortable life as a lawyer for the vagaries of full-time standup. “I went from a secure, well-paid job to literally nothing. While my friends were buying second homes, I was investing in loaves of bread and buying shares in ham and cheese. Making a new company – the sandwich.”

With three successful Fringe shows and a star turn on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow behind him, Farnan is now well-established on the circuit, but he found writing about Ireland’s economic travails an unexpected challenge. “Last year’s show [Sex Traffic] was about prostitution and rape. After that I thought Money, Money, Money would be easy – but it’s been anything but. It’s been a struggle at times,” he remarks ruefully.

Farnan describes the crash—which began with the global credit crunch in September 2008—as “Ireland’s 9/11”. That might sound a tad melodramatic but the effect on the national psyche of 1,000 people emigrating every week, unemployment at 14 per cent and a whopping $85 billion in bad debts has been catastrophic.

Ireland’s writers, poets and playwrights have struggled to make sense of the desolate, post-collapse landscape. Indeed the task of reflecting the nation back to itself, warts and all, has largely been ceded to comedians, at least temporarily.

“Comedy is the most immediate medium. What’s in the news will often influence your act,” suggests Farnan. “You can also gauge where something sits with people. If you stand up and make a gag that’s too close to the bone, that hits too hard, you’ll get boos. A novelist can’t get that kind of immediate feedback.”

Another Irish comedian with the financial meltdown firmly in his sights, Abie Philbin Bowman, agrees: “In comedy you know if something is shit or self-indulgent pretty much immediately. If you become preachy or start lecturing, people switch off, they stop laughing.”

Philbin Bowman, a garrulous, fresh-faced Dubliner on the “geeky, philosophical end of comedy”, caused a minor sensation at his first Fringe, in 2006, with his sell-out show Jesus: The Guantanamo Years. He returns to Edinburgh this year with Pope Benedict: Bond Villain, an extended riff on why the Protestant countries of northern Europe are bailing out their Catholic neighbours – with Ireland as Exhibit A.

Sitting in the verdant grounds of his alma mater Trinity College—once a seat of Protestant power in Ireland—Philbin Bowman sketches out the rationale behind his latest offering: “In Protestant countries, you get into heaven by reading the Bible, following your conscience and asking questions. In Catholic countries, you get into heaven by feeling guilty, following orders, and repeating the magic words. Once, powerful people bullied us in the name of ‘God’. Today, they bully us in the name of ‘The Economy’.”

Credit default swaps, sub-prime mortgages, asset-backed securities: hardly the argot of comedy gold. Is it difficult to get a laugh out of a financial crash? “Absolutely. It’s horrible – it’s much easier to do jokes about sex,” laughs Philbin Bowman.

“Essentially what happened [in Ireland] is a really boring story. This is a bunch of bald, white, middle-aged bankers making terrible financial decisions. They didn’t even shag their secretaries! So it’s not a natural subject for comedy. But it’s something we urgently need to talk—and joke—about.”

Philbin Bowman has strong words too for the IMF, which led last autumn’s bailout of Ireland’s toxic banking system. “The whole Dominique Strauss-Kahn thing tells you so much about the culture of the IMF,” he says, referring to the allegations that its former director sexually assaulted a chambermaid in his $3,000-a-night hotel suite.

“If you think about it, he could have stayed in a Holiday Inn, paid for a really expensive call-girl and still saved money. This is the guy who was lecturing us on ‘austerity’, ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘painful economic choices’.”

The Irish public aren’t the only ones facing up to “austerity” and “painful economic choices” in the wake of the downturn. Like many on the country’s comedy circuit, Colm O’Regan has found it increasingly difficult to sell shows to cash-strapped punters. “Now if people are going to spend money on comedy it’s on the big names that they absolutely trust like Tommy Tiernan and Des Bishop,” says O’Regan, whose second Fringe effort, Dislike: A Facebook Guide to Crisis, has received critical acclaim since debuting in Ireland earlier this year.

Speaking from his Dublin home, now worth half of what he paid for it a few years ago, O’Regan complains that the “arse has fallen out” of the corporate market, once a serious money-spinner for Irish comics. But the recession isn’t all doom and gloom. After years of demanding safe, cheap thrills, audiences are becoming increasingly open to topical, edgy gags.

