The Republic of Ireland is similar to Armenia in that more of its people live outside its borders than inside. It is estimated that 10 million ethnic Irish people have left Ireland over the past few centuries. The constitution of the Irish Republic states that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” How does Dublin maintain a relationship with its diaspora?
Very few people know that prominent statesman and Irish political leader Éamon de Valera (1882-1975) who led his country to independence, was born in New York in 1882 to an Irish nurse and a Spanish artist.
Irish emigration was a regular phenomenon until the second half of the 20th century. It reached its peak in the 1840s during the Irish Potato Famine which left about 1 million dead, while suffering under the weight of British occupation. In just a few years, two million Irish had left for North America and Australia, leaving behind their homeland and families to avoid starvation. Since then, the population of Ireland has not yet returned to its pre-19th century numbers, 8.5 million compared to less than 6 million today.
Today, there are between 70 and 80 million ethnic Irish in the world, including 36 to 40 million just in the United States. This figure represents 15 times the current population of the Republic of Ireland.
The term Irish diaspora lends itself to many interpretations. In the broadest sense, it includes all people who have at least one Irish ancestor (hence the figure of 80 million). Irishness thus remains a vague concept linked to common memory, lineage, and to a lesser extent, the Catholic faith, Irish folklore and tradition.
Cherishing the Irish Diaspora
The term “Irish diaspora” began to enter popular discourse in Ireland during the presidency of Mary Robinson (1990-1997), who, in a groundbreaking 1995 speech stated that among other things, she had committed her presidency to cherishing the Irish diaspora. Robinson understood that millions of Irish (either born and emigrated or exiled from Ireland or born elsewhere of Irish ancestry), felt “a deep and abiding tie to the country.” According to her, being Irish is not defined by being from Ireland, and ethnic Irish living far away can also feel a deep sense of Irish identity. Her vision was to make the homeland a “place of peace” based on the assumption that “opening up of the diversity of Irishness represented a path toward this goal.”
During the 2008 economic recession the Irish government, through its Global Irish Economic Forum, began to see its diaspora as a resource and “economic savior”. The Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development, Ciaran Cannon, believed however that the terminology around diaspora needed to change. Instead of using the term “resource”, which implies a reserve to be constantly drawn upon, he preferred to talk about a community, a global Irish nation, where reciprocity would exist between the state and the diaspora and the diversity of this diaspora would be taken into account. Ireland’s Emigrant Support Programme [see more below] funds projects that will have a clear and identifiable impact on supporting and building global Irish communities that will maintain links with Ireland and have a voice in the shaping of the future of the homeland.
According to this idea, the Irish migrant experience is diverse and depends on when they left Ireland, the context in which they left, and the issues they face in their host country. For second and subsequent generations of Irish emigres, challenges are different. With each generation, the sense of Irishness may weaken. Here, grassroots organizations can play a role in doing outreach to those who have an Irish identity but who may not be involved in Irish organizations. These could be cultural associations and individuals who promote a positive image of Ireland through events, projects and transmitting Irish culture. Such cultural activities in a diaspora space can facilitate the building of transnational bridges and collaboration in the host country and between Ireland and the host country.
The U.S.-Based Irish Diaspora
Irish America is an example of what an engaged diaspora can look like. In the mid-1960s, the Irish government, realizing the importance of rekindling the waning relationship with its diaspora in the United States, created the Ireland-U.S. Council Foundation in 1963, the American Ireland Fund in 1976, and later the Irish Foundation. These and other similar organizations were designed to rekindle the sense of identity of Irish-Americans. Since then, Dublin has also endeavored to develop links with Irish-American business elites, some of whom played an important role both in the Irish economy and during the peace process.
Irish-American diaspora organizations provided both financial assistance and political support to republicans at a time when Northern Ireland was embroiled in violence. As Artsakh’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Massis Mayilian pointed out in an article on the role of the Irish diaspora in Northern Ireland in conflict transformation, “The Irish diaspora’s interest in the Northern Ireland conflict has fluctuated and depends on the level of tension at the time between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland itself. Irish diaspora organizations in the U.S. have provided support to republicans who advocate Northern Ireland leaving the UK and becoming part of the Republic of Ireland. Some organizations provided financial assistance to the IRA, and it was donations from the U.S. that facilitated the expansion of the IRA in the 1970s.” Politicians from Ireland were also influenced by the U.S.-based Irish diaspora who were in favor of a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. This new strategy—based on pragmatism and the search for a peaceful solution—created an opportunity for the U.S. to be involved in the Irish peace process.
The Irish National Caucus (INC) formed in 1974 was a fervent critic of the British government’s policy in Northern Ireland and worked to counter British influence in the U.S. Congress. It registered relative success as a Washington-based activist group. In the early 1970s, influential Irish-American politicians often adopted public positions that were critical of Britain. In 1971 Senator Edward Kennedy introduced a Senate Resolution that called for a “united Ireland” and the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland.
