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’.

Votes for emigrants

Last Monday morning, as Green Party leader John Gormley sounded the coalition’s death knell at a press conference in Dublin, my mind immediately turned to one thing: the general election that will, sooner or later, take place back in Ireland.

‘Will be interesting to see how many ex-pats go home to vote. I definitely will,’ I chirped cockily on Twitter. Having watched with horror the current administration’s botched attempts to extricate Ireland from a banking crisis they helped create, nothing would stop me playing my part in putting them out of their misery at the ballot box. Or so I thought.

Within five minutes my post had received a handful of replies. Some were from other Irish people living in Britain, saying they would be making the journey back for the election too, but others warned that emigrants are not allowed to vote, that to do so constitutes fraud and carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

‘Surely that can’t be correct. Irish citizens must be able to vote in Irish elections’, I thought, furiously checking various websites for information. But my digital interlocutors were right: those not ‘ordinarily resident’ – anyone who has lived outside the state for 18 months or more – cannot vote in Irish elections.

Ireland is only country in the EU, and one of only 50 countries around the world, that does not allow passport holders living abroad to vote. Unlike citizens of Ghana, Mexico, Dominican Republic and around 115 other countries, Irish people living outside the Republic of Ireland are barred from directly participating in the electoral process.

I confess I felt slightly embarrassed not to know that I don’t have a vote – I’ve lived outside Ireland for a couple of general elections – but based on a straw poll conducted among emigrant Irish friends here in the UK I am not alone in my ignorance.

Successive Irish leaders have often, rightly, made much of the Diaspora’s reach, and its success. Estimates vary but there at least 70 million people of Irish descent dotted across the globe, while almost every family living in Ireland has experience of emigration. So why then are we not allowed to have our say in how Ireland is governed? Why does Ireland, alone among its EU partners, bar its citizens from voting if they are domicile outside the 26 counties?

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,’ the editor of GlobalIrish.ie explained to me last week.

Emigrant voting rights have, of course, been on the political agenda in Ireland for quite some time. Back in the 1990s there were serious proposals to elect representatives of the Diaspora to the Seanad, in much the same way that universities hold six seats in the second house. Unfortunately this suggestion came to nought following a split between advocates of immediate full voting rights for emigrants and those who saw the Seanad as a first step towards this broader goal.

More recently a mandate to prepare a proposal for extending the franchise at presidential elections to include the Irish abroad was included in the current coalition’s Programme for Government. Even this proposition, which falls far short of the full representation emigrants’ deserve, has gone nowhere. Indeed both John Gormley and Brian Cowen denied all knowledge of it when questioned on the subject in the Dail by their own colleague Michael Martin.

In the matter of voting rights, as in so much else, all citizens are not equal. At both Lisbon treaty votes it was widely reported that Irish representatives in Brussels flew back home en masse to vote, despite not being ordinarily resident in Ireland. Indeed back in late 2008 there was much of talk that former Taoiseach John Bruton would be charged by the DPP with a criminal offence under the electoral acts following a complaint from a member of the public that the then EU Ambassador to the US had broken the law by flying home to vote in the Lisbon referendum. After a four-month investigation the case against Bruton was dropped.

Familiar strawmen are often marshalled to argue against extending the franchise to include emigrants: Who would qualify to vote? The number of Irish abroad dwarfs those at home, if everyone was allowed to vote they could introduce changes that might not benefit those that actually live in Ireland. And what about Northern Ireland? Would Irish citizens there be included?

The way to resolve these problems is not to blithely say that no one outside the jurisdiction can vote, instead lawmakers and politicians should work together to fashion a fair, practical system that finally allows all Irish citizens to have their rightful say. It is the very least we deserve.

We are living through a time of political upheaval on a scale seldom seen in Ireland since the foundation of the state, almost 90 years ago. As the current, discredited administration crumbles the clamour for political reform, and even a ‘Second Republic’, grows ever louder.

