Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Why there's no need to lament this brain drain

Not for the first time in our history Northern Ireland is once again said to be brain-draining. Legions of our talented youth are vacating these shores in search of employment overseas.

It was of course, ever thus.

You couldn't grow up in Ireland north or south without being aware of the impact of emigration down through the ages.

It is in our songs, our literature, our historical turmoil and our family history. It gave us Noreen Bawn and The Wild Colonial Boy, money from America and relatives in just about every corner of the globe.

At various times our people have fled various types of religious persecution, famine, poverty and Troubles.

Among those leaving now are many described as skilled and well-educated. But again, it was mostly ever thus.

During the years of the Great Famine, it wasn't the very poor who were able to afford the fare out. It was the better off.

And once again we're warned, it's the middle class who are on the move.

But actually does it matter what class they are? Losing bright, working-class youth (and there is evidence of that happening too) is equally unfortunate.

Here's the thing though - is it not also (to some degree anyway) inevitable?

When we lament emigration (and by God we are masters of the lament) one of the truths we niftily skip over is that many of those leaving are not so much driven out as enticed out.

You can see the attraction. You're young, you've got some qualifications and nothing to lose. And there's that big, wide wonderful world out there.

We live on a small island. Even without the bleakery of recession and unemployment at home you can see why a percentage of our young will always venture abroad. There's a passport stamp in our DNA.

The argument, however, is that so many young people - a "lost generation" - are leaving right now that it is likely to have a sizeable, negative impact on the place they leave behind.

It will certainly impact on the families they leave behind - and here I have some experience.

My youngest son is among this potential new diaspora. He's at university in England, about to sit his finals this year. If, miracle permitting (sorry, son), he manages to get a good degree will he come home?

He hasn't actually spelled it out to me in so many words but I know he doesn't want to. He's extremely happy where he is. He loves that part of England almost as much as he loves Belfast.

I know he can see a life for himself there and if he lands a job there, or even further afield, I know he'll go for it.

Partly this breaks my heart. But partly I understand. I left this place too when I was young. I came back. I can only hope one day he does as well.

Yes, those rising youth emigration figures do indeed have echoes of our sad past. And yes, absolutely politicians should be doing everything in their power now to stem the tide and to provide work for those who want to stay at home.

But no, I don't think it's as grim a picture as it was for past generations.

The world today is a smaller place where we take for granted how very easy it is to keep in touch. Only a few generations back emigration was on a par with death in its finality.

And in terms of wider society we are now seeing - for the first time in our history - hordes of clever young people from other lands coming here as well. They are bringing skills, education and that much maligned concept, diversity.

This can only be a good thing.

Emigration in this place, has always been a bad word, a heart-rending lyric. But it is no longer quite the emigration that haunted our history.

And it's no longer just one-way traffic.

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