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An honest debate on emigration must include facts and figures

FINANCE Minister Michael Noonan got himself into a bit of hot water last week with his riff on how emigration is not really an issue for many of those who leave the country, including his own children.

The comments were insensitive to those forced to leave thanks to the previous government's inept handling of the economy, but the real scandal is that we have no clear handle on how many people leave these shores and the reasons why they decide to leave.

Every country has a metric that triggers a neuralgic reaction. For the Germans it is inflation. For the French it is the national birth rate, and for the Irish it is emigration.

Emigration matters to us because it is part of who we are and what we are. The State was born in the aftermath of the Famine which triggered some of the worst emigration ever seen from a European country and that rapid depopulation continued to define and shape Ireland until the 1990s.

The difference between us and the French or Germans is that we have no reliable statistics on emigration while they have lots of stats on inflation and birth rates. This means that we often talk about emigration here in a vacuum.

This prevents mature debate about emigration and is also makes it difficult for policy makers to plan. It goes without saying that governments must know how many people in different age cohorts live in a country in order to provide various services and in order to tweak policies.

The Economic and Social Research Institute calculated last year that around 1,000 people a week were moving abroad but the institute's economist Joe Durkan told reporters a few months later that he could no longer make head or tails of the emigration figures.

If Prof Durkan is confused, then the rest of us have every right to be confused as well.

In truth, emigration is harder to capture than inflation or birth rates. Looking at what is not there is much more difficult than studying what is there.

Our relaxed attitude to residence permits and the like ensure that there is no easy method of tracking movement. The CSO's Household Quarterly Survey stumbles when it comes to emigration because it cannot interview a family which has moved overseas.

All this means that we simply don't have reliable emigration figures but perhaps we are looking in the wrong places. A survey of schools, removal companies and foreign embassies would yield interesting results.

An extraordinary 203 Irish people will become Australian citizens today as part of that continent's Australia Day celebrations and more than 1,300 people from this country will have taken out citizenship in the country over the past 12 months.

Mr Noonan was right when he implied that emigration can be a joyful and enriching experience. Emigrants often benefit from enormous surges in energy and shoot to the top once they leave Ireland but we need to know more about the process and the motivation of emigrants.

In Britain a few years ago, the Foreign Office surveyed a proportion of the one million people who chose to live in France to discover why they had left their native land. The single biggest reason was that English people living in France liked French villages and towns where it is still possible to buy a loaf of bread or walk around in relative safety.

It is important for us to know how many people are leaving but it is also important to know why so many young and middle-aged people are leaving. The answers may teach us all something about ourselves.

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