Calling Time on Arthur’s Day

There’s a growing backlash over an event dreamed up by the ad men to celebrate Guinness that could see its focus move from drink to the arts, writes Peter Geoghegan.

A couple of years ago I went to Galway for a wedding. I arrived on a wet Thursday night with the wind whipping off the Atlantic Ocean, but it seemed the entire city was out on the town, swaying in the streets or bulging out of the myriad pubs. Even by the less than abstemious standards of “the City of the Tribes”, this was a big night.

I’d no idea what the party was for. “Have Galway won the All-Ireland?” I asked, somewhat tongue in cheek, at the reception in my hotel. “No, it’s Arthur’s Day.” I was handed a leaflet featuring a picture of a pint of Guinness, a slogan about celebrating “great people who make things happen” and the logo of Diageo, the international drinks giant that now owns Guinness.

Arthur’s Day, basically a marketing gimmick to mark 250 years since the first pint of Guinness was brewed in Dublin, is now in its fifth year. Yesterday at 17:59 – the year of the company’s establishment – people raised pints of Guinness in pubs in over 40 countries around the world, including Jamaica, Malaysia and, of course, Ireland. As part of the event, Diageo paid for secret free gigs at around 500 venues across Ireland by a host of international and national groups, including Biffy Clyro and the Manic Street Preachers.

Arthur’s Day has provided something of a fillip for hard-pushed Irish publicans – despite the national stereotypes, pubs in Ireland are closing in record numbers in the face of the massive downturn in the country’s economic fortunes – but the backlash has been building, especially this year. And Ireland’s writers, singers and artists have been in the vanguard of the anti-Arthur’s Day brigade.

“Has there ever been a scam like Arthur’s Day,” columnist Eamon McCann wrote in the Belfast Telegraph recently, “as contemptuous of the people it targets, as disrespectful of the culture and especially of the music it misuses to make its play, as depressing in the extent to which the people made fools of simper with pleasure and cry out for more?”

Actor Gabriel Byrne was, if anything, even less sympathetic to the marketing men’s cause. “The idea that people go out and get absolutely pissed on a day that’s made up by marketing guys – that’s a cynical exercise in exploitation in a country that has a huge problem with binge drinking,” said the Usual Suspects star.

This year, Arthur’s Day seems to have hit a nerve with a country jaded with ad men and increasingly aware of its own alcohol excesses.

Government statistics show that Irish households last year spent 7.7 per cent of their money, or €6.3 billion, on booze. That’s double what is spent on clothing and more than €2,100 per adult.

Ireland tops the European league table in terms of binge drinking, according to a 2010 Eurobarometer survey. The study found 44 per cent of Irish people said they had consumed five or more drinks in a single sitting over the previous 12 months. The EU average is 29 per cent.

Arthur’s Day has quickly become the apotheosis of Irish binge drinking. An even-boozier version of St Patrick’s Day – if such a thing can be imagined. Statistics suggest alcohol-related ambulance call-outs increase 30 per cent on Arthur’s Day. No wonder, then, that a boycott was called for by Irish medical professionals. “Alcohol is more affordable than ever. Alcohol is more acceptable than ever. Alcohol is more available than ever. We need measures to address this epidemic. Where does Arthur’s Day fit into all of this?” said Dr Stephen Stewart, director of the Centre for Liver Disease at the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Cirrhosis of the liver is reaching epidemic proportions across Ireland, particularly among younger people.

Alex White, Ireland’s deputy health minister, recently described Arthur’s Day as a “pseudo-national event”. The Irish public would seem to agree. A poll on a leading Irish radio show found 74 per cent of listeners opposed to the day. “They shouldn’t call it Arthur’s Day. They should call it Vomit Day,” Aisling Fitzsimons told reporters.

Fitzsimons, a 50-year-old manager of a convenience store, said she regularly had to hose down the footpath outside her business after alcohol-fuelled weekend excess. Hungover workers cost Ireland €3.7bn annually.

Among the loudest voices against Arthur’s Day has been singer-songwriter Christy Moore. In a scathing song – released yesterday – he dubbed it an “alcoholiday”.

“Diageo Diageo have mounted a Crusade/ Creating Arthur’s Day they’ve suckered us into their charade/ Start ‘em off on alco-pops tastes just like lemonade/ Get ‘em into the hit while they’re young and none the wiser,” he sings on Arthur’s Day.