“For years all most people wanted to hear were jokes about, ‘isn’t it funny how the light switches off in the fridge when you close the door’,” recalls Colm O’Regan. “Now there’s a lot more interest in topical comedy, not just being ranty for the sake of it but proper, measured political satire. That’s making a big comeback.”

Fringe-goers are perfectly placed to profit from Ireland’s boom in recession humour. With so many quality comics in the market, don’t be surprised if there’s a run on sharply observed jokes about macroeconomics, the IMF and idle Irish estate agents, in Edinburgh this August.

The Great Migration

This feature on Irish migration to the UK was the lead story in the Sunday Business Post‘s Agenda magazine on 16 January.

Standing at the edge of the McNamara Suite in the London Irish Centre, it’s difficult to believe you’re in cosmopolitan Camden town, and not a function room somewhere in Tipperary or Waterford.

Well-thumbed copies of The Munster Express lie abandoned near rounds of sandwiches and half-drunk cups of tea on nearby tables while, on the opposite side of the room, a lone accordionist plays King of the Road to the delight of the crowded dance floor.

The dancers are mainly in their 60s and 70s,members of just one of myriad Irish social clubs that use the space; almost all of them left Ireland for Britain in the 1950s.

Their arrival coincided with the foundation of the London Irish Centre.

Set across a pair of renovated Georgian terraces in a once down-at-heel but now stridently middleclass slice of north London, it has been the epicentre of Irish life in the city ever since.

For more than 55 years, the centre has doled out advice and assistance to thousands of young Irish men and women, but in the last 12 months there has been a slow, if steady, increase in the numbers of new Irish emigrants looking for help.

‘‘During the good times in Ireland, we probably got five or six people a week coming through our doors, but now it’s easily twice that number,” says the centre’s director Peter Hammond, who is originally from Dublin but has been living in London since 1975.

Ascertaining the exact number of Irish emigrants arriving in Britain is a tricky task.

At 11,000,the number of Irish nationals who applied for British National Insurance numbers in 2010 was not significantly up on 2008 and 2009 levels.

However, this figure is expected to grow in 2011,with many experts predicting that Irish emigration to Britain could increase dramatically in the coming years.

According to the Central Statistics Office, during the period 2006 to 2010, emigration reached a level that had not been seen since the late 1980s,with Irish citizens accounting for 42 per cent of those leaving the country.

The Economic and Social Research Institute expects the numbers to rise as high as 120,000 by the end of this year, while the Union of Students in Ireland estimates that as many as 150,000 students will emigrate in the next five years.

It’s not hard to see why jobless Irish men And women might head for Britain: it is easy and cheap to get to, there are no visa requirements, and, despite its on-going economic difficulties, employment opportunities in many parts of Britain are still better than in Ireland.

The prospect of a new wave of Irish émigre ¤ s in Britain has already become something of a political football in Westminster.

In late December, a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a respected London think-tank, suggested that Irish emigration would contribute to an overall rise in immigration in 2011, thwarting prime minister David Cameron’s election pledge to bring Britain’s annual net immigration below 200,000.

At the London Irish Centre, where the youthful cast of 1916 The Musical are rehearsing in the top floor annex, Peter Hammond acknowledges that the centre’s role – and the very nature of Irish emigration – is changing.

‘‘The traditional model was that people would physically show up at our door and say: ‘Can you help us?’. We’d send them off to Mrs O’Reilly, who’d give them a bed for the night, and then we’d send them down to Mr Smith, who’d give them a start in a bar. Now, people are more educated and are able to set themselves up with jobs.

They are looking to us for advice rather than direct support, and they’re contacting us over email or the phone, rather than coming here in person,” he says.

Gary Dunne, the centre’s artistic director, has rejuvenated its cultural programme, bringing in popular Irish acts such as Des Bishop, John Spillane and Declan O’Rourke, and seeing them play to sell-out audiences. Dunne, who left Ireland in 2002 and is now married in London, believes that new Irish emigrants have very different expectations to those who came before them.

‘‘They’re not coming here to dig holes or work in bars – most of them have skills and training, and want to use them,” he says.

Louise McHenry is typical of this new generation of Irish emigrants.

Originally from Ballycastle in Co Antrim, 24-year-old McHenry completed a master’s degree in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but after a year of fruitless job-hunting she left Ireland for east London.

