Sunday 20 October 2019

James Downey: Too much at stake to risk return of mass emigration

James Downey

CHRISTMAS is a good time to think about the emigrants, and we have plenty of them to think about. Everybody in the country has close relations abroad, of whom, sadly, vast numbers have left lately.

Only a small proportion of them will bring to their lips that lovely phrase "home for Christmas!" That always was the way. Those who came home at all, came home in the summer. Any midwinter influx to villages and small farms was of young people lucky enough to have jobs in Ireland, mostly in the public service.

In the post-Famine period, and down almost to our own time, most emigrants never expected to see their native land again. The "American wake" was an institution, marked, like a real wake, by much laughter and more tears.

There were English wakes too, as sad as any of the American kind. Some took away beautiful childhood memories. Others had bitter recollections and were very glad to go -- though they faced what might be, and often was, an equally bitter future.

The vast majority were poorly fitted for what that future held. They were badly educated, often barely literate. Those who "made it", made it because of their strong will, hard work and fortitude. But often it was left to the second or third generation to succeed -- and assimilate.

It's very different now. The present generation of emigrants is well prepared: shockingly well prepared. It's disturbing to meet university students who have worked out their exact destination and what course of studies they should pursue to maximise their prospects when they reach it.

Unlike so many millions who went before them, they keep in touch through the marvel of 21st-Century communications. They hear the news from home. And usually they hear bad news. Not too much good news comes out of Ireland nowadays.

The incoming news is mostly good, often terrific. They have seized their opportunities and made the most of them. They are on their way to becoming hospital consultants, business leaders, scientists, experts in nanotechnology. They have married and started families. Their children will prosper too.

But what is good for them is not necessarily good for us.

All through our modern history, emigration has been one of the worst parts of a mostly dismal record. Through generation after generation, we exported our "surplus population". A strange word, surplus. Surplus to what?

At the time of the Great Famine, the population of Ireland (taking in the entire island) was over 8 million. By 1960, the population of the State had fallen to below 3 million. Recovery -- the work of wise policy makers; would that we had some of them now! -- began in the 1960s. The boom of the 1990s and into the 21st Century brought the population to 4.5 million before large-scale emigration began again.

There is more than one way of looking at this phenomenon.

We can admit, to our shame, that we cannot support a population of 4.5 million. We can write off the "surplus".

But to look at the question in the coldest and hardest way possible, we cannot write off this surplus.

Once, we wrote off the poor, the semi-literate, those who could not survive in an economy which, both before and after independence, had failed to develop -- or, when it did develop, could not provide a living for the millions who fled the rural areas. Now we are exporting many of our best, the very people we need to work for the longed-for recovery.

Nothing new, of course, in poorer countries exporting brains and skills to rich countries. We ourselves employ, for example, foreign doctors. And nothing new, and nothing wrong, in those with outstanding brains and skills seeking the greatest opportunities where these exist.

Something very wrong, though, in the enormous subsidy which we supply to richer countries through educating our best young people at the taxpayers' expense -- in other words, at the expense of our society as a whole -- and getting nothing in return.

Among the many crazy decisions made during the boom, one of the daftest was the abolition of third-level fees. Its only possible justification was the argument that it would result in a large increase in working-class numbers in higher education. This has not happened.

We should bring back fees. Not a popular move, but the right move.

I suggest that it should come in the form of student loans. Granted, there is a problem, particularly acute in Ireland. It would not be easy to collect the money from people on the other side of the world, and it would be unjust to saddle their families with their debts. But our universities need the money. Our top institutions have fallen in the world rankings. That is something we cannot afford.

This is the time. Hardship does not stand in the way of reform. If we failed to do the right thing at a time of astonishing prosperity, we can do it at a time of distress. After all, it would save taxpayers' money.

And maybe Ruairi Quinn is the man. He has shown himself a reforming Education Minister, and he is tough enough to withstand a little unpopularity.

While he ponders his next moves, I wish him a happy Christmas -- and a jolly St Stephen's Day with the Wran Boys in Sandymount.

And I wish all the emigrants a happy Christmas. If you're talking to any of them, as no doubt you will be, please tell them that for all our troubles, past and present, we have not lost our belief in happier Christmases to come.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss