Following last year’s very successful commemorations of 1916, Ireland’s decade of centenaries is now well underway as we remember the historic events of nearly a century ago that ultimately gave birth to our independent nation.
As we look back to events like the War of Independence, the Treaty and the Civil War that followed, it is inevitable that we will also start to look forward to what kind of Republic we want to achieve in the coming century and how we might make a reality of this vision.
Hanging over all of this is Brexit, which will change everything and upend all the existing assumptions about the social, economic and political arrangements on this island, our relationship with our closest neighbour and our role in the wider world.
As we reimagine Ireland for the 21st century, we should start by thinking about what makes us distinctive and the strengths and weaknesses we carry with us into a very changed world.
And when you stand back and look at Ireland in 2017, perhaps the most striking feature is our openness to the world - as was noted in the Irish Times during the week nearly 17 per cent of those currently living in Ireland were born abroad, while 17 per cent of those born here currently live abroad. While the symmetry is remarkable, what it tells us more than anything else is that we are, to paraphrase our new Taoiseach, an island that is open to the world.
That very openness is something we don’t celebrate enough. It’s also potentially our killer app. After all, the emerging divide in the 21st century is between those who want to be open to the world and those who want to close themselves off. What is astonishing is that the two nations we have historically been closest to - the UK and the US - are choosing to shut their doors to the world.
Only this week, we heard how a Finnish academic in London married to a British national was plunged into a “Kafkaesque nightmare” after being threatened with detention and deportation by the Home Office, despite being an EU national. The Home Office later apologised and said it was a mistake and the UK government line remains that the rights of EU nationals living in the UK remain unchanged. But episodes like this stoke the fears of EU citizens living and working in the UK about their status post-Brexit and whether they are really welcome in Britain after all.
Perhaps the deep ambivalence about immigrants on display in the UK explains why almost half of Britain’s highly skilled workers from the European Union are considering leaving in the next five years, according to a recent survey by Deloitte. In fact, this so-called ‘Brexodus’ may already be underway, with figures released this week showing that an unprecedented 122,000 Europeans left the UK in the year to March. Such a brain drain is likely to leave the UK’s labour market dangerously exposed to a skills shortage that will cause significant economic damage.
By contrast, Ireland has gone from a situation where only a tiny percentage of the population was foreign-born just twenty years ago to almost a fifth today, without immigration becoming a hot button issue or any of the anti-immigration sentiment we have seen elsewhere. Perhaps as a nation of emigrants ourselves, we understand that we are all potentially immigrants too.
And while we face a number of constraints and bottlenecks in our economy - not least housing and transport - surely this island that is open to the world should now become the destination of choice for Europeans who no longer believe they are welcome in the UK?