Monday 4 June 2007

Getting to grips with the [Protestant] brain drain

Ian Paisley has returned to the issue of Northern Ireland's supposed 'brain drain'. He is reported to have told the Business in the Community Awards in Belfast City Hall that it was essential the brain-drain is stopped if Northern Ireland is to develop hi-tech and knowledge-based industries.

Why is it only the unionist parties that seem to consider this an important issue?

In January the UUP's Ken Robinson said:

"In 2004, of 32.5% of Northern-Ireland based students who study on the mainland, two thirds will not return to Northern Ireland. At this rate we are losing 20% of our university educated young people on an annual basis. "

Then in February Kenny Donaldson, also of the UUP, repeated much the same thing:

"Two-thirds of our young people who go elsewhere for higher education will never return. Far too many of our talented young people are being lost to Northern Ireland. Our economy is losing 20% of our university-educated young people on an annual basis. This exodus greatly undermines our aim of creating a competitive, knowledge-based economy fit for the challenges of the new century."

Jeffrey Donaldson thinks that the non-return rate is 75%! Leslie Cree, Thomas Burns, and many other unionist politicos are singing from a similar hymnsheet.

And now in June we have Paisley joining in, parroted by party colleague Robin Newton in the Newsletter on 30 May (and on the DUP website) who added "The Executive must kick off a programme of attracting back those who have gained valuable international experience and who can make a positive contribution."

Does he mean "who can make a positive contribution … to the unionist vote?"

Could it be that what is really concerning them is that the 'brain drain' is actually a Protestant drain? This has been known about for quite some time, and was commented on by the (London) Independent in 2004:

An exodus of some of the brightest young Protestants is contributing to an extraordinary process of social change in Northern Ireland, according to an academic study. [ … ]

The brain drain, which has been going on for decades, refers to the trend for many Protestant teenagers to go to universities in England and Scotland and find jobs there instead of returning home. The pattern has even generated its own facetious acronym - NIPPLES - which stands for Northern Ireland Protestant Professionals Living in England and Scotland.

Partly due to this exodus, Catholics now make up around 60 per cent of undergraduates at Northern Ireland's two universities, with the proportion of Catholic graduates and those taking more of the desirable jobs steadily rising.

You can see why the unionists are getting worried. Now that everyone has agreed that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland will be decided by a head count, the continued loss of so many unionist heads must be giving them cause for concern.

Amongst other things, the unionist identification with intolerant religious fundamentalism is a major contributor to their own problems. As Linda Gilby put it in the Sunday Life on 3 June, in a reference to Paisley (junior)'s recent anti-gay remarks:

[Paisley (senior)] pointed out that we need to stop the Northern Ireland brain drain, that it's essential to hold on to our brightest people if our economy is to prosper.

No argument there, but he could make a start by putting his own house in order.

Having a quiet word with his son and namesake should start the ball rolling.

Then, all those local, bright, shiny graduates who have received their university education across the water won't feel as if they are setting their watches back 50 years when they return here again.

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