Belfast Telegraph

'Every New Year my siblings fly back to their jobs abroad, like so many others from Northern Ireland' - Colum Eastwood on the brain drain taking our brightest and best

In a rare personal article, the SDLP leader tells of his family's experience of emigration ... and says it’s time local parties addressed the issue for the sake of all our futures

The start of my new year always begins with the same series of journeys.

For the last number of years, I always spend the days following the Christmas holidays driving to airports to drop off my brother and sister as they travel back to their lives abroad.

My youngest sister Nora lives and works in Canada after emigrating last year. One of my brothers, Liam, has now lived and worked in London for most of his adult life.

In a family of four, I'm the only one who continues to live in Derry. While I know they have found happiness and opportunity overseas, there is always a deep regret that they had to leave in order to find happiness and opportunity.

I'm usually very reluctant to speak about my own family; most of the time I think politics is a public enough arena without getting into anyone's private life.

The only reason I'm talking about my own family story is because I know it is a story shared and experienced by thousands of families across Northern Ireland.

Just as I leave my brothers and sister to the airport, families in every community across the north make the exact same journey to those airports for the exact same reason.

Those new tear journeys are an annual and raw reminder that Northern Ireland remains in the business of exporting our young people.

All of us are aware that the story of Ireland has been, in large part, one of emigration.

However, the divide in the emigration patterns between the north and south of this island are becoming increasingly stark.

While in the south emigration has occurred in cycles, in the north it is turning into a one-way street. The reason for this is simple - the inequalities between the northern and southern economy are growing.

The southern economy's official growth rate of some 10% is undoubtedly inflated by multinational profits; however even a more conservative estimate still puts economic output up by 5% annually.

This is, by some distance, the highest growth rate in the EU. Last November saw the achievement of the first balanced budget since the crash, leading next year to around £3bn of fiscal space for further investment in the economy and public services. The national debt burden, brought about the global banking crisis, is steadily falling.

In comparison, the growth rate in this part of Ireland struggles to rise above 1% and a recent survey showed Belfast falling behind other regional cities.

Projected reductions in the block grant may mean some departmental cuts of 10% and Brexit threatens an even more severe economic outlook.

These are the facts and the numbers which result in an economy that sends an average of 20,000 people away every year.

Most of them are young and most don't return.

Our emigration problem also goes way beyond pure economics. The renewed levels of life that return to our cities, towns and villages during the Christmas holidays are a natural part of the season.

However, part of that renewed life also flows from the fact that during those short weeks our communities are once more full of the life of local people who have been forced to leave.

The only way to turn that tide of emigration is to radically change the way we do politics here. After a year of dead end talks, I don't blame the public for being cynical and apathetic about the return of Stormont.

I know that people may not have fallen in love with devolution but we should equally know that all of us will inevitably come to loathe Tory/DUP direct rule.

The truth is that, no matter how frustrating it has proven to be, we need a local government.

Northern Ireland simply can't go on being the only political environment in the western world whereby the economy isn't the primary issue.

The greatest inequality faced by any citizen is the economic inequality which robs them of the chance to have a job and to raise a family in their own community and in their own country.

It's about time our politics started talking about that.

Those young people still forced to leave every year must be the biggest motivation for all of us in political life to finally get back to work and get on with the job of trying to deliver good government.

Building an economy free from the stranglehold of emigration will mean we can actually look forward to taking those trips to the airport. It will mean we can finally welcome our loved ones home for good.

Belfast Telegraph

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