‘‘When I was in Dublin I applied for lots of different jobs, but I didn’t even get a single response.

Then I came over here – two weeks later I got a job, and a week later I got promoted. I had my pay increased three times in the first three months; that would never have happened in Ireland,” she says.

Only two out of McHenry’s master’s class of 20 have found work in Ireland, and while she initially took a job in a bar, within four months she secured a position as a reporter on a trade paper. ‘‘I’d never have got a job like that in Ireland.

Over here, there are lots of jobs for people who are starting out, there’s nothing like that in Dublin,” she says.

McHenry would like to return to Dublin or Belfast eventually, but feels that the Irish government has failed to provide opportunities for graduates. She is equally scathing about the quality of assistance offered at Irish job centres.

‘‘In Dublin, the job centre was awful, really awful. In my first week in London I was sent on a course about how to write a CV for media jobs – that’s how tailored it is here.

In Dublin the courses were useless, if there were any at all.”

One of the main reasons Britain remains the destination of choice for so many would be emigrants is its cultural similarity to home.

Sinead McEneaney, a lecturer in American history, has worked mainly in Britain since graduating with a PhD from NUI Maynooth in 2004, and finds little substantive differences between living in Britain and Ireland.

‘‘My life is exactly the same as it would be if I lived in Dublin. It would feel as odd to live in Kerry or Cork as it does to live in London,” McEneaney says from her office in St Mary’s University College in Twickenham.

With a moratorium on public sector recruitment in place, academic positions are at a premium in Ireland, leading many PhD graduates to look across the Irish Sea to further their careers.

Highly educated workers are a great loss to the Irish economy, not least as the state invests significant sums in their postgraduate education, an investment that is unlikely to see any return for the foreseeable future.

McEneaney makes regular trips back to Dublin, and has noticed increasing numbers of Irish people commuting from Ireland to work in London during the week.

Aside from separation from family and travel expenses, such workers must deal with another, often hidden, cost: exchange rate fluctuations.

With most of her outgoings in euro and her wages in sterling, McEneaney knows better than most the vagaries of the currency markets. ‘‘I remember when sterling hit parity with the euro [in December 2008], I almost cried. It meant that I was making less than I would have been in an entry-level academic position in Ireland.”

Born in Canada to Irish parents and raised in Celbridge, McEneaney doesn’t consider herself particularly Irish, and seldom seeks out the company of compatriots in London, but she keeps up to date with Irish current affairs through Twitter and online news outlets.

Like many emigrants, the young lecturer is phlegmatic about her future in Britain. ‘‘I don’t see this as permanent. I still figure that I will move again, either back to Ireland, or someplace else,” she says.

The demise of the Celtic tiger has had an unexpected knock-on effect for many of those who emigrated during the boom years.

Having left in a time of prosperity, with the implicit assumption that they could return one day, the economic downturn has forced many to realise that going back is not an option, at least in the short term.

Increasingly, these emigrants are turning to places such as the London Irish Centre to express facets of their Irish identity that, until recently, were little-used or needed.

Gary Dunne has seen a surge in interest from Irish nationals with young families who have been in London for a number of years, but now want their children instructed in Irish dancing or language courses.

‘‘I think we are going to see an explosion in this kind of thing in the coming years.

People who came here thinking they’d stay for a year or two are now realising that they are not going back, and are trying to define themselves as being Irish in Britain,” he says.

Marc Scully, a social psychologist at the Open University who has written about Irish identities in England, believes we could be witnessing a nascent ‘‘third great wave’’ of Irish emigration to Britain. ‘‘We are starting to get back to the paradigm of collective emigration, which we haven’t seen since the 1980s,” he says.

But he cautions against making early presumptions about the shape of current Irish emigration to Britain.

‘‘It’s a fallacy to assume that every migration will follow the pattern of the previous one.

The 1950s generation built Irish associations and clubs, but those that came in the 1980s formed networks that didn’t have the same interest in occupying a physical space – they connected in bars and on the phone,” he says. ‘‘Now, migration patterns are more fluid, people are migrating in cohorts and with very different skills. It’s hard to predict in what way they will organise themselves.”

Recent Irish emigration reached its peak in the 1950s,with the majority of the 50,000 people that left the country each year that decade heading for Britain.

