4 meetings across Australia were organised by the Irish government to consult with its diaspora. The average turnout? 30 people.
With free will or not the Irish have been coming to Australia since the 18th century. Layer upon layer of Irish generations have etched a mark in the Australian character. From Redmond Barry who laid the foundation stones of the University of Melbourne to Jim Stynes who Australians today talk about with a hushed reverence. The Irish are entangled with the growth of this vast sweeping country for over 200 years yet our diplomatic arms could only awaken interest on the subject of our Irish nation in 120 souls.
Everyday ‘The Irish People Living in Australia’ Facebook page connects over 30,000 Irish tied to the same fortunes down here. It is a daily stream of humorous but also valuable information to a community left grasping for help as they make new lives at the foot of the world.
‘What are my maternity rights in Australia?’ ‘My employer has canceled my partner’s contract and we have 90 days to find employment or leave the country, can someone help? ‘If you were to get sponsored as an electrician do you now have to get your trade recognised first? This Facebook page has become Ireland’s de facto consulate Down Under. Yet our Government did not use it to ‘engage’ the Irish diaspora. Why? Because it didn’t know it existed.
Conversations between the Irish government and the Irish emigrants Down Under occur from the same pulpits, and probably do the world over. The Chamber of Commerce, the Irish clubs, the Irish newspaper, the trad musicians. Fine pillars of our community but mostly composed of defined, and older audiences, they are a safe bet for a government seeking to tick the box on communication.
If we as a nation truly desire to actively ‘engage’ and ‘connect’ the Diaspora ‘in the development of Ireland’ why do we play the same weary tune to the same audiences. Why not ignite thoughts in other ways than meetings in stale halls? If we are truly seeking raw honest debate why not energetically and creatively reach out to the most recent emigration generation. Are we fearful of hearing the replies?
This lazy approach to invigorate us Irish scattered across the world does however fulfill one role. It ensures the same idle humdrum policies to a potent army outside our gates will be followed. It purposefully sidelines the issue of voting rights for the Irish abroad. An issue raised at every one of these Australian meetings, but guaranteed to garner a dry footnote in a diplomatic report as receiving ‘little’ and ‘mixed’ support.
No doubt, the Minister will stand before the Dail in presenting this report on the Government’s current review of its Diaspora policy, and in convincing tones declare that an extensive dialogue occurred with the Irish across the globe. Nonsense, the diplomatic equivalent of the nod and wink that infests our political culture and a pat on the head to one of the world’s largest Diasporas.
The coming together of two Greek words ‘Diaspora’ literally means scattered seeds. Consider the crop at our disposal. Our sons and daughters occupy every industry and field across most nations of this planet. Our first, second and third generations from Manhattan to Melbourne cling to their Irish identity. An Irish identity is a gold card in this global jobs race, embossed with hard work, we stand out from the crowd.
In our conversations with the Diaspora, Ireland talks to the top (and greying) end of town quite well. A chunk of global industry that resides in Ireland via Diaspora connections is evidence of that. Yet we use old tools to harvest generations that could feed our imagination.
We use one drink sodden day in 365 to tell the world this is Ireland. We do not illustrate or celebrate our success in so many fields. We have one of the world’s extensive Diasporas yet we employ private companies to grow our networks. A nation of talkers we seek to muffle the voice of those who simply have the conversation in another room.
Consider some challenges an energised Diaspora could enable us surmount. A workforce in need of up skilling, regional economies in need of a catalyst, a national brand in need of ambassadors, domestic discourse in need of depth. Creative programmes that astutely recognise the needs, wants and aspirations of our Diaspora but dovetail to our national needs can help place us on firmer ground.
Ireland is at a point in this national evolution that demands it pays institutional attention to its historic reality. Park the common knee jerk leap to no representation without taxation and consider our history. We are an emigration nation. Recognise it, plan with it, and inspire it.
This piece was originally published in the Irish Independent