The Irish Times
Last Friday, for the first time in this country’s history, Ireland appointed a Minister of State for the Diaspora. In the midst of a reshuffled Cabinet, political de/promotion, and promises of tax cuts, this appointment perhaps did not receive the attention it deserves.
Almost half a million people have left Ireland since the onset of the crisis in 2008, the highest emigration rate per capita in Europe. They – and those that went before them – will now have a Minister, albeit a junior one, tasked specifically with overseeing their relationship with this country. This seems significant – it represents a formal recognition of a process of emigration that is often acknowledged in poetry but less so in policy.
There are a few ways to interpret the appointment. Initial skepticism criticised another position in a long line of “jobs for the boys” – a cushion to soften the fall of a friend’s demotion. However, designating Jimmy Deenihan, who served in the previous Cabinet as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, as specifically responsible for Government policy regarding the diaspora can also be viewed as further evidence of a recent and improving trend in the State’s relationship with the Irish abroad.
In the past fifteen years alone, a dedicated Irish Abroad Unit has been established within the Department of Foreign Affairs, and exists alongside the Global Irish Economic Forum, the Global Irish Network. The State’s Emigrant Support Programme (ESP) funds almost 200 community organisations in over 20 countries, in a continued effort to recognise and invest in our citizens overseas. The creation of this new diaspora-specific portfolio can be seen as an expansion of this process, and arrives on the back of repeated requests by Irish emigrant organisations, Fianna Fáil Senator and diaspora spokesperson Mark Daly, Sinn Féin, and many others.
Deenihan himself has a long history of interest in this area. It is, as the Taoiseach put it, his “niche”. In a Dáil debate 23 years ago, he supported a Labour Party bill that, if passed, would have allowed Irish citizens to retain voting rights in Ireland for a period of 15 years after emigrating. Debating that bill in March 1991, he argued:
“Our emigrants have the potential to make a major contribution to our country. Many of them have been very successful in the various countries to which they emigrated and made contributions in different ways to life in those countries. By attracting their interest, giving them recognition and a feeling they have a role to play and a contribution to make in our country, we can only enhance our reputation as a caring nation.”
Deenihan now finds himself in a position with direct influence over that reputation. What’s important here is that he uses it to enact the change that he has historically supported – that the establishment of this portfolio is not seen as an achievement in itself, but as a means to push through long-overdue, much-needed reform.
Indeed, Deenihan’s first order of business is likely to be issuing a response to last September’s Constitutional Convention, which ruled overwhelmingly in favour (78-22) of allowing Irish citizens abroad to participate in Irish Presidential elections. The deadline for a response to that report, delivered to Government after two days of discussion and debate in Malahide, has long since passed. The Taoiseach has since confirmed that it now falls under Minister Deenihan’s remit, and it is incumbent upon him to act upon it – to take heed of its arguments and deliver the referendum it recommends.
As members of an organisation that campaigns for the right of Irish citizens abroad to participate in Irish elections (We’re Coming Back, @WCBIreland), we see this as an important step towards a more inclusive, democratic Ireland. The vast majority of modern democracies – over 130 states worldwide, ranging from Botswana to Brazil – have enacted provisions that count and account for their citizens overseas. Minister Deenihan, with a specifically developed portfolio and a historical affinity with the diaspora, has an opportunity to modernise our attitude towards migration, citizenship, and the intersection of the two. He can use his position to provide Irish citizens abroad with the representation that is borne from their citizenship, and to build a meaningful link between our overseas and our resident communities.
Or, as has been the case in the past, the situation can revert to type. In the mid-1990s, when the tail end of the last mass exodus of the 1980s made emigration and emigrant voting rights topical, both Fine Gael and Labour made several public overtures towards Irish citizens overseas and their still-resident families. There was much talk of granting the Irish community abroad some form of limited representation in both Seanad and Dáil Eireann. However, as the economy recovered and attention turned towards domestic issues, promises made were gradually forgotten.
It remains to be seen whether this reshuffle will substantively change anything for our citizens abroad. Our overseas communities can now call upon a new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, who refers to the diaspora as “the fifth province of Ireland”. They can turn to a dedicated junior minister in Jimmy Deenihan, a man who has historically supported their right to participate in the political processes of the Irish state. And they can look to Ireland in hope, buoyed by the knowledge that these Ministers now serve alongside a Taoiseach who, when debating that Labour Party bill in 1991, once asked of our emigrants, “are they the children of the nation only when they are at home?”