President Michael D Higgins has pledged to help the Irish community in Britain and around the world.
During a frank and exclusive interview with The Irish Post, the President:
*Vowed to help the forgotten generations of Irish who paid remittances to Ireland in the 50s, 60s and 70s
*Suggested that Ireland’s so called Ghost Estates could be used to provide free holiday accommodation for those who contributed financially to Ireland through that period and who are now among the most marginalised and vulnerable in Britain
*Pledged to push this agenda with Taoiseach Enda Kenny during his regular meetings with Government
*Revealed first-hand experience of living and working in Britain and dealing with racist stereotypes
*Promised to use his seven years in office to help and assist young Irish emigrants in Britain who “have a role to play in rebuilding Ireland.”
*And in a candid reference to Article 28 of the constitution, and the political restraints placed on him, the President made it clear he would speak out on issues he felt passionately about but will not get involved in policy.
The President who is paying a private visit to London this weekend, his second since taking office, also spoke stridently about creating opportunities for older Irish people to return to Ireland and encouraged younger migrants to use their skills to help revitalise the country.
Question: There are thousands of older Irish people who made a vast contribution to the Irish State (through remittances). Many of them are living below the poverty line in Britain. Where is the incentive for Irish people of my generation to get involved in the revitalisation of Ireland, as stated in your inauguration speech, when thousands of these people feel forgotten?
President Higgins: Well as far as I’m concerned they are not forgotten and when I was a member of the Dail I visited Britain at least once a year to the different emigrant interests in Britain. That’s why I tried get around to them all.
These are of course citizens and it is something that should be on the agenda of the British and Irish party consultation. Whether you are Irish or British in a vulnerable state you should be entitled to assistance as far as I’m concerned.
The ones you mention are a declining number because of their age but part of the reason, they were exploited by their own people; they are people who worked on the lump.
This is one of the things that people who talk about Irish migration have to understand. You have several different waves (of emigration) and they differ in experience, that quarter of a million between 1955 and ‘60 there would have been very very many of them rural. You would have had more males than females early on, mostly in construction, there were a huge number of Irish people working in nursing in Britain and I am very sensitive of all of the nuances of this.
I can tell you how important it is constitutionally with me. About every six weeks, or every month, I have a meeting with the Taoiseach which, under Article 28 of IrishConstitution states that the Government should keep the President briefed on matters international and domestic. This is I assure you a very two way conversation and remains a matter of my concern. They do recur in my conversations where it counts.
Do you think the State has given the same recognition to the very people we are talking about?
President Higgins: Well obviously, I think the State can do a great deal more. You always have a choice about making the point of your intervention. I think that when theIrish Abroad was established, that was very very helpful. I don’t get involved in policy but my understanding is that the funding services (for Irish support groups in Britain) will stay at about the same level. But of course there is always a great deal more to do.
Is there anything you would like to see happen in respect of this?
President Higgins: I think what we need to do is create opportunities for Irish people to come home for periods.
There are many people who would like to come to Ireland for a short while and the estates that are being Namafied in Ireland… if they were being put into a good condition and just enabled people to visit for the summer.
But you can’t just say to a person you can come home to Ireland now because many people in your own age group have died, or the friends you had have moved on. You need to do it intelligently.
Older Irish women and men have friendships in Britain now and access to services; you really need to put all that in place.
I would like to think we could create spaces and opportunity to people to come in such a way they would not disqualify themselves from benefits when they do have to return.
Is this something you can make representation for?
President Higgins: It is something that could feature in my regular discussions with the head of Government yes. I’m always very careful not to breach Article 28 of the Constitution but because of my background, I am well able to push it out.
Is that something you are going to do now?
President Higgins: I will discuss matters like this, yes.
But the Presidential campaign, is the system in some way flawed that candidates campaign politically only to become apolitical once elected?
President Higgins: Not really, I think everything in life is political at the end of the day. I always said it would be entirely inauthentic assuming I have to drop everything; I didn’t pretend to be an Independent (candidate). I had the word Labour after my name and I didn’t retire from the Labour Party until the election result was announced.
I couldn’t take a vow of amnesia (once elected) and had no intention of doing so. I have a warm relationship with Government.
In your inauguration speech you said Irish people abroad can revitalise and remake Irish society. How?
President Higgins: I realise that many of the young people in Ireland are now living in Britain. I intend running a number of seminars during the seven years of my presidency the first one is entitled Being Young and Irish. The definition of Irishness should include those who identify with Ireland and I have had submissions from Irish people living in London.
I also think we need to look at ways to stay in touch with the recently emigrated. It is something to discuss (at Constitutional Convention).
Is it an unreasonable expectation, in light of the fact that Irish people are trying to manage their own lives, to expect them to feed back into Ireland for the greater good?
President Higgins: It’s a very good question.
I think a person might become so depressed that they might withdraw. It might be one of the risk factors of very very elderly so it’s important to stay in touch. It’s important with emigration coming back, we don’t have people leaving embittered.
I think there is a natural generous human instinct there among the Irish. I think there is a sense of respect for each other and a great solidarity. We must do as much as we can to keep in touch and keep that dialogue going (because) the world we are living in now is a world that’s bigger than Britain or Ireland.
If you were 30-years-old living in Britain and trying to survive, what would you do following your call for Irish people everywhere to rebuild Irish society?
President Higgins: It depends on the materials and the tools that are available to you. One of the encouraging things is the number of older people who are going back into third level education and bringing their experience of life back into third level institutions. There are people who are taking part in community activities who are empowering themselves in different ways, some through skills that are personal and others through skills that are being shared.
Practically, people just have to build step by step their own inclusion back into society and manage the transformation I spoke about in my inaugural address.
What was the toughest experience of being an emigrant when you lived here?
President Higgins: The very first letter I wrote to a newspaper was to the the London Evening Standard in reply to an anti-Irish article about us being lazy. I was working as a waiter in Sussex at the time. From 1962 to 66 worked every summer in England. I put the address of my hotel on the letter and that caused some difficulties for me. It would have been a letter very much against the old (Irish) stereotypes. Later, I did two papers on racist stereotypes in which I went through that. But I had hoped all of that had moved on. It was there that time in the 60s; there was no point in pretending that it wasn’t.