The engagement of the U.S. government as a mediator in the Northern Ireland peace process was a key development in the conflict’s transformation thanks to the involvement of Irish-American organizations and the pro-Irish lobby in the U.S. Irish-Americans reached out to militant Irish republicans to persuade them to take on a peaceful democratic agenda. This inclusive approach contributed significantly to the peace process during the 1990s.
The Role of the Irish State
Irish citizens abroad do not currently have the right to vote in presidential elections although there have been proposals to allow emigrants to vote in elections to the senate. In 2019, a government bill was proposed to allow non-resident citizens to vote in presidential elections. Arguments in favor of expatriates voting include the economic and cultural importance of the Irish diaspora and the potential benefits of increasing its engagement with the state and a moral debt owed to reluctant emigrants. Since 70 million people claim Irish ancestry, there is a lack of consensus about the choice of who will be entitled to vote abroad. According to Colm Brophy, Ireland’s Minister for the Diaspora, a referendum on the matter will take place sometime before 2024.
Although the question of the vote of nationals abroad remains unsolved, Dublin seeks to better organize its relationship with its diaspora. Ireland has a National Diaspora Policy, an Irish Overseas Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs—which funds Irish community organizations around the world with over €12 million a year—and a global network of 350 CEOs of Irish heritage around the world and several hundred Irish diaspora organizations in business, sport, culture, education and philanthropy. The Irish Ministry of Diaspora provides a range of services to Irish citizens abroad and works to ensure the promotion and protection of Ireland’s interests in the world. It also plays a role in international affairs pursuing policies around peace, security as well as the eradication of poverty and hunger worldwide. As a neutral country that is not a member of NATO, the Irish Republic enjoys a positive image in the developing world.
There is also the philanthropic Ireland Funds which has raised over $550 million for thousands of peace, cultural, charitable and educational organizations throughout Ireland.
The Irish diasporic policy recognizes the unique and important relationship between Ireland and its diaspora and sets out actions to nurture and develop this relationship, and to engage the diaspora. In November 2015, the fourth World Irish Economic Forum was held in Dublin, at the same time the Irish authorities launched the new Global Irish website.
It contains a wealth of information for the diaspora on support services; living abroad; keeping in touch; and returning to Ireland. A number of initiatives contained in the Irish policy include a new Global Irish Media Fund to encourage and support media coverage of the diaspora and emigration experience, and an Alumni Challenge Fund to provide seed funding for new collaborative initiatives by Irish institutions targeting their Irish and non-Irish graduates working internationally.
Ireland’s Diaspora Strategy (2020-2025)
The Irish government adopted a new strategic approach aiming at supporting its diasporic communities in 2019 after the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade undertook a wide-ranging public consultation on the future of Ireland’s diaspora policy. This strategy has been shaped by hundreds of individuals and organizations both in Ireland and in Irish communities around the world. The resulting document, “Ireland’s Diaspora Strategy (2020-2025)”, reflects the changing needs of the global Irish community and sets out a number of guiding principles and initiatives to strengthen the relationship between Ireland and its diaspora. The main objectives of this strategy include:
- People (welfare of the Irish abroad)
- Values (promotion of values abroad and celebration of the diaspora’s diversity)
- Prosperity (building mutually beneficial economic ties with the diaspora)
- National Culture (supporting cultural expression in the diaspora)
- Influence (extending Irish global reach by connecting with the next generation)
A Ministry for the Irish Diaspora
Successive Irish governments have shown a commitment to the diaspora, especially evident through emigrant support funding maintained, even through years of cutbacks. In 2015, expenditure on diaspora issues increased for the first time since before the financial crisis.
In October 2013, the Irish government began the process of reviewing its diaspora policy, proceeding in dialogue with stakeholders in Ireland and abroad. Two key themes emerged from the consultation were demands for the creation of a new post of a minister for the diaspora. In July 2014, Dublin appointed Jimmy Deenihan to the new role. There were also demands from Irish nationals abroad for voting rights in Ireland. There were calls for the Government to improve its communication with Irish emigres, and to facilitate communication between Irish communities around the world.
Emigrant Support Programme
The Emigrant Support Programme, managed by Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs supports the establishment of networks across the diaspora, such as groups and initiatives aimed at promoting ties to Ireland based on culture, sport, heritage, education and business. It also supports the most vulnerable and marginalized Irish emigrants across the world by funding emigrant and wider diaspora initiatives. Decisions on who receives funding are made through a robust process to ensure value for money for the taxpayers who fund these projects and programs and the best possible outcomes for those they are intended to benefit.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade disburses significant sums to support emigrant and wider diaspora initiatives in Ireland and around the world. In 2014, a number of external audits of the Emigrant Support Programme funded organizations were undertaken. This is part of a program of audits which will continue annually, covering organizations in different locations, of different scales and with diverse mandates.
 Avtar Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora : Contesting Identities, London, Routledge, 1996.
 R. Finnegan (2002). ‘Irish-American relations’, in W. Crotty and D. Schmitt (eds.) Ireland on the World Stage. London: Pearson. p. 99.
 Honohan 2011 pp.15–16 of preprint
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