Diageo, however, has maintained that Arthur’s Day is all about promoting the arts. “Ultimately, it’s about bringing pints of Guinness, music and the pub together,” said Peter O’Brien, corporate relations director at Diageo, western Europe.

“I think that’s a very unique festival. Christy Moore is entitled to write a song, and that’s fine. I completely disagree with him and I’m fairly certain that the thousand of musicians who are playing and enjoying themselves, and getting good employment on Thursday, would likewise disagree with him.”

In the face of continued cutbacks to the arts budget, Diageo, through its Guinness brand, has begun to play an ever-increasing role in funding the Irish creative scene. As well as the singers and musicians paid for during Arthur’s Day, a scheme called the Arthur Guinness Projects provides money for artists. But in stepping into the funding hole left by the Irish state, Diageo has also created a wonderful marketing opportunity for themselves – and sparked question marks over the commitment of the government in Dublin to tackle Ireland’s drinking problem.

The Irish Cabinet is still considering whether to follow Scotland in imposing minimum pricing on alcohol. Restrictions on advertising and event sponsorship have all been mooted, but for now the iconic Guinness logo still adorns everything from sports jerseys to advertising hoardings.

Diageo responded to some of the criticism it received this year by saying that it would pay for an additional police presence on the streets for last night’s Arthur’s Day celebrations. But the long-term future of Ireland’s new “pseudo-national event” is unclear. The company says that it is keeping an open mind on changing Arthur’s Day next year to focus less on pubs and pints, and more on the arts, but also insists that nobody is being forced to drink when watching musical performances.

But this year’s backlash against Arthur’s Day suggests a growing disquiet among many about the relationship between Ireland, its national drink and its drinking culture.

The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is the country’s most popular tourist attraction. The iconic image of Barack Obama’s visit to Ireland was the president supping “the black stuff”. Even the Queen and Prince Philip watched a pint settle (though neither drank it).

A Diageo spokesperson might have unwittingly stumbled on the cause of his company’s Arthur’s Day woes when he said that Irish society had “started to question our relationship with everything: the [Catholic] church, big business, politicians. And we’re questioning our relationship with alcohol”. About time, too.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman September 26, 2013. 

What’s Mined is Theirs — Ireland’s Oil and Gas

Earlier this month, Providence Resources announced that an oil field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280 million barrels. The company’s CEO, Tony O’Reilly Jr, the son of the media mogul, told the Today programme that this was ‘very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy’. The first part of his statement is undoubtedly true: Providence’s share price rose sharply on the back of the Barryroe news. That Ireland’s economy will benefit is much less likely.

According to the World Bank, Ireland offers ‘very favourable’ fiscal terms for oil and gas companies. At 25 per cent, Ireland’s government take is among the lowest in the world. Norway’s, by comparison, is 78 per cent; Yemen’s is 95 per cent. Ireland also boasts some of the most generous tax-write offs in the industry: companies can offset all costs before they declare profits, including any ‘incurred in the 25-year-period prior to commencement of field production’, from such activities as drilling unsuccessful wells in Irish waters.

When a company finds oil or gas in Irish territory, ownership and control of the resource is transferred in full to the company; no royalties are paid to the state; the company can choose to export the oil or gas; they do not have to land the resources in Ireland or use Irish services or personnel.

In the late 1950s, the minister of industry and commerce (and future taoiseach) Seán Lemass sold the first exclusive exploration drilling rights in Ireland for £500 to Madonna Oil, a shell company owned by three American representatives of the Messman-Rinehart Oil  Company of Wichita and the Ambassador Oil Corporation of Forth Worth. In 1961, a two-thirds share in the rights was sold to Continental Oil and Ohio Oil International for $450,000.

In 1971, Marathon Oil (as Ohio Oil International had become) discovered gas off Kinsale, Co. Cork. The terms of the government deal under which the gas was extracted were so favourable to the company that it became an issue in the 1973 general election. Influenced by Norway’s creation of a state oil company, the new minister for industry and commerce, Labour’s Justin Keating, set about recalibrating Ireland’s relationship with oil and gas companies: the state would have a stake in any commercial find; corporation tax on oil and gas revenue was set at 50 per cent; production royalties would be levied.

Keating’s amendments did not last long. In 1987, the energy minister Ray Burke – who in 2005 was jailed in relation to corrupt payments received in office – abolished royalty payments and state participation in oil and gas development. In 1992, the finance minister (and another taoiseach in waiting) Bertie Ahern cut corporation tax for the industry from 50 per cent to 25 per cent, where it broadly remains, despite some alterations to the new licensing terms made by the Green party minister Eamon Ryan in 2007.

