Immigrants and emigrants - A debate we can’t dodge any longer

THIS country’s cyclical dependency on emigration is our greatest social failure since the foundation of the state.

Determined, energetic and, in recent decades, well-educated people have left because we could not support their ambitions.

Even today, after a decade when spending the price of a small farm on a wedding-day party was almost everyday, another generation finds itself in Auckland, Brisbane, Boston or Birmingham. Just like our parents, our children will have cousins in far, faraway places. The curious ones will be strangers met only on once-in-a-lifetime visits to see where it all began, trying to understand the Irish in themselves.

Families are broken up and so many parents, after a lifetime of sacrifice to rear and educate children, are left too alone. Even the most pragmatic are heartbroken for the children they only very occasionally see and grandchildren they hardly see, much less get to know. An old age that should be full of sunshine and ease is clouded by a gnawing absence that can feel like a bereavement.

Sometimes those who emigrate are crippled by those feelings too, living displaced lives pining for the familiarity of community and friends long ago left behind, but never quiet surrendered to time’s fading memories.

Emigration has been a safety valve too, ensuring that our unemployment figures only tell part of the story of our addiction to boom-and-burst economics. And it leaves an unanswerable question hanging in the air – what might Ireland be like if some of these determined and bright people refused to emigrate, but stayed at home and forced the kind of change most of us crave?

This emotional evisceration has marked Ireland, but it has left us with an understanding of the separation and loss central to economic emigration. That understanding is at the root of the relative ease at which very many of those who came to this country to build new lives found places for themselves and their families. There has been exploitation and it continues today but, by and large, racism has not become a huge issue. It is recognised that we cannot expect the emigrant Irish to find a warm welcome in their new homes, if we do not extend the same generosity to those who choose to live here.

In recent days we have had controversy surrounding asylum seekers in Mosney. Just yesterday we had the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Nigerian woman Pamela Izevbekhai’s appeal against her deportation. She sought to have the decision by the Minister for Justice to deport her and her two daughters to Nigeria reversed.

These are hugely emotive issues and the instinct of most Irish people is to be as helpful as they can be. Nevertheless, in the absence of a well-defined policy on immigration – like Canada, America and New Zealand say – these issues will continue to turn something that should not be a problem into a problem.

We might take the soft option and hope that our economy makes us an unattractive destination even for the most desperate, but that would be unwise. Despite the fact that we face so many daunting issues we need a debate on immigration that considers all points of view not just the voices that suggest our obligations are unavoidable and open-ended.


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