After a fall-off in the 1970s, emigration ratcheted up in the 1980s,with almost 35,000 leaving the state every year.

Once again Britain was by far the most popular destination.

But with so many Irish men and women Now heading for Australia, Canada and even the Far East, will the next wave of emigration to Britain really be as significant as previous generations? ‘‘In terms of numbers, I doubt it,” says Scully. ‘‘But in terms of psychological impact, very possibly.”

Emigration might be Ireland’s ‘‘great national trauma’’, but so far the Irish government has made little attempt to stem this flow of human capital. Indeed, the assumption that emigrants are leaving in search of fun and excitement – and not for economic reasons – still seems prevalent in certain political circles.

Speaking to the BBC’s Hardtalk programme in February of last year, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan opined that emigration for some was ‘‘not a bad thing’’.

Characterising emigrants as highly educated and mobile, she said that, ‘‘the type of people who have left, some of them find they want to enjoy themselves and that’s what young people are entitled to do’’.

Coughlan’s words partly reflect the radical shift in popular representations of the Irish abroad during the boom years. As the country prospered, images of Irish labourers in London and bar staff in Glasgow were replaced by pictures of stylish, suited executives in Singapore and backpackers chilling out on Bondi beach.

Marc Scully traces the origins of these new images of the successful, transnational emigrant back to the late 1990s.

‘‘As circumstances in Ireland improved, the diaspora came to be seen as a project of a modern, successful Ireland,” he says. ‘‘But the truth is that Ireland’s image of the diaspora was as based in fact as many IrishAmerican’s images of Ireland were.” Mary Gilmartin, a lecturer in human geography at NUI Maynooth, agrees.

‘‘There was a celebration of mobility during the Celtic tiger era – a celebration of the ‘Global Irish’ with all this cultural capital trotting around the world, doing the best jobs in the best places,” she says. ‘‘But this ignored the reality that emigration to Britain to work in manual jobs continued throughout the Celtic tiger – we just never spoke about it.”

While many young, talented Irish men and women took high-paying jobs in places like the City of London during the boom, less fortunate emigrants continued to come through the London Irish Centre’s doors.

According to Peter Hammond, even during the good times people came to the centre seeking help, ‘‘but they tended to be people with other problems: drugs, crime, family’’.

There is also still a sizeable number of Irish born men and women sleeping rough on London’s streets.

Mary Gilmartin draws attention to another oft-forgotten aspect of Irish emigration to Britain – the fact that it is heavily gendered.

Throughout the past 20 years, more women than men have left Ireland for Britain, mainly due to the private sector opportunities available for men as the country enjoyed record growth.

Traditionally, in times of recession, there is a spike in the number of men emigrating as private sector jobs dry up, but Gilmartin predicts that the trend for greater numbers of females moving to Britain is unlikely to abate any time soon.

‘‘Britain offers opportunities for women that they might not get here.

Women are far more likely to be employed in the public sector – as teachers or nurses, for examples – and it is this type of occupation that is being squeezed in Ireland,” she says.

Back at the London Irish Centre, Gary Dunne is taking a break from chaperoning the afternoon dance to reflect on the centre’s future.

‘‘This place is going to have to change totally to cater for the next generation,” he says, sellotaping shut the biscuit bin that holds the day’s raffle proceeds.

‘‘We’re seeing more and more people every week looking for help, and we’ve got to be proactive to be there for them. It’s going to be a challenge, but I do think this is a good time to be Irish in London.”

Celtic Connections

Scotland and Ireland have always been close. At its shortest, the distance between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast is only 20km.

The ancient Gaelic overkingdom of Dalriada stretched across western Scotland and the north of Ireland during the 6th and 7th centuries, but large-scale migration between the two countries only really began in the 1840s. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland: according to census results, in 1841 4.8 per cent of the population of Scotland was Irish-born, within a decade this figure stood at 7.2 per cent.

The list of Irish-Scots is as lengthy as it is illustrious: James Connolly, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sean Connery are just some of the famous names born in Scotland to Irish parents.

Now, once more, Irish men and women are coming to live and work in Scotland’s towns and cities.

Oliver Ralph, 25, originally from Upper Church in Tipperary, arrived in Edinburgh 18 months ago after losing his job as a carpenter in Limerick. Sitting in a crowded bar a stone’s throw from the city’s fabled castle, he explains why he made the move.