Ireland’s oil and gas regime reflects the dominant logic of Irish economic policy: low taxes will make Ireland attractive to foreign companies, even if they are simply harvesting the country’s natural resources and creating little in the way of jobs or tax revenue. That speculative Irish licence holders get rich in the process is no cause for concern.

A year ago, the minister for communications, energy and natural resources, Pat Rabbitte, announced that 13 new offshore exploration licences had been awarded. ‘Ireland must continue to communicate the message to international exploration companies that Ireland is open for business,’ he said.

In 1973, the Union of Students of Ireland published a pamphlet entitledWhat’s Mined is Ours! The Case for the Retention and Development of Irish Minerals under Public Ownership. According to the foreword, ‘those with a vested interest in the development of Irish mineral resources appear to have access to unlimited finance for public relations purposes.’ One of the text’s three signatories was the USI president, Pat Rabbitte.

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

Sceptics say oil find will not mean boom for Irish economy

IRELAND’S devastated economy received a boost yesterday with the announcement that an offshore field at Barryroe, 30 miles off the coast of County Cork, could yield up to 280 million barrels of oil.

Providence Resources, an Irish and UK company that has been drilling at six locations off the coast of Ireland, said Barryroe will yield more oil than expected, which could trigger an oil rush off the Republic’s coastline.

“It’s very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy,” Providence chief executive Tony O’Reilly said. “We hope this will not be a single project. From an Irish perspective, here we have no oil industry. This really heralds the beginning of that industry.”

Mr O’Reilly said the oil recovery rate during exploration had exceeded expectations and, with oil at about $100 per barrel it was a “big moment” for Irish oil exploration and the Irish economy.

Ireland has extensive, untapped oil and gas reserves. The area off the west coast alone contains potential reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent (oil or gas), according to a 2006 study for the Irish government. This estimate does not include areas off Ireland’s south coast, where Providence’s offshore field is located.

However, serious doubts have been raised about the benefit of the Providence oil find for the Irish economy. Under a deal signed by former premier Charles Haughey in the 1980s, when a company finds oil or gas in Irish territory ownership and control of the resource is transferred in full to the company.

The only guaranteed benefit to Ireland from extraction of resources is a 25 per cent corporation tax on the profits declared from the sale of the oil or gas. Before declaring profits, the company can write off 100 per cent of costs from the previous 25 years against tax, including the cost of previous, unsuccessful wells drilled anywhere in Irish waters and costs incurred in other countries.

Ireland’s minister for communications, energy and natural resources, Pat Rabbitte, has admitted that the tax take from oil in Ireland will be much lower than in the UK, but has argued that the low rate will make Ireland attractive for foreign oil companies.

Whether the oil from Barryroe will be landed in Cork or elsewhere in Europe remains unclear, but many expect refinement and related processes to take place outside Ireland.
Even extensive oil extraction is unlikely to create more than “a few hundred jobs” in Ireland, said Conor McCabe, author of Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman. 

Book Review: Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, by Elaine Byrne

As is the case with unhappy families, every corrupt state is corrupt in its own way: in Ireland, an entrenched, localized “parish pump” political system; weak regulation;
devout deference to authority; and a predisposition to denigrate whistleblowers as “informers” all contributed to widespread malpractice in public office. Consequently, Irish corruption, as Elaine A. Byrne writes, “operated within a system rather than a mere aggregation of isolated illegal acts. It had become a market, which, as in the case of every functioning market, has developed internal rules governed by the laws of supply and demand”.

It was not always thus. The generation of political leaders that fought for – and won – Irish independence, possessed a “puritan revolutionary ethic”: Michael Collins, who
was both Minister for Finance and IRA Intelligence director from 1919 until his death in
1922, excoriated ministerial colleagues’ failure to submit half-year estimates for their departments during his tenure in office.

Paradoxically, this radical zeal contained within it the roots of future corruption. Adopting a narrow definition of corruption as the exchange of public goods for private gain, the Free State’s early leaders saw no need to legislate against conflicts of interest. In 1946, in the wake of a tax scandal, one Irish TD told a sympathetic Dáil that the Ten Commandments and “the ordinary principles of decency and good conduct” were sufficient to ensure probity in Irish public life.

