I have decided to continue with our series on the new soft power and I plan to share with our esteemed readers the story and successes of the Irish diaspora. The Irish story is very personal to me because my family and I still live in that country, so it’s a story that resonates deeply. Diaspora
In the early 1800s Ireland’s population was growing at an alarming rate, so much so that by 1841 the population of the island was more than eight million. At this same time the combined population of England, Scotland and Wales was just 18.5 million. Ireland was under British Rule, the vast majority of land belonged to a small minority of landowners, and much of the population lived in third world conditions.
The poorest people in the country had become heavily dependent on the potato as a food source. With milk added to the nutritious potato, it formed a balanced diet and facilitated the shift in population density in Ireland from east to west, and from good land to poor land. By the 1830s as many as three million "potato people" relied on the tuber for over 90 per cent of their calorie intake.
The Great Hunger: 1845-52
Between 1845 and 1849 the Irish potato crop was ruined three times by a fungal disease, commonly called "potato blight". Almost overnight, Ireland was plunged into a state of desperation. There were other food sources, of course, but the fact was that the poor could not afford to buy it. Large-scale exportation of grain and livestock to Britain continued whilst thousands starved. To compound matters, the British Government was slow to react, and Anglo-Irish landlords engaged in the mass eviction of those who could not afford to pay their rents. Disease and infection spread rapidly through a population weakened by starvation, the old and the very young being particularly vulnerable according to the Irish Art foundation.
The Great Hunger was the defining event in the history of modern Ireland. As a result of death and mass emigration (particularly to North America & Britain) Ireland’s population fell by two million.
By 1890 two of every five Irish-born people were living abroad. By the end of the century the population of Ireland had almost halved, and it has never regained its Pre-Famine level. This led to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD saying “The voice of this small nation of five million people is hugely amplified by the many 70 million diaspora around the globe who are Irish by birth or descent or by affiliation. Our Diaspora is an important part of our story as a nation. They are part of who we are As a people, what we have done and where we have gone in this world”.
This huge emigration explained why American presidents, Kennedy, Nixon,Carter, Regan, Bush Snr, Clinton, Bush Jnr and presently Barack Obama all have links to Ireland.
HOW DID IRELAND GET HERE
The Irish government in March, 2015 made her first clear policy statement on the Diaspora which recognises that Ireland has a unique and important relationship with its Diaspora that must be nurtured and developed.
It defines its government`s role to both drive and foster Diaspora engagement in a way that:
Supports; those who have left Ireland and need or want support;
Connects : In an inclusive way with those, of all ages, around the world who are Irish, of Irish descent or have a tangible connection to Ireland, and wish to maintain a connection with Ireland and with each other;
Facilitates: a wide range of activity at local, national and international level designed to build on and develop two way Diaspora engagements;
Recognises: the wide variety of people who make up our Diaspora and the important ongoing contribution that they have made, both individually and collectively, in shaping our development and our identity;
Evolves: to meet changing needs in changing times.
The government through the support for its Diaspora will give multiannual grants under the emigrant support programme, keep the welfare of the Diaspora at the heart of the policy and also give support in form of information to emigrant on the country of destination. It plans to convene an interdepartmental committee on the Irish Abroad, including external stakeholders as required, to work on the delivery of the Diaspora policy and examine issues affecting the Irish abroad and those seeking to return as a way of connecting with its Diaspora.
The document also touched on recognising the Diaspora by encouraging Irish people, organisations and communities to engage with the nomination process for the presidential Distinguished Service Award and also undertake an evaluation of the operation of the certificate of Irish heritage scheme. It hopes to support business networks to facilitate the success of Irish people at home and abroad as part of Diaspora engagement activities. Curiously, it plans to support research so that it can better understand the Diaspora and their needs. Ensure Diaspora policy is responsive to evolving needs and to make sure that it connects with new Diaspora communities.
The prime Minister of Ireland spoke my mind in the forward when he said, there were many reasons why it is so important to embrace our Diaspora-from supporting those that are vulnerable, to creating cultural connections as well as creating opportunities for investment and jobs. The summary of it all is that when you look after your diaspora it will benefit you in the form of inwards investments and foreign remittances. It is always a WIN-WIN approach.