An important plank in any future reform must be extending voting rights to Irish emigrants, and not just for presidential elections. With its proud emigrant history, Ireland is the last country that should be excluding its Diaspora.

Given the current political turmoil in Dublin a legally binding resolution permitting Irish men and women abroad to vote is highly unlikely before the next general election.

But the campaign to extend the franchise should not wait until there is a new administration installed in Government Buildings. I wonder how many people in Ireland are aware that emigrants are excluded from the democratic process? Surely it’s time to remind them of this sad fact.

This piece first appeared in the Irish Post

So Ireland's back to exporting its best known natural resource – emigrants

Here’s my Comment is Free piece on being an Irish emigrant, which appeared on Guardian.co.uk last week. The same piece also appeared in that week’s Irish Post

Mourning can be a protracted business. In the past week, after years spent oscillating between low-level anger and outright denial, I finally graduated to acceptance: having left Ireland in 2003, I am an Irish emigrant.

And after recent events, it seems like going home is no longer an option.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief have provided an unexpected leitmotif for Ireland’s economic collapse. But while public fury about the financial situation contrasted sharply with the government’s increasingly brazen disavowals, there has been a quiet, almost stoical, recognition that the country is once again stepping up production of its most celebrated natural resource: emigrants.

Forty thousand Irish people left last year; with joblessness running at over 13% another 100,000 are expected to join them before the end of the next.

Migration is an ingrained part of our national psyche. Almost every family carries traces of the instinct which, for two decades, lay in abeyance as the Celtic Tiger’s putative masters told their pups that they would never be forced to cross the Irish Sea or the Atlantic to make new lives for themselves beyond Ireland’s shores.

These hubristic promises have been revealed to be as empty, illusionary and downright dangerous as the ill-conceived bank guarantee, made in September 2008, which sounded a slow death knell for Ireland’s political and economic sovereignty ever since. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout has scarcely begun, but already Ireland’s citizens are abandoning ship.

What is there to stay put for? With its boarded-up main street, uninhabited ghost estates and derelict shopping centre, my hometown, in the midlands of Ireland, is hardly atypical. Here greed gave way to naked stupidity when developers started building houses in the boggy flood plain five years ago. Recently a gallows humour has replaced the air of despondency that marked the early days of the collapse.

The IMF and its apparatchiks hold little fear for residents of such places – what does austerity look like when your home is practically worthless, your job is gone and your children are likely to follow suit?

By even the most optimistic predictions, the Irish economy will take generations to recover. The government is once again turning to the safety valve of emigration: despite its protestations little or nothing is being done to encourage young, well-educated men and women to stay in Ireland.

Meanwhile the legions of Irish-born citizens already living in Sydney and Chicago, Edinburgh and Edmonton, have seen their daydreams of returning home dashed, probably forever.

I was glad to leave Ireland at the age of 22. The Celtic Tiger created a culture in which property prices replaced the weather as the preferred topic of the nation’s small talk, and the pursuit of money without ethics or obligation was not just acceptable but actively valorised from the very top of the social and political tree. Getting out was a relief.

Back then the word “emigrate” had been expunged from our vocabulary. Emigration was supposedly a thing of the past. I thought of myself not as an emigrant, but as an Irishman who just happened to be living somewhere else. How could I be one of John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty when my leave-taking was not motivated by unemployment or lack of opportunities?

But late last Tuesday, as news bulletins on every channel reported live from Dublin and Brussels, I found my thoughts turning not to my country but to myself. The life I have made away from Ireland – first in New York, then Britain – is a comfortable one but it is also an emigrant’s. If I raise a family they will speak with a different accent to mine. The country whose passport I carry will not be my home.

The true cost of Ireland’s folly should be counted not in billions of euros but in the millions of Irish men and women who will forced to emigrate, to accept the reality that they too will never be able to go home.

Far from being finished, a new chapter has just been started in the age-old story of Irish emigration.