The first substantial piece of legislation on political corruption was not introduced until
1995. By then the damage had long been done. The McCracken Tribunal, established in 1997, estimated that the former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey received at least £9,106,369 in political donations between 1979 and 1996. Haughey was not alone; from the 1950s on vested interests exerted ever increasing degrees of undue influence over
Irish policy-making and regulation, to the point where, in the recent boom, tens of thousands of houses were built without access to amenities or, as in the Larry Goodman scandal, the Irish taxpayer was underwriting fraudulent beef exports to Iraq.

A political scientist at Trinity College Dublin, and a prominent commentator in the Irish media, Byrne has produced a perspicacious, highly readable account of the way Irish corruption morphed as the state’s political, economic and social structures changed. In the wake of Ireland’s loss of economic sovereignty, the book’s central message – that only a vibrant, transparent political culture offers effective protection against the corrosive power of corruption – seems particularly vital.

This review originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

Ireland’s Rocky Road to Poland

In May, ‘the Rocky Road to Poland’, Ireland’s official song for the European Championships, debuted at number one in the Irish singles chart. A rather cumbersome 9/8 beat aside, the Rocky Road to Poland is standard team song fare: a mix of famous faces (the Dubliners), folksy humour (rhyming ‘Opel Corsa’ with ‘Warsaw’) and winsome, if misplaced, hope (‘we can win the trophy’). The video closes with shots of a smiling Ireland squad bawling along to a refrain of ‘You’ll Never Beat the Irish’.

Led by Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland entered the Euros with a reputation as a well-drilled, no-frills outfit. A parsimonious defence conceded just three goals in a 14-game unbeaten streak leading up to the tournament, a run which included a vital goalless draw with Russia in a qualifier in Moscow and a friendly win over Italy.

But on a wet night in Poznan it took Croatia just three minutes to open the scoring. Worse was to follow against Spain. Again Ireland conceded early, failed to string more than half a dozen passes in succession and were scythed open with alarming regularity. The singing inside Gdansk’s PGE Arena – which seemed to ring louder as each Spanish goal went in – was a credit to Ireland’s fantastic travelling support. The 4-0 score line was anything but.

Ireland’s first European championship finals campaign in 24 years was effectively over after just five days. In the final group game, back in Poznan, the Boys in Green were improved but overwhelmed by an Italian team playing well within themselves.

That Ireland would struggle to qualify from such a testing group was accepted beforehand, but the manner of the team’s exit stung. From the kick off against Croatia, Ireland looked tired and off the pace, bereft of a game plan and unable to retain possession. It fast became a familiar pattern.

Trapattoni showed no inclination to alter a rigid 4-4-2 system that had served Ireland well in qualifying but was ruthlessly exposed by superior opponents. The Italian made just one change during the whole tournament: replacing Kevin Doyle with West Brom reserve Simon Cox ahead of the Spain game. Cox, a player most generously described as ‘honest’, made no impact and was hauled off at halftime.

Having forced his way into the squad late, exciting Sunderland prospect James McClean was left on the bench when his trickery was required most, to provide some creativity against Croatia. Some Irish fans expect too much of McClean – his arrival, as a substitute against Spain, was greeted as if Messi himself had donned the green jersey – but the manager’s handling of the youthful winger was misjudged.

Asked about McClean in the wake of the Croatia defeat, Trapattoni lamented that the white heat of an international tournament was no place to blood novice players. Five days later McClean was given his Euros bow — with Ireland three goals down against the reigning World and European champions.

Trapattoni’s commitment to the players that got Ireland to Poland was unwavering to the point of sentimentality. The workmanlike Paul Green was singled out for fans’ abuse, but the Irish squad was peppered with mediocrity, while two players that might have made a difference – Wes Hoolahan and Seamus Coleman – were left at home. Hoolahan has played for Ireland just once, as a substitute against Serbia back in 2008; Coleman has only played five times and wasn’t a regular in the Euro qualifying team.

The vastly experienced trio of Shay Given, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne all had poor tournaments. If their international future is uncertain, Trapattoni seems set to carry on, having reiterated his determination to lead Ireland into the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Ireland’s failings in Poland raise awkward questions about inequity in Irish football, and beyond. On June 18, Monaghan United withdrew from the Airtricity League, the top flight of Irish football, citing financial pressures. That same day Wexford TD Mick Wallace, who stands accused of failing to pay a €1.4m VAT bill, attended the Italy clash in Poznan. Former Anglo-Irish Bank chairman, Seanie Fitzpatrick, one of the main architects of Ireland’s financial meltdown, reportedly spent most of the Euros in a €550 a night hotel in the same city.

