Historic conference harvests ideas on Irish diaspora

Minister of State for the Diaspora Ciaran Cannon addresses the Link Plus gathering at the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra on Saturday.

Minister of State for the Diaspora Ciaran Cannon addresses the Link Plus gathering at the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra on Saturday.

An historic gathering of Australia’s Irish community leaders has heard a range of views about how Ireland can better connect, engage and support its diaspora.

The Link Plus conference, chaired by the visiting Minister of State for the Diaspora Ciaran Cannon, brought together representatives from dozens of Australia’s major Irish groups and organsations to the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra over the weekend.

It was the first time that key representatives of so many of Australia’s Irish community groups had the opportunity to gather and air issues of common concern.

Ideas and initiatives emerging from the discussions will feed into the Irish government’s formulation of a new policy for the global Irish community to be released early next year.

A broad range of ideas and initiatives were discussed including positive and negative experiences of the Irish diaspora in Australia, how to build on Ireland’s global influence, how to better engage those of Irish heritage and how to better connect different sections of the Irish community.

One of the key concerns, highlighted by a number of speakers, was the treatment of returning emigrants, many of whom face significant challenges trying to reintegrate into Irish life.

Problems associated with accessing social services, enrolling children in school and even getting a drivers licence, particularly for emigrants returning to Ireland from outside of the European Union, were highlighted as examples of areas in need of improvement.

The tyranny of distance was also identified as a contributing factor to the unique challenges for the Irish in Australia. Homesickness was highlighted as a potential cause of mental illness among young and not-so-young immigrants.

Australia’s Irish diplomatic corp at the Link Plus conference at the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra.

Australia’s Irish diplomatic corp at the Link Plus conference at the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra.

The fact that young Irish citizens, not resident in the state, are assessed as foreign students when it comes to third level study in Ireland was also raised as a key concern. It emerged that Croatia, another European Union nation, reserves a percentage of its university places for its diaspora was pointed to as an example of a more progressive approach.

Others called for Australia to get more funding from the Emigrant Support Programme. Only four per cent of the approximately €12 million budget makes its way to Australia. In per capita terms, Australia receives one sixth of the funding doled out to America.

Similarly, Ireland’s relatively small diplomatic footprint in Australia was identified as something which potentially puts a brake on economic and other opportunities in Australia. The absence of diplomatic representation in Melbourne and Brisbane was raised a key area for potential growth.

The successful integration of Irish migrants into Australian life was identified as a key positive. But the conference heard that both Ireland and the Australian Irish community needed to work harder to enshrine that positivity and engagement within future generations of the diaspora.

Economic opportunities emanating from Ireland’s diaspora were discussed and there was broad agreement that culture, tourism and business were key areas for development.

Among the speakers were Martha McEvoy, (Friends of Ireland, Canberra); Professor Ronan McDonald (Gerry Higgins Chair in Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne); Ned Sheehy, (President of the Australasian GAA); Clare Murphy (Celtic Club, Melbourne); Seamus Sullivan, (President, Irish Australian Support Association Queensland); Emma Hannigan (Emerald Women’s Leadership Network), Julien O’Connell (Mercy Health and Pro-Vice Chancellor, Catholic Universities), Marty Kavanagh (Honorary Consul of Ireland, Western Australia), Carl Walsh (President of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce), Helen Waldron, (Australian Industry Group); Philip O’Sullivan, (Lansdowne Club); Billy Cantwell (Irish Echo) and Fidelma Breen (University Postdoctoral Fellow, The University of Adelaide).

The questions which were considered included:

What has been the overall experience of the Irish Diaspora in Australia?  What are the positive aspects of being a member of the Irish Diaspora in Australia and are there also negative aspects? How can the positives be built upon and the negatives dispelled? What obstacles the diaspora face?

Global Ireland describes the contribution that a large and committed diaspora has made to Ireland’s reputation and influence in the world including Australia. How do we build on this?

Similarly, diaspora links have provided economic opportunities for Ireland and for Irish people both at home and abroad. How do we support and develop those links?

How do you think that we can better galvanise the Irish Diaspora in Australia to have their interests and concerns better represented locally, and at State and Federal level. What are the examples of best practice at the moment?

There are people in Australia who have a strong interest in, and sense of connection to Ireland and Irish history and culture – our so-called Affinity Diaspora. How do we foster this interest?

Who are the Irish Diaspora in Australia and how do we ensure that their interests and concerns are equally reflected? Is there a communication gap between older and younger Irish people living in Australia and how can this be addressed?