As part of the Irish President's Being Young & Irish seminar, I've been examining some of the challenges Ireland faces in the future, and what to do about them.
Even though I live in Belfast, Donegal in the Republic of Ireland is my home. This weekend I went back to attend the Donegal Youth Council's end of term celebration evening, an organisation and group of people very close to my heart. For the past two years three dozen elected young people aged between 13 and 18 have given up large swathes of their time to use an electoral mandate (about 12,000, larger than most of Ireland's elected Upper House) to serve others in a dazzling array of ways, from improving local facilities to shaping national policy. But even without their substantive list of legislative achievements, the Donegal Youth Council and the extraordinary young people who make it what it is embody a civic pride and duty and willingness to discuss and take on issues without fear or rancour. These are the qualities which will be the building blocks of the new Ireland. And yet, Ireland is currently squandering this talent as loses fantastic young people like this all the time to emigration.
A cursory look at my list of Facebook friends alone makes for stark viewing. Scores of people I know from home or college or generally being around have in the last few years changed their location header to London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Brussels, Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Tokyo, Bangkok, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland. It's bad enough that they had to go to find work abroad in the first place, but worse still is the attitude our national governments have taken to an ever-burgeoning diaspora, which has ranged from passive indifference to apparent relief of using the emigration "release valve".
It's not that working on another continent is an inherently tragic thing; it is of course enriching in a whole host of ways, but as with most things compulsion rather takes the edge off. Fundamentally the reason so many young people are leaving our shores is because they don't feel their talent is appreciated or facilitated, and that gulf only widens with time and geography. If Ireland is ever to get back on its feet, it needs to get serious about integrating the diaspora and keeping them involved in the affairs of state.
Plenty of other nations do it. In the US absentee ballots from international locations are a normal part of the electoral process. Italy and France for example have representatives of their ex-pats in parliament too. And yet, despite perhaps the single most extensive ethnic connection network in the world, Ireland doesn't extend the same rights, responsibilities or entitlements. That needs to change.
Granted, there is some opposition to such measures within Ireland itself, with suggestions that by leaving the country you just forfeit your right to vote here. But this is a globalised world, and the decisions made here matter a great deal everywhere else. Our diaspora have an incredible amount to offer us and we could do with utilising and being thankful for the skill and wisdom. Émigrés know that all too well.
The word "shareholder" has quite negative connotations at the minute, but in a national sense it's vital for Ireland's future that we give our citizens living abroad a sense of belonging and value they probably didn't feel while here, and which factored in their decision to leave in the first place. If Ireland can't provide reasons for young people not to go, it should at least give them some not to stay away.
I sat this weekend beaming with pride at the Donegal's Youth Council's celebration evening. Not just for their achievements, but for the love and self-worth and common purpose they provided each other with by serving the public and bettering their community. As a nation, Ireland needs to do so much more of that. No matter where our citizens go, it's vital their promise isn't squandered or the civic pride quashed. The Proclamation of the Republic urges us to cherish all the children of the nation equally, it shouldn't have a distance limiter.
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