|Children taking part in a Sinn Fein organized demonstration |
against emigration in Dublin earlier this year.
Behind the very occasional good news story about new jobs the economic situation here remains absolutely dire. Not that you would think that watching the wayTaoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny and his ministers turn up at every new job announcement to bask in the glory and suggest that we're emerging from the gloom.
There have been a couple of examples of this in the past two weeks, with the Kerry Group announcing 900 jobs at a new food product research facility to be built in Co. Kildare and the Paddy Power bookmaking business announcing 600 new jobs in their Dublin HQ in online gambling and the supporting technology and marketing.
Both of these are impressive developments in home grown businesses that are doing well, and of course new jobs are not only welcome but desperately needed. But the way we are all supposed to accept news like this as the dawn of a bright new day and the way the Kennyand his ministers seize on these announcements and milk them to the last drop is worrying for several reasons.
Firstly these are mainly high end jobs, some of which will require high skill sets and language abilities that will not be that easy to find among Irish school and college graduates. As in similar job announcements recently, some of these jobs will go to foreign applicants who will come in here to fill the vacancies. We will come back to this later.
But the main issue in this week's talking points memo, as Bill O'Reilly would say, is that such announcements give a misleading view on the jobs situation here right now, because that remains extremely bleak.
The fact is that Ireland is hemorrhaging people now, particularly young people, because they can't get jobs at home.
The headlines and the statistics are soul destroying, and no doubt you will have seen some of them.
Most of the figures come from information gleaned in the census last year, which led to the memorable headline that emigration was worse now than at any time since the famine.
Another emotive headline said that one person was leaving every five minutes. This was built on figures that showed that 87,100 people a year wereemigrating– a daily average of 238, or one person every 303 seconds, which is just over five minutes.
That was the situation over a year ago, and what level emigration is at now is anyone's guess, although no expert thinks it is coming down.
Adding information from airline figures, from unemployment figures and other official statistics to the base of the census data allows the experts to estimate the current level of emigration. But it's not an exact science, partly because there is no real effort to gather enough information. Official Ireland does not really want to know.
Read more on Irish immigration here.
The overall point is that we are losing a significant slice of the present generation of young people. And many of them will never come back on a permanent basis.
The return of emigration here on a scale that is now higher than in the eighties or in the fifties or probably any time since the famine has, of course, caused a great deal of discussion and comment here.
But a lot of this is superficial. An in-depth analysis of emigration to identify its root causes would involve many sacred cows in Ireland, and official Ireland is not prepared to go there.
Of course we know the immediate reason why so many people are leaving right now -- they can't find jobs at home. The emigrationfigures are higher than ever before because our population is higher than at any time since the famine, and theeconomic crisis we are going through now is deeper than any this century.
Most of that is of our own making, but our situation is made even worse by the worldwide financial crisis and slowdown.
That much is clear. It's stating the obvious.
But what is not clear is why Ireland is so vulnerable and so prone to emigration. Mass emigration is not unique to us, but we are probably the country in the world best known for it.
There are historic reasons, of course. We have a history of emigration that goes back to the famine and because we speak English, the U.K., the U.S., Canada and Australia are easy destinations for our escape.
There are social reasons as well. For decades, up to relatively recently, our Catholic belief in the evils of birth control meant that large families were common.
Families with eight or 10 children growing up on modest farms in areas with no industrial development were seen as something to be celebrated, even though the inevitable result was going to be emigration.
That has now changed drastically, with the high number of single parent or one child families bringing down the average number of children per family in Ireland to less than two.
But there are still large families, and the emigration option is deeply ingrained in us at this stage.
Another critical factor is the failure of our culture and particularly our school system to develop a sense of entrepreneurship. The idea of starting your own business is not a dream many young Irish have, at least not until they go abroad. Too often here the aim is to get into one of the professions or the civil service.
Our school system is still a largely classical education, with rote learning to pass exams and a failure to teach children to think for themselves and to develop initiative. In spite of recent efforts to get kids to do more math and science, Shakespeare and Irish still take up large chunks of school days.
Very few schools have computer rooms, and computer skills and programming/information technology is still not a Leaving Cert (high school) subject.
On top of this we have very poor language skills by European standards. It's not unusual for a Dutch or French or German teenager to speak English and another foreign language as well as their own. They study English and often another foreign language, starting in primary (junior) school.
Here we don't study a "continental" language until secondary (high) school because Irish, the dead language to which we continue to pay lip service, is a compulsory part of every school day and eats up the time for language.
One consequence of this is that many call center and technical support center jobs here (like some of the new Paddy Power jobs mentioned above) end up being filled by immigrants from other parts of Europe.
During times of strong economic growth these factors tend to masked by the number of jobs in construction and services. But these weaknesses -- particularly the failure to develop an enterprise culture here and the failure to radically change our education system -- mean that in normal times emigrationremains a constant factor in Irish life.
Another factor that masks our failure is the success of foreign direct investment (FDI) here, the multinational companies (many American) who open plants here to supply product or services to Europe or the wider world.
The fact that we are English speaking and that we have a young workforce that used to be cheap (and is now becoming cheap again) helps us to maintain this, although the truth is that it is mainly tax driven. The trouble with FDI is that it is moveable, and we have seen the consequences of that in the past decade as we were undercut by well educated, young workforces in other countries and plants migrated from here.
The bottom line is that our efforts to create and maintain enough jobs here for our population has never equaled the performance of, say, the Scandinavian countries. Our society remains locked in attitudes and beliefs that prevent us from developing the way we need to and from tailoring our population level and our education in a way that will allow us to take control of our national destiny rather than forever being forced to accept the humiliation of forced emigration.
Voluntaryemigration will always be an option for our adventurous young people, and so it should be. But forced emigration of people who do not want to leave is a scandal and a failure.
The ridiculous amount of immigration to Ireland that happened during the boom -- the census last year showed that we now have half a million non-Irish people living here -- is another facet of our failure to plan and organize our society in a sustainable, sensible manner. Around half ofthe emigration figures produced by the census last year related to some of these people going home again, mainly east Europeans.
But many now regard Ireland as their permanent home, partly due to our higher standard of living, education, housing, health care, welfare and so on.
Faced with an economy now in crisis and the necessity to make huge cutbacks in state spending, the wisdom of allowing such large scale immigration now seems doubtful, if it ever made sense.
But what to do about the situation in this era of political correctness where everyone is expected to look on multi-culturalism as a blessing remains to be seen.
The immediate problem is, of course, our flat-lining economy, with little sign that our unemployment level (almost twice the level in the U.S.!) is going to come down anytime soon.
Even the IMF last week was wondering aloud whether the austerity program here was depressing economic activity so much that jobs would not emerge and that the cure might be worse than the disease. Thanks, guys. We could have told you that.
The answer, as if you didn't know, is to split our banking and our sovereign debt, get the ECB to take a hit on our bank debt and give us a chance.
Beyond the present crisis we are in -- and it is difficult at the moment to look that far ahead -- we need to grow up as a country and start taking responsibility for ourselves, for how big our families are and for how we are going to provide enough jobs for our population, whatever sustainable level that is.
Only then might forcedemigration be consigned to where it belongs -- the history books.