FAI Chief Executive John Delaney faced calls for his resignation after footage emerged of his slurred, late-night address to Irish fans on the streets of Sopot, the resort town north of Gdansk where the Ireland team were based for the tournament. Delaney enjoys an annual salary of €400,000.

In June, Dutchman Wim Koevermans announced he was leaving his post as FAI performance director to manage India. Ireland’s cash-strapped governing body have no plans to replace him. Half of Trapattoni’s salary – around €1.5m-a-year – is paid by Irish billionaire and tax exile Denis O’Brien.

This piece appeared in the August edition of When Saturday Comes magazine.

Solving Ireland’s Youth Unemployment Crisis

A recently published survey of students should make sobering reading for Ireland’s politicians. The poll, conducted by international research firm Trendence, asked 6,000 students in Irish universities if they intend to leave the country after graduation to secure a job in their chosen field. 27 per cent answered ‘yes’. In comparison, just 19 per cent of British students surveyed expect to emigrate for their first job.

That Irish students are willing to migrate for work is hardly a new phenomenon, but it does reflect a lack of job opportunities at home that is fast reaching chronic levels. According to the latest available data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, around one in three of under-25s in Ireland are out of education and without a job.

The situation in Ireland is, unfortunately, anything but unique. The unemployment rate among Spain’s under-25s rose to 50.5pc in January. The youth unemployment situation in Greece is just as bad. Across the rest of Europe’s so-called periphery the situation is scarcely better.

In his 2010 book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, sociologist Richard Sennett talks of a ‘spectre of uselessness’ that haunts workers, particularly in the west. ‘A defining image of the Great Depression in the 1930s,’ Sennett writes, ‘shows men clustered outside the gates of a shuttered factory, waiting for work, despite the evidence of there own eyes. The image still disturbs because the spectre of uselessness has not ended.’

To visit to any one of the lengthening dole queues across Ireland is to see this uselessness in action, or, more correctly, inaction. As I discovered recently on a visit to my local social welfare office in the Midlands, the lines of the unemployed in Ireland are packed with intelligent young people. Many have college educations. Some lost their jobs in the downturn, but more still have never had a job, they emerged from university into a country without work. All are waiting for their benefits or to apply for jobs that simply do not exist.

Official unemployment in Ireland has been hovering around 15 per cent for a couple of years now. Without emigration it would doubtless be higher – especially among young people.

It is a dereliction of duty among Ireland’s political classes to rely on London, Sydney and Toronto to solve the nation’s unemployment problem – just as it was for Michael Noonan, earlier this year, to describe the decision to leave the country as ‘a lifestyle’.

The European Union has, for once, been relatively quick to appreciate the scale of the unfolding crisis. The Commission, under the “Youth Opportunities Initiative”, is proposing to redirect €30 billion of uncommitted European Social Fund money to help develop the employability of young people across the region.

Following a European Council meeting in January, EU President Barroso wrote to the eight member states with youth unemployment levels significantly above the EU average: Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Italy, Portugal, Latvia and Ireland. In his letter President Barroso wrote that, ‘We need to make a special effort to boost growth and tackle the problem of youth unemployment.’ Barroso went on to say that Ireland should set up an action team to come up with a strategy for getting young people back to work.

Speaking in the Dail during a visit from Commission officials in February, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as expected, praised the President’s initiative but stopped short of committing funds to new youth unemployment strategies. ‘We will, in the first instance, be looking at whether employment programmes might be re-focused to better effect,’ Kenny told the house.

In truth, it should not take a letter from the European President for Irish politicians to realise the breath of the problem. Last year, the National Youth Council of Ireland published a report entitled ‘Youth Unemployment in Ireland: A Forgotten Generation’. Its findings make for grim reading: 90 per cent of respondents said that being unemployed had negatively effected their sense of well-being; more than half said the quality of jobs information provided at social welfare offices was ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘poor’; and seven in ten said they were likely to emigrate in the following twelve months.

When it comes to youth unemployment, identifying the problem is likely to prove much easier than solving it. This is, in part, an effect of what the Harvard economist Richard Freeman calls ‘the Great Doubling’: in the two decades after 1989 the world’s labour force grew from 1.5 billion to 3 billion people. As the amount of labour doubled, its value was reduced, and continues to be reduced. In the US real wages have not grown since the late 1970s, while in the UK (if not Ireland) wages have been stagnated for a number of years too.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) puts youth unemployment at 74.6 million people across the world. Before our eyes we are witnessing the emergence of what Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason calls ‘a new sociological type: the graduate with no future’.

