On Thursday, January 10th 2013, a Citizens’ Dialogue was held in Dublin City Hall as part of the launch of the European Year of Citizens. The event was attended by 200 members of the public who sought to have their voices heard by Vice-President of the European Commission Vivane Reding and Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton, TD. Citizens’ Dialogues are taking place in 19 locations across Europe, with Vice-President Reding stating that “We were making too many big speeches instead of going out and looking citizens in the eye and asking them questions.”
Hosted by Pat Kenny, the event used the familiar debate concept of The Frontline to bring some structure to the question and answer session. The Dialogue was separated into three core themes, the Current Economic Crisis, Citizens’ Rights and the Future of the European Union. While the two hundred people present were entitled to raise their hands and ask questions of the Commissioner and Minister, social media was also a core part of the process, with Rapporteur Margaret E. Ward tracking tweets to find questions and comments to add to the debate. With only seventy minutes to cover a vast range of topics, much of the debate emerged online, with follow-up questions and concerns being tweeted under the #cdIRL hashtag, used specifically for the event.
Given recent concerns in Ireland regarding the role of social media in bullying and defamation, the Citizens’ Dialogue provided insight into the power of social media to ask questions and instigate open debate. Young people provided a strong online presence, many of them demanding answers about education and employment. However, Cian de Paor, a student who travelled from Cork to attend the event, asserted that the youth of the nation were not represented and went unheard throughout the Dialogue.
“Questions weren’t taken from students, including me. I thought I would be allowed, but not one student got a say.” Mr de Paor further stated that “Our generation is the key to European development and stability; it was unclear why we weren’t the focus.”
In November 2012, the youth unemployment rate in Europe was 23.7%, whereas in Ireland, it stood at 29.7%. In contrast, the general unemployment rate nationally in December 2012 was 14.6%. As they struggle to find careers in a stagnant economy, Ireland’s young people are suffering to a far greater degree than other sectors of society.
The Central Statistics Office estimates that 87,100 people emigrated from Ireland between April 2011 and April 2012. An estimated 75,300 of these emigrants were aged between 15 and 44, meaning that a very high number of our young graduates and jobseekers are departing Ireland to find opportunities elsewhere. Even at the height of the previous recession, emigrant numbers never reached so high; a peak of 70,600 people emigrated in 1989.
In what should be a concerning truth for the European Union, 2012 saw over 35,000 emigrants from Ireland elect to leave the EU entirely. Despite the international benefits of the Free Movement of Good and People Directives, our emigrants are electing to leave the European Union for farther flung shores, different currencies and entirely new systems of immigration, education and law.
Vice-President Reding, who hails from Luxembourg, stated that 45% of residents in her native country are not Luxembourgers, a fact which demonstrates the capability of the state to absorb migrants and provide shelter. “But the talents that come to Luxembourg are missing in countries that need building,” she acknowledged.
Throughout the launch of the European Year of Citizens 2013, which took place before the Citizens’ Dialogue on Thursday, the “Stability, Jobs Growth” mantra of the irish Presidency of the Council of the EU was ever-present. In spite of President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso’s claim at the launch that “Together, we will do everything we possibly can not to let or younger generations go to waste”, Mr de Paor asserted that at the end of the event, he felt “isolated and useless.” He expressed his disappointment that he had spent a significant amount on travelling from Cork to Dublin and still felt unheard.
While questions during the Citizen’s Dialogue were varied in their scope and the variety of people asking them was wide, no student issues were raised and no questions on youth employment or opportunities were accepted. Journalist members of Youth Media and the Irish Presidency were present at the event to ask questions and report, but no question was accepted from any one of the 25 participants.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore commented that Ireland “cannot sustain one in four young people being out of work,” and President Barroso outlined some details of a youth guarantee scheme to ensure that all young people up to age 25 receive a quality offer of a job, continued education or traineeship within four months of leaving education. Minister Creighton later stated that the youth guarantee scheme alone would not be enough, and outlined her belief that young people need to be given more hope for their futures.
At the end of the Dialogue, Vice-President Reding stated that the Dialogue was a beginning, rather than a conclusion. She claimed that 69% of citizens believe their voices are not heard and attempted to reassure those present that this was not the case. A reader poll from thejournal.ie, published on the same day, found that only 6% of people felt their voices are heard. Whether that viewpoint will prevail when more of these events are rolled out across Ireland remains to be seen.
With the completion of all 19 Citizens’ Dialogues, a Citizen’s Report will be released. The full video of the Irish Citizens’ Dialogue can be found at on the European Commission’s Webcast Portal.