BORN in Huddersfield, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh spent 13 years in the west Yorkshire town before his family moved back to their native Connemara in western Ireland.
Based their ever since, Mr Ó Clochartaigh became interested in local politics early on, but graduated from a NUI Galway degree in Commerce, worked in television production and dabbled in Irish language theatre before joining the professional world he knows today.
Having entered politics within the Labour Party, the Galway man is now a fully-fledged member of the Sinn Féin team – representing them in the Seanad since his election to the Agricultural Panel in 2011 and as the party’s spokesperson for the Irish Language, Rural Affairs and the West.
Just last month a further responsibility was added to his portfolio, when he was announced as Sinn Fein’s first ever Diaspora Spokesperson.
This week Senator Ó Clochartaigh told The Irish Post just what the Irish in Britain can expect from him…
What did your first trip to London in your official Diaspora spokesperson capacity entail?
“It was a fact finding mission to try and meet some of the key stakeholders in London. I was trying to get my own head around the brief for the role, so I met people across the political, cultural, social and economic realms.”
What did your meetings reveal about the issues facing the Irish community in Britain?
“It gave a good overview of the make-up of the community at the moment, from the people who are here doing well, and using networking groups to further that, to those who are not doing so well and are possibly facing barriers to them coming back to Ireland. I also met with the team at the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) group – who are concerned by what is a gaping hole in the Government’s new Diaspora Strategy, it was the elephant in the room at that launch that the biggest thing that the Diaspora is looking for has been kicked into touch.”
What can Sinn Féin offer these groups and organisations in Britain?
“I was able to offer some support and suggest how, from a parliamentary perspective, we can raise issues for these groups here, in the Dáil and in the Seanad. Also, if any of the groups are coming here we can assist them if they are making representations at Leinster House.”
Why have Sinn Fein created a Diaspora spokesperson position now?
“Sinn Fein has a very strong tradition of working with our Diaspora. Our Diaspora policy within the party has always sat with our representatives who work in Westminster, or our spokespersons for Foreign Affairs, but it was felt - from talking to people based in the United States and Britain - that we really needed a more focused approach to the work we were doing. We needed to develop our own policy on it and that we needed somebody who could outreach and champion the cause of the Diaspora in parliament and in the party and that is the role I have been given.”
How do you plan to tackle the role?
“My first trip was all about engaging with stakeholders and assessing our policy position to work out where we need to develop policy. I will now be putting together a working group in the party of people with a connection to the Diaspora, to come together and develop policy. That will absolutely involve people based in Britain and the United States, as that’s absolutely key.”
Will the role incorporate the Diaspora outside of Britain and the United States?
“It’s the whole world really, the Diaspora wherever they are. Obviously the largest cohort of emigrants are in North America and Britain, but there is a sizable community in Europe and in a number of pockets across the world, in places such as Argentina. While I may not get to spend much time in those places, due to proximity issues, we will certainly be doing whatever we can to support those types of community as well.”
You have an existing portfolio with the party, how much of your time can you realistically spend on Diaspora matters?
“The Diaspora role it’s one of my key portfolios, I also cover Irish language and the Gaeltacht brief but I see this as a very important role. One of the reasons I was picked for it is because I was a member of the Diaspora myself. My parents are from Connemara but moved to Britain in the 1960s. I was born in Huddersfield and lived there until I was 13 before we moved back. The fact that I am still based in western Ireland, which has seen huge emigration in recent years, means the issues I look after now all cross over – Diaspora issues are emigration issues in many cases.”
You were one of the first to criticise the Government’s recently announced Diaspora Policy, where does it fall down for you?
“There are a lot of laudable elements to the new Diaspora Policy. The Global Economic Forum and the Civic Forum that have been planned are very good initiatives and certainly we would not have an issue with them. But the big elephant in the room is the voting rights for emigrants abroad, and that has been kicked to touch. People feel that has meant a death knell to the possibility of people having voting rights abroad within the lifetime of this government. I even got a sense that [Diaspora Minister] Jimmy Deenihan himself was disappointed that he wasn’t able to deliver on that, because with just a year to go before the next general election in Ireland I have a feeling that it is going to fall down the list of priorities and that we are not going to see any meaningful movement on that.”
How much of an impact do you expect the policy to have?
“The issue is that the policy is all very aspirational at this stage. Another issue is the resources the department has to deliver on it. It’s a very small team to deliver on all the projects mentioned in the policy. Even if you look at the likes of the Civic Forum, which is due to happen in the next couple of months, people outside of Ireland who are stakeholders will want an input as to how that will be developed, but as far as I know, from talking to people in London at least, they haven’t been put into any steering committee or working group scenario regarding that. I’d be concerned about that and I’d be concerned that the department itself is quite stretched with the resources they have at the moment. They will probably need more resources in order to deliver on those aspirations.”