I am being nosy sitting in a small café in central London, listening behind my paper to three young Irish professionals grab their sandwiches as they chat about job opportunities in Dublin. This scene could be anywhere in the world today. It could be Sydney, Auckland, Toronto, New York, San Francisco or anywhere in the UK.
Hundreds of thousands of young Irish people have left the country in the years since 2008 – the vast majority going to the English-speaking world – and now many would like to come home.
Twenty years ago, this could have been me and my mates in London. My generation went away, mainly to the UK, US and Australia, but we came back in huge numbers in the later 1990s and early 2000s. We were the first emigrant generation to come home in significant numbers. We brought with us skills, networks and experiences we had built up while working abroad and I would hope we contributed something new to the society.
Today, there is an amazing reservoir of Irish talent all over the world. These people could contribute extraordinary things to the country if they came back. They could free up the economy, fill lots of vacancies that now exist in certain areas and bring home with them entrepreneurial, cultural and social skills that are lacking right now in Ireland.
Like me, many would prefer to raise their children in Ireland, see their family and just come home. They are what I call the “near diaspora” – people born in this country who have gone away but would like to settle in Ireland. These are distinct from the “far diaspora” – people of second and third generation links to the country, who are more likely to be visitors and investors than citizens.
The “near diaspora” is Ireland’s secret weapon in an increasingly competitive world where countries are competing for talent, investment and ideas all the time, in every industry. To compete, you need good people – and we have a unique Tribe outside the country that arguably no other small, moderately wealthy country possesses.
But this Tribe is only likely to come home if we make it attractive for them to do so. We need to give them the financial incentive to make the move.
Half of Irish emigrants in 2013 were recent graduates, so the State has paid for them already! We need to tell them about opportunities at home and support their return.
When you think about it, Ireland devotes an enormous amount of resources, energy and tax ingenuity in attracting capital into Ireland, and we don’t bat an eyelid at this policy. Why not use the same enthusiasm in attracting back our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters? Makes complete sense, don’t you think?
The tactic would be to minimize those financial barriers which prevent people from converting the nostalgic idea of “I would like to go home” into the actual action of “I am going home”.
Why not give both employers and employees a tax break on relocation expenses? It’s expensive to move back home; make it less so. Or, for example, as rents are very high in Dublin, we could imagine a mechanism to support relocation and to allow returning emigrants to search for employment in large urban areas. For example, offsetting rent paid while unemployed against future earnings. That costs no one anything initially and it sends a clear signal to the emigrants that they are valued.
We might also give a rebate on tax paid to foreign governments on assets sold within one year prior to relocating back to Ireland or on surrender of foreign credentials to work. For example, the US government applies a tax upon surrendering the green card. Give this cash back to the emigrant.
We could also give companies a tax incentive to advertise openings and target Irish emigrants through international channels like LinkedIn, Facebook and established local Irish emigration offices or support centres.
The State might try to train local Irish employers how to find talent abroad and interview remotely. Alternatively, we might hold talent fairs in cities where a large number of Irish now live, providing a place for employers to unearth new talent, interview and finalize contracts with remote candidates.
Why not hold job fairs in Irish cities and at Dublin airport over Christmas when the airports are packed with talent, lots of it wanting to return?
What about those emigrants who want to come home and are prepared to take the plunge but don’t have a job set up straight away? Maybe we could also think about access to services from the moment they return, including unemployment benefits while looking for a job. In order to limit the immediate expense of relocating, the State might consider allowing returning emigrants to start this re-entering into the Irish atmosphere by allowing them to apply for services from overseas and ensure they are eligible for all services including unemployment benefits/child benefit allowance from the moment they return.
Small things can make a big difference. For example, school places for their children are a big deal for young diaspora parents. Can I get my child into a school? Is there a place for them? These are significant concerns and as many of the returned migrants will have just started families, these are ‘make or break’ factors.
Even things like opening bank accounts can be a hassle. We could enable a process to incorporate foreign credit history into the banking system, thereby helping returning emigrants set up bank accounts, apply for credit cards and loans, including mortgages.
In addition, many of our emigrants are highly entrepreneurial. After all, you have to be able to set up on your own in a foreign country. Two of my own grandparents were immigrants and they were exceptional self-starters. We need to bring the entrepreneurial spirit home.
To help this, Enterprise Ireland liaison officers could be deployed in foreign cities to help identify potential new businesses and help them start building an Irish business from abroad (with the business relocating to Ireland within a year).
However, from a narrow economic perspective, the “near diaspora” is a resource unlike any other. They are our people and could create amazing things here in Ireland. In November we will have the fourth Global Irish Forum, why not move to embrace the potential of the near diaspora, as well as making soothing noises towards the titans of the far diaspora?