Friday, March 18, 2011

For Lebanon, An Irish Lesson To Ponder

By Patrick Granfield 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/03/2011

Whether they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin or Dubai, few Irish are likely to let bad times prevent them from indulging in a few songs. One that has become an anthem for Ireland’s diaspora is “Danny Boy,” in which a father calls out to his son – and to the thousands of others like him who have left Ireland – to return home. The renditions this past March 17 were more melancholic than usual, and they had reason to be.

Danny Boy won’t be coming back to Ireland any time soon. Ireland’s economy has collapsed under billions of euros of debt and the property bubble has gone horribly bust. To remain solvent, the Irish government was forced to go hat in hand to the European Union, and to its former colonial master, the United Kingdom, for the equivalent of nearly $140 billion in loans. In the next two years, more Irish are expected to leave their country in search of work than at any time in Irish history.

But the Irish aren’t the only ones who know the pain of a diaspora or who have written songs about the subject. There also happens to be Lebanon. Just listen to the national diva Fairuz sing “Take Me Back to My Land,” as she yearns for the country’s “far away breezes.” The voice is distinctly Lebanese but the longing to be back on “the banks of childhood gone by” is one that millions of Lebanese and Irish have shared.

That is not all that the Lebanese and Irish have in common. Though the wounds of Lebanon’s Civil War are more recent and its sectarian divides may be deeper, Ireland has endured some of the same. And just as Ireland has served as a gateway on the North Atlantic between Europe and America, Lebanon has served a similar role in the Mediterranean, linking Europe and the Middle East for centuries. The painful histories and particular geographies of both places have helped to make the populations of Lebanese and Irish some of the world’s most diffuse.

Globalization has made geography less important and technology has shortened distances. However, this has not diminished the value of having strong links with a large diaspora. Ireland is realizing the advantages of these links once again during its current crisis.

For its part, Lebanon’s economy remained remarkably buoyant during the global downturn. However, even the most optimistic must understand that this won’t last forever. Just as it did in Ireland, gravity will eventually catch up with property prices in Lebanon. The economic pain isn’t likely to be as severe, but the Lebanese will be better prepared for it if they take to heart a lesson from Ireland’s recent past.

That lesson is that Ireland never allowed its ties to the diaspora to weaken, even as the country became far less dependent upon its expatriates for its own economic well-being. That has proven prescient. In 1999, as the so-called Celtic Tiger began to roar, Ireland amended its constitution to mention a “special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” It was Mary Robinson, while serving as Irish president in 1995, who explained it best: “[T]his great narrative of dispossession and belonging, which so often had its origins in sorrow and leave-taking, has become – with a certain amount of historic irony – one of the treasures of our society.”


Those treasures are not just metaphorical now that Ireland is confronting its worst economic collapse in decades. A difficult decade lies ahead, but Ireland’s links with its diaspora will make it easier for the country to export its way to growth, and for its young people to find jobs and gain experience before a new Irish recovery takes root.

While Lebanon’s own history provides it with some of the oldest and most extensive of global ties, that does not mean that the country cannot benefit from further nurturing links with its own diaspora, or thinking about the Lebanese overseas in new ways. Ireland’s larger focus on that effort is instructive, though many of its particular policies won’t be suitable for Lebanon. There are a host of reasons, for instance, why adopting Ireland’s liberal citizenship policies, where a person born and living abroad requires only one Irish grandparent to earn an Irish passport, is neither feasible nor politically viable in Lebanon.

Providing Lebanese citizens who live abroad with the right to vote, as long as they return to Lebanon to do so, is one way that Lebanon has kept expatriates connected to their roots. But those who return to vote are likely to have close connections with the country already. It is in tapping members of the diaspora whose ties with Lebanon have grown thin that Lebanon has the most to gain. That is why the government would do well to follow through on a promise to allow expatriates to vote in their country of residence in the next parliamentary elections.

Here, the 7-8 million people of Lebanese heritage who live in Brazil present a particular opportunity. They descend from one of Lebanon’s older emigrant communities, and many may be less eager to retain their ties with the old country than those in other communities abroad. However, efforts to bring them back into the fold should be augmented.

As emerging markets comprise an ever larger share of global growth, the economic benefits of some of Lebanon’s more historic partnerships will begin to wane. The large diaspora in Brazil provides Lebanon an entry point into the developing world and a chance to be an interlocutor between one of the world’s rising economic powers and the Middle East.

Lebanon has seen how globalization has done little to weaken attachments to older forms of identity, whether they are rooted in religion or nationality. While this has often represented a burden for the country, it can also be a blessing by harnessing the staying power of Lebanese identity in the communities abroad.

Neither Lebanon nor Ireland can insulate itself from the increasing pace of change in the international economy. And though the diasporas of the two nations provide evidence of the challenging histories that both have confronted, they can also serve an essential role as the Lebanese and Irish attempt to profit from the global challenges to come.

Patrick Granfield is opinion editor of The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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