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Michael Noonan doesn't get that emigration is a disaster for Ireland

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Michael Noonan - Ireland's Minister for Finance
Ireland's Minister for Finance garnered a healthy heaping of headlines for himself last week when he decided to give his two cents on what is a very sensitive subject in Ireland: emigration. In answering a question from a reporter Noonan provided a handy soundbite for the press to hang him with when he said that there were a lot of families for whom emigration was a "free choice of lifestyle."

Frankly, I think Noonan's language was a bit clunky, but the gist of his full answer was not as insensitive as was portrayed by the media.

He cited his own family as an example of what he meant. Noonan said his three grown up children were living abroad, but this was a "free choice of lifestyle and what they wanted to do with their lives." He added that he didn't think "any of the three could be described as an emigrant."

I disagree with him on that last point. His children are emigrants even if they were not, as he admitted others have been, "driven abroad." Noonan noted the differences between his children's experiences and those thousands who have left Ireland recently after losing their jobs in a bloated construction sector. Most of those people have "absolutely no hope ... of being re-employed in the building industry again in Ireland."

Is that really all that insensitive? It's candid, but true too. Would it be better if he'd said that he hoped one day all of those people would be able to come back and find positions in construction even though he knows that cannot - and should not - happen? Of course not because that would be insulting to them and to all of us still living in Ireland.
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Although I don't accept that Noonan was being insensitive, I wouldn't have a problem with him even if he had been insensitive. I'm sick of sensitive politicians. I don't want them to 'feel my pain.'

The problem with what Noonan said is that emigration is a huge negative for Ireland, but he doesn't seem to understand that..

If emigration is a positive for the country then by all means let's hear Michael Noonan make the case. We won't hear anything of the kind, however, because emigration is a loser for the nation whether the people emigrating are "driven abroad" or not.

Noonan's comment about it being a "lifestyle" choice is ridiculous. It's been a "lifestyle choice" for decades. Even those who left in the 1950s left not because they were facing death by starvation, but because they couldn't face a lifetime of subsistence farming or life as one of the many urban poor. They knew there was a better life out there and they went to find it. That was the choice they made. Others made the opposite choice. It was a choice, a "lifestyle" choice if you like.

Every emigrant is a loss, a loss of someone with the spunk and ambition enough to strike out for a foreign land, with the desire for change that a belief that there can be something new and they can make that happen. These people are risk-takers, the same people who might open a new business if they saw sufficient light at the end of the tunnel. In Ireland today, as in the 1980s and the 1950s, the light at the end of the tunnel is too dim and too far away to keep these people here.

Noonan concluded his remarks with, "What we have to make sure is that our young people have the best possible education right up to third level so that when they go, they’re employed as young professionals in their country of destination rather than the kind of traditional image of Irish emigrants in the 1950s."

In other words, we should tax ourselves til it hurts to provide a first class education - "right up to third level" - for people who are then going to take all that expensive book learning and head overseas and enhance the economy of some other country.

What's the sense in that? Are we better off because we paid so much to prepare these people to be productive in some other nation's economy? Those who left in the 1950s were a big loss in terms of energy and ambition, but at least they weren't taking tens of thousands of dollars worth of education with them.

Here's an analogy. What if the New York Mets General Manager proclaimed himself satisfied that at least when Jose Reyes left for the Florida Marlins that he took with him the years of training and development the Mets had provided him? Now imagine if Reyes had left the Mets not after six years in the Major Leagues, but just as he was ready to begin his big league career, to begin helping his team win games. The GM would be fired for saying something so stupid, but that's essentially what Noonan said last week.

The Minister for Finance of a bankrupt nation doesn't recognize that losing people who have just completed years of expensive education, who are on the cusp of becoming productive citizens, is a disaster for the country.

Noonan didn't need to soothe our hurt feelings and he shouldn't have tried. That's not his job. What he should have done is demonstrate that he understood what emigration really means to Ireland. He should have expressed disappointment that the government has so far failed to find the means to entice those people to stay. He needed to show a determination to stem that flow immediately.

He didn't do so because he doesn't get it. To Noonan and to the governing classes generally, emigration is a safety valve, a means of getting the most disgruntled out of their hair. For that reason, history will go on repeating itself.

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