More migrants quitting Ireland than any EU state

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The number of people leaving Ireland has swelled far beyond those of every other country in the EU, according to research. An estimated 40,000 people emigrated last year, according to the EU's statistics office, Eurostat. The rate of departure is almost twice as high as that of Lithuania, the next most-affected country. The expectation is that the flow may worsen as Ireland faces years of severe financial difficulties. A research institute has warned that 200,000 people, in a country of 4.5 million, may emigrate by 2015 if employment prospects do not improve.

Mass emigration triggers strong emotions in Ireland, since it is associated with the famines of the 19th-century. A more recent wave took place in the 1980s, when the departure of many young people who went to the US, Britain and elsewhere was seen as something close to a national shame and an indictment of a country unable to provide for its citizens.

The unprecedented prosperity of the so-called Celtic Tiger years that followed seemed to have consigned emigration to the history books. Its reappearance is viewed with dismay.

Some of those leaving are thought to be immigrants who arrived in large numbers from mainland Europe over the last decade and who, now jobless, are returning home. But a large proportion are young Irish males who, with unemployment running at more than 13 per cent, see little prospect of obtaining work. In particular, large numbers in the building industry are on the dole as construction has almost shuddered to a halt. The return of high levels of emigration is one of many negative factors in a country which sees itself as among those hardest hit by the recession.

It has not been plunged into poverty, some judging that it has merely returned to the economic standards of 2000. But its debt is huge and government cuts and increased taxes have hit hard. More cuts are on the way, the government has warned.

In the meantime, house prices have tumbled while there has been a dramatic rise in debt, insolvency and company bankruptcy. All this has produced palpable public anger against bankers, developers and politicians, who are held to blame. In particular the Fianna Fail party, which has been in power for more than a decade and presided over the boom years, is at its lowest ever point in opinion polls.

A typical criticism came from Willie Penrose of the opposition Labour party, who said: "Ninety years after our state was established, Irish people should be able to expect to live and find work in their own country. It is a shocking indictment of Fianna Fail that they turned the successful economy handed over to them in 1997 into the current disastrous situation."