Unleashing the Safety Valve: How Many People will be Left in Ireland at this Time Next Year?

This week’s Trinity News*, the student newspaper at Trinity College Dublin, carries a stark headline: MOST STUDENTS WILL EMIGRATE. It is followed by three bullet points detailing the results of an online poll of TCD students by the newspaper:

  • 85% of TCD students plan to emigrate
  • Lecturers advising students to leave
  • Unemployment rate has tripled

The old familiar spectre of emigration has been ever more present in Ireland in the past year, as the country continues to reel from the fall-out of the economic crisis. This week’s draconian budget won’t offer much incentive for those with itchy feet to stay put. So news of impending emigration is in some ways hardly news, although I was frankly surprised at TCD’s 85% figure.

The article also contained some provocative quotes from current and former TCD students. TCD economics graduate Robert Quinn, now studying at Princeton University in the US, said:

Being Irish definitely gives you celebrity status over here, but not in a good way. Everyone wants to know how we messed it up so badly. As an economics student it’s especially difficult to have my opinion taken seriously. We really are the laughing stock of the world.

The Trinity News unfortunately doesn’t include any information about the methodology of its poll. My guess is that it was either an open online survey or that the paper emailed TCD students directly and requested their participation. If either of these options are the case, it is possible that those most likely to emigrate were the most motivated to take the poll – they would feel more exercised about the issue and have more to say.

There also is no information about the sample size, i.e. how many students actually took the poll. The larger the sample size, of course, the more likely the results are to be an accurate representation of sentiment on the Dublin campus.

But similarly, last week an Irish Examiner/Lansdowne Millward Brown poll revealed that 33% of people between 18-24 plan to leave Ireland in the next year. That figure was 10% across all age groups, including 12% of all men.

Those statistics are not quite as shocking as the TCD figure, but they are still alarmingly high. As the Examiner’s editorial opines,

It is also a terrible blow to the country’s confidence when so many of our brightest young people vote with their feet. Unemployment is usually the reason but this time around the air of pessimism hanging over the country has been the deciding factor for some.

The news has been so relentlessly depressing that people have opted out and decided not to listen any more. Though utterly understandable this detachment, this kind of denial contributed to getting us into this mess. As we try to remake this misused country, that denial is not an option. We will have to uncover the layers of privilege, the self-centred hypocrisy that have contributed to our downfall. We cannot do that without involvement that can sometimes be depressing.

On the other hand, the article in the Trinity News reported that 28% of those who said they were planning to emigrate were not doing so for economic reasons. These respondents were also the most likely to say that they would go away to gain skills and then come back to Ireland.

That is perhaps not a million miles away from what Mary Couglan claimed back in February – that young people were only leaving Ireland to enjoy themselves:

“The type of people who have left, some of them find they want to enjoy themselves and that’s what young people are entitled to do. Moreover, they are coming with a different talent, they are coming with degrees, PhDs, they have a greater acumen academically and have found work in other parts of the world and that’s not a bad thing.”

But Couglan undercut her assertion by saying the Irish ‘feel good about ourselves’ and comparing Ireland to the poorest countries in the world. This was to counter claims that the Government was not offering ‘hope’:

“We do feel good about ourselves. In comparison to others who are much less well off in the world, we are doing relatively well.”

Not so long ago, Irish people thought that their leaders had gotten beyond comparing the country to third world economies and would no longer consider emigration as a legitimate safety valve for failed economic policies. It looks like this is no longer the case.

*  This article has not been posted in the online edition of Trinity News

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com