‘My brother was living here and it seemed like a good place to go. And it has been. I’m happy here now. I’ve made a life for myself and I’ve no plans to go back,’ he says firmly.

After a brief spell cleaning gutters when he arrived, Ralph has now settled into a job as a waiter in Edinburgh. Although he sometimes misses the ‘daft money’ that he made during the boom years he enjoys his work, and with Ireland only an hour’s flight away he seldom feels homesick.

‘There’s so many ways you can keep in touch. Facebook, email, telephone,’ he says. ‘And if anything happened you could be back in no time.’

Before the crash, Ireland’s overheated housing market was another push factor for some emigrants. Paul Jakma spent most of his life in Leixlip but when he found himself still residing with parents in his early 30s, despite having a good job as a programmer at an American multinational, he decided it was time to move on.

After a couple of years spent trying to buy a house in various parts of north county Dublin, ‘the middle of nowhere really’, in late 2006 Jakma moved to Glasgow, where he had lived briefly as a teenager. Initially he simply transferred his job but has since returned to university and is now studying for a PhD in the University of Glasgow.

Jakma feels ‘lucky’ to have avoided Ireland’s property trap. Within a few months of moving he bought in the east end of Glasgow city centre. Although he lives close to Celtic FC’s ground, in the traditional heartland of Glasgow’s Irish community, the student consciously avoids ‘the flag waving stuff here’.

Like many Irish emigrants, Jakma would like to go back home one day but is unsure if that will be possible.

‘My family is there, it’s the place I know, but the question is will Ireland be in any state for me to go back to anytime soon? I’ll be finished my post-grad in four years but will there be any jobs then? I don’t know.’

Votes for Emigrants

Those living in Ireland are not the only ones anxiously awaiting the forthcoming general election. Across the world hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens are following the political debates and discussions back home – even though they won’t be able to participate in the vote itself.

According to the law, those not ‘ordinarily resident’, that is living in Ireland on 1 September in the year before the voting register comes into force, cannot cast a ballot in Irish elections.

Many Irish emigrants, however, are not aware that once they leave they quickly lose their electoral voice. ‘It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to vote,’ says Sinead McEneaney, a lecturer in American history at St. Mary’s University College Twickenham. ‘I never knew.’

At present Ireland is the only country in the EU, and one of only 50 countries around the world, that does not allow passport holders living abroad to participate in national elections.

Noreen Bowden, a Diaspora consultant who was born in New York but spent the past 12 years living in Ireland, believes that Irish emigrants’ have paid the price for their own generosity. ‘Irish people aboard are very generous to Ireland in so many ways so there’s never been much of a need to go the extra mile to engage with them politically. Many countries have allowed emigrants to vote as a way to encourage them to contribute economically. Ireland has never needed to do that,’ she says.

Emigrant voting rights have been on the political agenda before. In the 1990s there were serious proposals to elect representatives of the Irish abroad to the Seanad, in much the same way that universities hold six seats in the second house. This suggestion was never followed through, mainly on account of a split between advocates of immediate full voting rights for all emigrants and those who saw the Seanad as a first step towards this broader goal.

More recently a mandate to prepare a proposal to allow the Irish abroad to vote in presidential election was included in the current coalition’s Programme for Government. But this proposition was not followed through.

Opponents of extending the franchise to the Irish abroad have raised numerous objections: Who would qualify to vote? Would everyone of Irish descent be eligible? And what about Northern Ireland? Would Irish citizens there be included?

Bowden thinks these concerns, while valid, are overplayed. ‘The way to resolve these problems is not to say that no one can vote. We need to sit down and figure out a fair, workable system.

‘We ask so much of the Diaspora yet we don’t even give them a vote. It’s shameful’.

Netroots Taking Hold in Scotland?

At the weekend I travelled down to the London for the UK’s first Netroots conference. There are already been plenty of reports on the day’s proceedings elsewhere on the web, from the Guardian and Total Politics to Red Pepper and Counterfire….so surely another one won’t hurt.

On the whole it was a useful day – although I’d agree with the criticisms of the fetishisation of the Labour party and the over-reliance on establishment speakers voiced by many – but my aim here is not to critique Netroots, either as a concept or as an event, but to briefly sketch what I learned from the day that might be of use to activists in Scotland, and beyond.