Next month the ILO will host hundreds of young people for a forum in Geneva on youth unemployment. Answers to the problem won’t come easy. The historic level of debt in the global economy is not simply going to disappear – but there may be creative solutions that small countries such as Ireland could experiment with, including the introduction of shorter working weeks and increased job sharing.

Last month I gave a presentation on the subject of unemployment to a group of students at NUIM Maynooth. After spending an hour comparing and contrasting the situation facing young people in Europe and Africa, I asked the audience how confident they themselves felt about getting a job. Most were silent, but those that did speak said they expected never to use the degrees they would graduate in. If this does come to pass, we could be looking at the largest ‘lost generation’ in living memory.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post, April 2012.

 

Ireland’s tough road back

It doesn’t feel like a country in the grip of a lost decade, writes Peter Geoghegan, but beyond Dublin’s corporate office blocks and crowded city-centre bars lies another Ireland

Last weekend more than 50,000 people – many of them Scottish rugby fans – packed into the Aviva Stadium in Dublin to watch Ireland triumph over Scotland in the Six Nations. Erected on the site of the homely if rather anachronistic Lansdowne Road ground, the Aviva was built, in part, to show off brash, modern Celtic Tiger Ireland to the world.

Unfortunately, by the time then premier Brian Cowen opened the stadium in May 2010, the economy that bankrolled the Aviva was already on the rocks.

Today, the shining corporate offices of Google and Facebook in Dublin’s Docklands and the busy, bright young things in the Irish Financial Services Centre belie the reality that Ireland has yet to “the turn the corner”, to borrow a recurrent phrase of politicians in the lead-up to the banking crash that led the country to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008.

“The 2008 banking crisis was not caused by an outbreak of moral failure or individual weakness,” Irish historian Conor McCabe writes in the concluding chapter of his book Sins of the Father. It was structural and political forces – not “pockets of immorality” – that led to a bust of global proportions.

Subtitled Tracing the decisions that shaped the Irish economy, McCabe’s is a compelling account of the economic failings that dogged Ireland since independence, from the fateful decision to peg the punt to sterling for more than 50 years (a parable worth revisiting for some Scottish Nationalists) to the state-sponsored boom in construction and financial services that underpinned the Celtic Tiger’s ruinous second decade.

As McCabe avers, the response of Ireland’s political classes to the banking crisis has proved as disastrous as the policies that created it. On 30 September, 2008, the Irish government elected to guarantee almost all the liabilities of the state’s six financial institutions. The effect of this decision – which led indirectly to the €85 billion IMF/EU bail-out in November 2010 – are still being felt across just about every sector of Irish life today.

The scale of Ireland’s recession is worth reiterating. In 2009, GNP contracted by 11.9 per cent. In the same year, Gross Domestic Product shrank by over 7 per cent. That year, unemployment climbed above 10 per cent for the first time since 1997.

The vital signs from Ireland’s economy are more positive than they were when the European troika rolled into Dublin 18 months ago to agree the bail-out. Indeed, walking around the capital, Ireland doesn’t feel much like a country in the grip of a lost decade. The on-going boom in IT, particularly in the corporate sector, has ensured that an affluent, young middle class remains. Exports have grown steadily in recent years (although a new report issued by Ulster Bank warns exports will weaken in 2012 and GDP will increase by a paltry 0.4 per cent).

But beyond the corporate office blocks and the crowded city-centre bars lies another Ireland, one that profited little from the boom years and now finds it’s bearing the brunt of the Irish age of austerity.

A cursory glance at Irish unemployment figures bears this out. From the halycon days of the Celtic Tiger and full employment, official statistics have joblessness running at over 13 per cent for more than two years. Among young people and recent graduates, the numbers are even worse: for those under 25, unemployment stands at well over 25 per cent.

Headline unemployment rates mask the return of another facet of Irish life supposedly banished by the Celtic Tiger: emigration. The Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin estimates that more than 1,000 people are leaving Ireland every week. A report released last year by the National Youth Council of Ireland suggested 70 per cent of young unemployed Irish people believed they would emigrate.

Even the signs of economic life in Ireland are not as positive as they appear at first viewing. The bulk of the growth in Irish exports is attributable to the presence of significant numbers of multinationals who use few if any Irish raw materials.

