THE IRISH ABROAD

19 March 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The worldwide embrace of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, both by those with legitimate Irish roots and many others with only a notional tincture of green in their DNA, is perhaps an imperfect prism in which to try to discern ourselves as others see us.

The motley donned by celebrants and the imagery evoked by Irish parades in other parts of the world often speaks to an outmoded and not altogether flattering concept of Irishness – it is redolent of a quaint, bucolic neverland that if it ever existed, bears little relevance to the social complexity and sometimes aggressive modernity and secularism that strives to assert itself in a nation beginning to rediscover its thirst for growth after a period of traumatising austerity.

Yet the brief fixation with all things Irish that prevails across the globe in and around the feast day of our national apostle serves to remind us of the importance of our image abroad, and the importance too of our links with significant economies and cultures forged by the historical and contemporary waves of migrants who have left this country to seek out opportunities in other lands.

The Ministerial migration that happens at this time of the year is often a source of cynical remark – the Taoiseach of the day delivering shamrock to the White House, and his Cabinet colleagues popping up in distant, exotic locations to be feted as if evangelising emissaries from St Patrick himself, generate images that circulate, on our social media in particular, framed by satirical, and often bitingly critical, connotations.

The Government would say that the return to Ireland from improved trade and cultural relations with the host countries more than justifies the expenses of these ventures – and although that return is difficult to accurately track and measure, it is arguably true in at least some of the cases.

One of the honourable exceptions to the accusation of St Patrick’s Day jolly-up junket that the media are wont to lay at the door of Ministers would certainly appear to be the time spent by our own Cavan/Monaghan Cabinet member Heather Humphreys in London in the run-up to her sharing centre stage with Grand Marshal Barry McGuigan at the parade in the English capital.

The Irish community in London is a significant and vibrant one and, in common with the kindred populations of other major British cities, has played a very important though often discounted role in fostering a positive image of our nation in a country that remains our major trading partner.

Throughout the course of the Troubles, and particularly at times of terrorist atrocity on the British mainland, this community would have borne the brunt of anti-Irish sentiment and done much to mitigate the animosity that prevailed. Their immense contribution to economic productivity and cultural enhancement in the UK has enabled the Irish in Britain to endure that difficult environment and in the Peace Process era has served to help refashion the image of Ireland and Irishness into the positive, progressive one that now seems to prevail in the minds and hearts of our nearest neighbour.

The visit by our Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was due acknowledgement of the valuable ambassadorial function that our Irish communities abroad discharge as a matter of course in their interaction with their adopted countries – and which probably reaps a more bountiful harvest for our country in terms of good will than all the St Patrick’s Day trade missions by high-profile politicians put together.

Deputy Humphreys stated that her four-day London sojourn “provided a very valuable opportunity to emphasise the important trading relationship between Ireland the UK”, something of which there is a very developed consciousness in significant facets of Co Monaghan enterprise whose interactions with UK markets are integral to their operational success and the level of current and future employment they can sustain.

With a British General Election pending, it was timely for the Minister to place her finger on this particular pulse. And, beneath the positive tone of her public pronouncements, she may have detected an erratic and nervous beat. As in our own country, the make-up of future government in the UK following the next national poll is difficult to predict with certainty and by no means guaranteed to possess lasting stability. Even with the ‘first past the post’ voting system that operates in Britain it is unlikely that there will be a clear Conservative or Labour majority, opening up the possibility of a coalition arrangement that might admit to government one of the lesser though still significant political forces such as UKIP or the SNP.

The implications of such a chancy alignment for Irish trade could be significant – indeed, were the UK to move closer towards departure from the European Union, or become an even less than compliant participant in the European project than they are at the present time, some very profound changes in our interactions, commercial and otherwise, could be visited upon this country that would have particular effects on this Border region and Co Monaghan business and industry.

Minister Humphreys will, we are sure, have detected some of this ambient anxiety in the London zeitgeist. Diplomatically, it did not dissuade her from the public assertion that conditions for Irish companies seeking access to UK markets, and for British investors eyeing opportunities here, are currently greatly favoured by the renewed growth in our economy.

But the close watching brief she will have exercised on the UK mood will no doubt prompt her to privately warn her Cabinet colleagues, and stakeholders in employment and entrepreneurship in her native county, about possible future shifts in policy emphasis in the UK that they should be prepared for.

Away from her high-profile participation in the London St Patrick’s Day celebrations, one of the most important functions performed by Minister Humphreys was her attendance at the official opening of the Southwark Irish Pensioners’ Project, which will provide support for older members of the Irish community in the city.

For all the Irish people who have experienced good fortune in the major population centres of the UK, there are many who have found themselves in marginalised or disadvantaged circumstances. Much has been done to improve the support mechanisms for UK Irish who have fallen on hard times – but there is undoubtedly still a substantial coterie of our countrymen and women there who have lost contact with family and friends and who are facing health or social difficulties in painful isolation, outside the knowledge of those agencies that can aid them.

Minister Humphreys’ endorsement of a project that seeks to address this underappreciated problem is an important indication that these people have not been forgotten by their native country – and hopefully it will lead to enhanced resources being channelled into the Government’s Emigrant Support Programme so that more expatriate Irish people in need of assistance through a time of difficulty will be brought within the reach of the services there to assist them.

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