In the morning plenary, Nigel Stanley from the TUC made a strong pitch for showing people that the cuts are both unfair and unnecessary: we are not all in this together, the Con-Dem coalition has no electoral mandate for cuts. Stanley made a number of very useful points: we are not yet in the majority, we’re in danger of mobilising a minority, coalition narratives are strong, we need to make the case for alternatives such as Robin Hood tax, end to tax dodging, and a return to growth.

Excepting my scepticism about the possibility of growth as we know it returning the Western world – that’s an argument for another day – Stanley, and Clifford Singer from False Economy both made strong cases for the primacy of creating new narratives against the cuts that can grip the public consciousness. This is definitely something that we need to take up in Scotland, where the mainstream media has, broadly, accepted the logic of government cuts even if many leading commentators have not.

Surprisingly one of the recurring questions heard at Netroots was whether personal stories or facts and figures are the best way to persuade the public that the cuts are wrong. This Manichean division struck this observer as rather unnecessary: surely individual stories supported by broader context about the economic and social situation in the UK, and Scotland, provide the most effective framework for creating anti-cuts narratives?

I went to Netroots with one main aim – to learn from others about the best way to help grow and develop the anti-cuts movement in Scotland. With this in mind, in the late morning I attended the ‘Theory of Change: Planning Your Campaign’ session, which highlighted the fact that winning the argument isn’t enough (cf. Iraq, Climate Change, etc), we need to use on-line in tandem with physical and economic power.

Here in Scotland the inspiring occupations by students in Edinburgh and Glasgow have shown the physical power can achieve results, while the UKUncut boycotts have demonstrated our economic power. Developing new, creative forms of such protest in the coming weeks and months seems crucial.

Julielyn Gibbons, from the New Organizing Institute in Washington DC, talked of the importance of mobilising around a key date. In Scotland the Holyrood election in May is the most obvious red letter day in the short-term for anti-cuts activists.

The afternoon session on ‘Countering Cuts in Your Area’ was excellent. Jim Cranshaw from Oxford Save Our Services spoke of the need to be creative, something I’ve written about before, and also to think about how anti-cuts groups market themselves: instead of coming across as some sort of hard left proxy force (which we’re not), we need to focus on our own, and others, concerns as residents in a neighbourhood.

Cranshaw also highlighted the need to create a clear, attractive website, to organise in a non-hierarchical way and to try to make meetings fun: ‘I’ve never thought that fun is a counter-revolutionary concept’.

Matthew Scott from Community Sector Coalition had excellent advice for getting voluntary and community groups on board an anti-cuts campaign: show solidarity with local campaigns; listen to community groups rather than telling them what you need from them; avoid jargon; put a premium on collective rather than individual action; get beyond funded brokers to grassroots level; get the whole community involved; start from where people are physically at; never try to go beyond the experiences of your own people.

Much of this might sound self-evident but we all have experience of movements and campaigns that broke many of these rules – and failed as a consequence.

Given that the overwhelming majority of those at Netroots were based in and around London, that the situation in ‘the regions’, and particularly in Scotland, was rarely discussed was no great surprise. But that is not to say that campaigners in Scotland cannot learn from the broader UK anti-cuts movement.

In Edinburgh, where I live, we already have a vibrant student campaign against the cuts as well as community groups opposing the government’s spending policies. But we need more; we need an up-to-date website that allows people to see clearly what cuts are being made where; we need to make the cuts THE issue of the Holyrood election; we need to broaden the movement’s appeal to encompass people from all walks of life; and we need to find creative, innovative ways to organise and get our message out.

Perhaps a useful bridging step would be to organise our own ‘Netroots Scotland’ conference, there are certainly enough grassroots activists and innovative thinkers out there to make this worthwhile.

We also need to build a Scotland-wide anti-cuts movement and to get the cuts onto the political agenda – which is more difficult given the fact that Holyrood is passing on Westminster edicts.

But first off I’m working on building an anti-cuts group in Edinburgh. Everyone is more than welcome to join – just drop me a line.

Hopes and Visions for Holyrood in 2011

Among the many inscriptions on the Canongate wall at Holyrood, it is a terse Scottish proverb that sums up the reality of political life in the Scottish Parliament better than any bon mots from Hugh MacDiarmid or Norman MacCaig: ‘To promise is ae thing, to keep it is anither.’