Attracting large foreign firms to Ireland with a generous tax regime and grants has been, and remains, a mainstay of Irish economic policy. However, the value added by these multinationals to Ireland’s indigenous economy is less clear-cut.

According to McCabe, in 2008, multinationals accounted for a whopping 88 per cent of all Ireland’s merchandise export sales. Yet these same companies provided just 7 per cent of total employment. Despite total sales of almost €110bn, they paid about €2.8bn in corporation tax.

Meanwhile, the detritus of Ireland’s laissez-faire housing policy, encouraged by massive tax breaks from central government during the boom years, is littered across the country’s fabled green fields. The problem is particularly extreme in rural areas in the Midlands: the total number of houses in sparsely populated counties Longford, Cavan, Roscommon and Leitrim increased by 50 per cent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these properties now lie vacant on unfinished estates. According to the 2011 census, 294,000 properties in the state – some 15 per cent of total housing stock – are habitable but vacant.

After three and a half years of austerity budgets, which have cost thousands of jobs, there are signs that the Irish population is growing restive. The €100 “household charge”, introduced in last December’s budget as an interim property tax, has proved unpopular, with very low rates of compliance. A more extensive property tax, due to be introduced in the coming months, could prove even more divisive.

All this is bad news for EU mandarins. Ireland is due to vote in a referendum in May or June on the European Fiscal Compact, designed to stabilise the eurozone by enforcing strict budgetary controls on EU nations. The latest opinon polls, published in the Sunday Business Post, suggest 44 per cent would vote in favour, but 29 per cent remain undecided and support for Sinn Fein, who oppose the treaty, has grown substantially.

Recent opinion polls put the republicans on 25 per cent, behind only Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael. Although coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour still enjoy strong backing – and Mr Kenny is personally very popular – support for opponents of austerity is growing.

Leinster House, where the parliament sits, will hope the EU treaty vote will offer an opportunity to renegotiate with the bail-out lenders. The EU-IMF loan was made at a punitive 5.8 per cent, an interest rate that is crippling growth in the economy. Currently, the Irish government is attempting to reschedule about €31bn of promissory notes for its failed banks.

“What we are looking for is a deal to pay them back over a longer period, possibly at a lesser rate of interest,” deputy finance minister Brian Hayes said yesterday. “I would ask people in fairness to be patient with us on this issue.”

Beyond the corridors of power, the new economic reality has produced some creative responses. Comedian Abie Philbin Bowman – who, fittingly, will be appearing at the Glasgow Comedy Festival this Saturday, St Patrick’s Day – is returning to a tried-and-tested financial model: barter.

“I’m planning a tour of Ireland this summer that runs entirely on barter,” Bowman says. “All my shows are free to the public, and afterwards people are asked to make a donation. If they can’t afford to give money, they can offer me a hot meal or somewhere to stay. In the past, one person offered me juggling lessons, another taught me how to fly-fish. It’s a very different experience and a really interesting way of seeing the country.”

The Aviva isn’t down as a date on the tour, yet.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, March 15

Brian Cowen ducks out as Ireland prepares for crisis election

IRELAND’s prime minister Brian Cowen yesterday announced the dissolution of the Irish parliament, in what was probably the last act of his political career.
The move brought to a close one of the most controversial governments in Ireland’s history and paved the way for the first general election since last year’s bailout of the economy by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

The taoiseach was forced to hasten the 30th parliament to a premature conclusion following a catalogue of political setbacks that saw him lose the leadership of his Fianna Fail party and his coalition partners, the Greens, withdraw their support from his government.

In his address, Mr Cowen, who earlier this week announced he would not stand for re-election, argued that the forthcoming 25 February election, would “define Ireland’s economic future”.

Speaking less than an hour before meeting President Mary McAleese to formally dissolve the Dail, Mr Cowen said the election would decide “whether Ireland moves forward from this recession or whether we prolong it or indeed succumb to it”.

During a 15-minute speech, delivered partly in Gaelic, a pale Mr Cowen suggested his government was leaving behind a country on the road to economic recovery with prospects for growth. Yet outside the Dail, activists protested against a €1 an hour cut to the minimum wage that also came in yesterday. The “Ireland’s Day of Shame” demonstration was led by a coalition of trade unions and community organisations angered by wage cuts and job losses.

