Sunday 15 December 2019

We need a new message to connect with the diaspora

People stand along 5th Avenue during the 2014 St. Patrick's Day parade in New York
People stand along 5th Avenue during the 2014 St. Patrick's Day parade in New York

Eoin Hahessy

Four meetings across Australia were organised by the Irish Government to consult with its diaspora. The average turnout? Thirty 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, whom Australians today talk about with a hushed reverence, the Irish have been entangled with the growth of this vast country for over 200 years, yet our diplomatic arms could only awaken interest on the subject of our Irish nation in 120 souls.

Every day, 'The Irish People Living in Australia' Facebook page connects over 30,000 Irish tied to similar fortunes Down Under. 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 cancelled 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 newspapers, 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 ways other than meetings in town 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 approach to invigorate the Irish scattered across the world does, however, fulfill one role. It ensures that 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. This is an issue raised at every one of these Australian meetings, but one guaranteed to garner a dry footnote in a diplomatic report as receiving "little" or "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 - it is the diplomatic equivalent of a pat on the head to one of the world's largest diasporas.

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 - with a reputation for 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 communicate with generations that could feed our imagination.

We use one drink-sodden day in 365 to tell the world 'this is Ireland.' We have one of the world's extensive diasporas yet we employ private companies to grow our networks. A nation of talkers, we muffle the voice of those who simply have the conversation in another room.

Consider some of the challenges an energised diaspora could enable us to surmount. A workforce in need of upskilling, 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 put us on firmer ground.

Ireland is at a point in this national evolution. 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.

Eoin Hahessy, the University of Melbourne,

Irish Independent

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