Despite the enthusiasm that greeted its inception, Holyrood has not always managed to capture the Scottish public’s imagination in the intervening years. The realpolitik of representative democracy – special interests, deal making, coalition building – has come, perhaps unsurprisingly, to dominate popular perceptions of life within the chambers.

With Parliament gearing up for its fourth election, it is an apt time to assess where Holyrood has succeeded – and where the Parliament still has room for improvement. And who better to ask than some of the 19 MSPs that have declared their intention to retire in 2011.

Professor Christopher Harvie has little doubt about the root case of Parliament’s image problem. ‘The public are turned off by Holyrood’s bloated bureaucracy,’ the SNP MSP, who is stepping down after on term, says frankly. ‘When the Parliament was founded it inherited an oligarchy of administrators that have built a cushy regime for themselves but really offer no value added proportionate to the cost of their salaries.’

Harvie says Holyrood suffers from a preponderance of ‘yes men’ and a reactionary fear of freethinkers. ‘From the start an awful lot of people elected to Parliament were safe figures. There was a fair degree of filtering of lists, a lot of interesting characters never got in, people that could have offered a different analysis. At present there is too much central organisation of opinion across all the parties,’ he remarks.

The Mid Scotland and Fife MSP would also like to see more joined-up thinking across government. Drawing on his experience of public life in Germany – he was professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen before coming to Holyrood – Harvie believes that the Office of the First Minister needs strengthening to allow it to act as policy driver for the whole administration and to encourage more long-term planning.

Harvie speaks positively of his time in office but bemoans the lack of creative thinking in Parliament. ‘In my time at Holyrood I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Big Idea. Education, environment, culture – what I call the ‘talky’ ministries – do a lot of talking at nice drinking parties but they’ve not been able to produce any big ideas that people can get enthused about,’ he comments.

Why has Holyrood failed to generate the kind of creative initiatives that could animate Scottish voters? Harvie feels that divisions both within and between ministries are to blame, citing the range of different departments with responsibilities around renewable energy as supporting evidence.

One reasonably large idea that Holyrood has successfully developed is its wide-ranging public petitions process. Irrespective of age or even voting rights, anybody resident in Scotland can petition the Parliament, a right that citizens in most EU countries do not possess.

‘Petitions are judged on their relevance, whether Parliament can do something about the issue and if they’re of public interest,’ explains Robin Harper, a Green Party MSP and member of the Public Petitions Committee.

The committee, which receives some 2,000 petitions in the lifecycle of a Parliament, has met everywhere from Fraserburgh and Fife to Arran and now also accepts electronic submissions.

Harper, who is stepping down from the Lothians seat he has held since 1999, describes the process as ‘innovative’ but feels that not enough money is spent publicising the committee’s work. ‘Getting the public to know what we are and what we are doing is difficult, but when they do turn up for one of our sessions they are clearly impressed,’ he says.

Marlyn Glen, a Labour MSP since 2003, argues that the public petitions committee, of which she is also a member, has helped to break down some of the tribal politics that can still dominate debates in the house. Glen, too, would like to see less focus on the points-scoring of First Minister’s questions and a greater emphasis on ‘cross-party committees like this that show we can work together on issues that can change people’s lives.’

The North East Scotland MSP, who is standing down this year, cites her work on the Equal Opportunities Committee as her greatest achievement at Holyrood but remains disappointed by the level of female representation in Parliament. Having seen the number of women in Holyrood grow from 48, in 1999, to 51, in 2003, the number fell to just 43 in the last election.

Glen firmly believes that a fairer gender balance at Holyrood would benefit Scottish voters. ‘The presence of more women would ensure that Parliament worked better. Most committees are too male dominated, the presence of more women would make a real difference,’ she remarks.

Somewhat paradoxically for an ardent nationalist, Christopher Harvie thinks that the Parliament would be significantly improved by a stronger Scottish voice among the Westminster panjandrums.

‘We’ve got to have a greater presence in London, and especially in the House of Lords. We’ve got to exploit that. Plaid Cymru have done to great success and so should we,’ says Harvie, whose penchant for fine speeches and acerbic witticisms would doubtless play well in the rarefied air of the Lords.

Back at Holyrood, ensuring the widest possible public participation in the life and decision-making of the Parliament requires innovative responses from our MSPs. Whether it is encouraging female participation and expanding the public petitions committee or creating fresh, exciting proposals for Scotland in this new age of austerity, as we head into 2011 our politicians would do well to heed another, more celebrated, maxim from the Canongate wall: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’

This article originally appeared on Newsnet Scotland on December 28.

Time for a Default?

“There is no reason why Ireland should trigger an IMF or EU-type bailout”, Irish Minister of State for Europe, Dick Roche, told the Today program on BBC Radio 4 this morning. But despite such government protestations, the scale of Ireland’s sovereign debt crisis is such that it seems only a matter of when, not if, the country requests a bail out. Indeed it could happen as early as 5pm this evening.

But is a bail-out such a bad thing? Not if it leads to much needed debt restructuring – or even a full default – it isn’t.

Last week German chancellor Angela Merkel said that bondholders to troubled countries would need to share the pain. Remarkably Irish premier Brian Cowen called Merkel’s comments ‘‘not helpful’’ – but the reality is that Ireland should accept its debts cannot be repaid in full and take the opportunity to make a strong deal for debt restructuring from a position of at least reasonable strength.

And Britain should do the same.

Currently our banks are exposed to zero risk, as the state is using the tax payer to insure against any risk. This is a morally – and economically – wrong situation.

Why reward those who lent recklessly to our banks? Why cripple a country with generations worth of debt?

As more and more people lose their jobs, fall into arrears in their mortgages and begin to repudiate their personal debt the social stigma around defaulting on debts seems certain to change. Many of these bad loans were made in bad faith, and it is the huge cost of shoring up the financial markets – in the UK, Europe and around the world – that has provided the economic (if not the ideological) rationale for austerity.

So what’s the answer? Well fair debt restructuring would be a start, negotiating a reasonable pay off with creditors rather than maintaining the fallacy that all creditors will be paid off in full.

Indeed there is even a strong case to be made for – whisper it – repuditating sovereign debt completely. Look at Iceland, as Irish economist David McWilliams did in a newspaper column a few weeks back. Here our troubled Nordic neighbour defaulted on its debts, closed its banks, and allowed its currency to fall. The result? Lower bond rates than Ireland and a serious increase in quality of life for ordinary Icelanders.

Maybe the difference between Iceland and Ireland really is one letter and six months after all.

A Scottish Political Innovation?

When Mick Fealty calls asking for a favour it’s hard to say no. Not because he leans on you (which he doesn’t) but because you know that if he’s involved it’s going to be something vibrant, challenging and original.

And that’s exactly what the Edinburgh Political Innovation camp on Saturday was.

Billed as an ‘unconference’ it was a free-form opportunity for politically engaged folk to creatively address old – and new – political problems. I gave a short spiel on the role of bloggers in the Irish financial crisis (have a look at Robert Stewart‘s excellent video below), and enjoyed some really fecund discussions with a host of interesting folk including Scotsman columnist Joan McAlpine, writer, musician and activist Pat Kane, and Green blogger Peter McColl.

Political Innovation plenary session from Robert Stewart on Vimeo.

Event orgainsers Slugger O’Toole also have put up a summary of the day – and the resulting blog posts – on their site (which I promised Paul Evans I’d contribute more to).

As well as talking about the Irish economy and media, I was busy enlisting supporters, and ideas, for my campaign for spending increases. Commentators don’t come much more witty, intelligent and insightful than Pat Kane who had some excellent suggestions for viral videos as well as delivering a timely reminder of the need to encorporate environmental and social sustainability into any campaign for effective political change. Hopefully I’ll be posting more on this shortly.

Since the Political Innovation camp I’ve read with interest a call by James Masters, who works for Green MSPs Robin Harper and Patrick Harvie at Holyrood and spoke at the day’s plenary, for a cross-party politics event based on the annual Swedish summer conference at Almedalen. The Swedes’ model is a basically a political conference freed from all the partisan trappings where new ideas can be brought to the table and (hopefully) a much wider swath of the public involved.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be a physical conference, as some have suggested, but could be hosted online instead to broaden participation. As someone who is easily put off by party political machines and their mega-conferences the Almedalen model certainly sounds great: new ideas, no political grandstanding, some decent debate, and maybe (just maybe) some Scottish sunshine.