When announcing the third Global Irish Civic Forum in April, Diaspora Minister Sean Fleming’s invitation outlined the framework of the gathering.
“The working theme for the forum is Together Again – Le Chéile Arís, reflective of the fact that it will have been six years since the last forum. The event will be an opportunity to renew, in person, old acquaintances, to take stock of the events of the past few years and to look to the future. A full program will follow in due course,” the invite said.
The advent of another forum is to be welcomed, but it must be far more than a back-slapping couple of days and “aren’t we great” cliches.
There are many serious issues that need to be addressed at this forum which must avoid being a talking shop now that the pandemic is no more.
The facts are that the Irish American diaspora is in poor shape. Membership in most Irish organizations is down and there is no prospect whatsoever of any visa program allowing new Irish immigrants into the country.
That ship sailed despite the Trojan work done by many but the upshot is that almost every Irish organization, especially those fueled by a regular stream of immigrants from Ireland, such as the GAA, are losing membership yearly.
What is the alternative to watching this drip-drip of young Irish fading fast?
That is a profound question, but the answer may well lie in bringing Irish Americans to Ireland via an Israeli-like Birthright program that immerses young Jewish students wherever their background in Jewish history, culture, and political discussion. The program is incredibly successful with 400,000 donors every year pledging support.
Ireland tried a potted version of the program in 2017 with just a small number that nevertheless was considered successful. The point is that these kids over years and decades would be influencers for Ireland as well as returnees. A full-throated effort to get the project off the ground should be a major priority.
The second issue is that of a united Ireland. It is no secret that most Irish Americans support the creation of one united island.
Obviously, there are very different views on that, but holding a diaspora conference without discussing the hottest issue of the day would prove counterproductive. Every political party north and south should be asked to contribute, and a free-flowing discussion allowed.
Then there is the issue of the votes for emigrants which has recently begun to boil over. Ireland is one of the very few countries where citizens’ rights are ignored once the citizen leaves the country.
The proposal is that emigrants away for a certain period of time away could be allowed to vote in Irish elections.
The plain fact is that if you are an Irish citizen you should be allowed to vote. Successive Irish governments have ducked this issue and only former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who appointed an emigrant senator, Chicago businessman Billy Lawless, actually did anything.
Again, voting rights should be a major subject of April’s forum if it wants to be relevant to today's issues.
The problems are many and the obvious solutions are few, but a coherent and joint agreement on how to proceed on addressing membership losses in Irish communities, what are the options on a united Ireland, and what will be the likely status of emigrant voting would be invaluable.