Mr Cowen leaves office as the shortest serving taoiseach, the first Fianna Fail leader not to lead his party into a general election and as the man who oversaw the Irish economy’s collapse and November’s €85 billion EU/IMF bailout.

Unemployment has almost reached 12 per cent, and the country expects to see 50,000 people emigrate by the end of the year as job prospects evaporate. However, public anger is unlikely to be translated into sweeping political change.

While polls suggest Labour and Fine Gael will form a coalition, neither of the two main opposition parties have managed to seal a deal with the electorate.

Fianna Fail looks set to suffer a crushing defeat and could even trail a resurgent Sinn Fein when the new Dail opens on 9 March.

But no new political grouping has emerged.

Yesterday it was left to Ireland’s traditional political leaders to make their pitch to replace Mr Cowen. Fine Gael leader and bookies’ favourite as next PM, Enda Kenny, said he plans to rebuild. “We will make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business,” he said, inadvertently echoing former Scottish Labour first minister Jack McConnell.

Article first appeared in the Scotsman 2 February

Drawn-out last gasp of political life of Brian

Brian Cowen’s reputation as a hard-nosed political operator was in tatters well before yesterday afternoon’s session of the Irish parliament, but his latest public performance will have done little to instil confidence in Ireland’s limp premier. In what was possibly his valedictory speech to the Dáil, Mr Cowen brazenly declared “this government is functioning as it is required to”.
But a raft of evidence points to the contrary.

Having been forced to resign as leader of the governing Fianna Fáil party on Saturday, Mr Cowen found himself in the ignominious position of being leader of his country but not his own party. Then, on Sunday, his coalition partners, the Greens, pulled out of government, taking the Taoiseach’s wafer-thin majority with them.

With only seven faces remaining around the minority administration’s commodious cabinet table, the man known – not entirely affectionately – as “Biffo” presides over a government whose lifespan can best be measured in hours and days not months and years.

That Mr Cowen is still Taoiseach at all is down to the Finance Bill. Once the bill, the exclusive piece of business before the Dáil this week, is passed, the current administration – the most unpopular in the state’s history – will formally end.

The bill is set to bring into force the emergency budget passed in December, including €6 billion in spending cuts as agreed under the terms of the IMF/ECB bailout package.

Although that budget was extremely contentious, leading to large-scale public protests, all the main political parties except Sinn Fein have pledged to support the bill.

Fine Gael and Labour – favourites to comprise the next government – have agreed not to obstruct its swift passage through parliament, while the Greens have said they will vote in favour when the bill is put before the Dáil. This will probably be before Friday.

The bill’s speedy passage is the price Fianna Fáil is paying for the opposition’s decision to postpone a Labour motion of no-confidence scheduled for today.

As a consequence, a bill which would normally take six week or more to pass through the Irish parliament is being telescoped into less than seven days, with the Seaned, Ireland’s second chamber, taking the unusual step of meeting on Saturday to debate the measure.

Emergency legislation is not as rare in Ireland as it once was. The disastrous bank guarantee, by which the state underwrote Irish banks to the tune of €440bn, was passed almost overnight in 2008; likewise the toxic-loan appropriating National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).

The Finance Bill is arguably as important – if not more so – than either of those measures.

But as the veracity of Mr Cowen’s mandate – he was neither elected leader of Fianna Fáil nor Taoiseach – comes under ever increasing scrutiny, the moral argument for making the Finance Bill an issue for the general election grows.

Ireland’s economic and social possibilities for at least the next five years will be shaped by this bill – some commentators are suggesting that to hold a general election after its ratification is to deny the public a say in the country’s future.

And the possibility remains that the bill won’t make it through the Dáil. With Ireland already in election mode, the government’s two independents, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, have both pledged to vote against the bill, no doubt mindful of the mood in their constituencies. This would leave Mr Cowen’s moribund administration dependent on Fine Gael or Labour abstentions to pass it.

The scene is set for yet another long week in Irish politics. The Finance Bill’s future might be unclear but Fianna Fáil’s does not seem so opaque. An opinion poll last weekend put support for the party at a paltry 8 per cent; already 17 sitting Fianna Fáil TDs have announced that they will not be seeking re-election, many mindful of embarrassing defeat.

Last week, Brian Cowen made great play of calling a general election for 11 March. Now the vote seems certain to be earlier – most likely 25 February. As the curtain falls on Mr Cowen’s political career, even the timing of his leaving, it seems, is no longer of his choosing.

This article first appeared in the Scotsman January 26

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’.