Friday, February 4, 2011


Martin Murphy, managing director of Hewlett Packard in Ireland had an important opinion piece in the Irish Times newspaper today. It prompted me to comment with the following rant.

I agree with almost all of this opinion piece apart from the opening premise. There is a broadly-held view that emigration is a bad thing for Ireland.

In some ways it is true. Splitting up families and tearing people away from their roots is always a huge personal sacrifice. When people are forced to emigrate because of lack of options at home, it is tragic. Similarly, it is a huge waste of national funds and effort to educate our young if the result is that other economies will benefit unilaterally from Irish investment.

However this misses out on some important questions.

Are we ignoring how international experience provides training that is just not possible in Ireland? As an example, Irish doctors who go to England or the USA will see exotic diseases on a weekly basis that they might only see once in a lifetime in Ireland.

The experience of living and working in another country allows us to open our minds and develop as people. To quote Mark Twain – “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” That would cure a lot of ills that have afflicted Ireland's modern history.

Academic training or on-the-job experience has never been the barrier to career development in companies. In the 1970s, Irish industry already identified lack of international experience as the biggest limitation to development of middle managers and future leaders.

High value-added jobs typically are knowledge intensive. One of Ireland’s biggest opportunities from the future lies in the network of educated people who are globally welcomed and not afraid to travel.

Just because many commentators see emigration as a failure of the Irish economy does not mean the solution is to do everything in our power to retain them at home. That is NOT the issue. The missing element is the welcome for them to return.

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” Lin Yutang.

In my years of living and working overseas, I have observed an interesting phenomenon in the Irish abroad. Many Irish leave our shores with huge intentions of returning after (say) 2 years. About 18 months after leaving, a change comes over them. They start complaining about Ireland. Blaming Ireland. They talk about the traffic, the weather, the cost of living, the politicians. Most of all they talk about the tax.

Again, I am hearing about the 53% marginal tax rate. Even worse, there is an ugly undercurrent in the current political discourse that anybody earning over EUR 100,000 per year is fair game for increasing taxes further. Just like talk about increases in the corporate tax rate makes potential FDI nervous about committing to Ireland, personal taxation increases will discourage any successful person from coming back to Ireland.

The result is the following:

1) We invest huge amounts in educating people.
2) They go abroad and gain invaluable experience.
3) We create a clear barrier to educated and experienced people coming back and rebuilding our economy.

That sounds mad to me.


  1. Hi Raymond

    Excellent and thoughtful piece. I don't agree necessarily with the conclusions, but that's a personal view.

    I agree that the prevailing victimhood narrative of emigration is misplaced, although anyone who leaves against his/her will is by definition an involuntary migrant and that cannot be good. I also agree that we should put more emphasis on bringing people back, often with enhanced skills and experience.

    I don't think the only people who might return, however, are high-skills graduates earning €100k plus. But that's a detail in the overall debate concerning emigration and return.

    It would be good to have a debate on this question. Here in Cork we propose just such a debate, at a roundtable conference on 13 April. We will be looking at emigration and intention to return, comparing Irish emigrants now and in the 1950s and 1980s as well as Irish, Portuguese and Polish migrants. Details on request:


    Piaras Mac Einri

  2. Dear Piaras,

    Thank you for your comment. I also agree with you and am delighted that you are highlighting sensible discussion in this area.

    I hope my posting did not give the impression that only highly skilled people should return to Ireland.

    What I was saying is that current political posturing runs the risk of discouraging people with high skills from coming back and contributing to the economy.

    There has been a lot of talk about how tinkering with the 12.5% corporate tax would unnerve potential investors.

    Charging 53% marginal taxes on income has exactly the same effect on high earners. People inside Ireland are an easy target for politicians.

    People outside Ireland have the choice to not return. It would be a terrible pity to further disincentivise them from returning.

    Best of luck with your conference in April.

    Kind regards,

  3. Raymond

    Interesting and heartfelt piece. I've lived abroad for various parts of my adult life (Belgium, France, Lebanon) and still travel fairly widely as I'm an academic interested in migration issues.

    I agree that we place too much emphasis on the tearful farewells and not enough on the possibility of return. About half of the 1980s generation of more than 470k migrants eventually returned BUT the key factor, it seems to me, was the more or less immediate post-1980s boom in 1990s Ireland, not the tax regime.

    The window of possible return for most migrants is within 10-12 years of depature. After that, most people stay where they are, especially if they have local partners, children, social and business relationships etc.

    The key question is: what are the incentives and disincentives relevant to people wondering whether to return?

    Conditions were optimal in the 1990s - there was a jobs boom, there were skills shortages and there was a premium on work experience and earning capacity for returning migrants. Ergo, many returned - I think a figure of 50% is as good as it's ever going to get. But I have _nowhere_ seen any convincing evidence that the type of tax regime was other than a marginal element in the decision-making process.

    At the very least, I think you raise an important question. In fact we are running a seminar in Cork onn 13 April to discuss this precise question. We want to look at the present generation of emigrants and say (a) what can the experiences of the 1980s and the 1950s teach us (b) what can we learn from other feeder countries to European core economies - we'll have Polish and Portuguese speakers.

    I think you raise an important question which is too often bedevilled by emotional arguments. Although I disagree with your conclusions, at least to some extent, we need to have this debate.

    Kind regards

    Piaras Mac Einri

  4. Sorry Raymond! I thought my first posting hadn't gone through and have managed to make the same arguments twice.