GALWAY, IRELAND — IN the halls of University College of Galway, hand-printed posters announce the next topic of the school's debate team: ``Is Ireland the 51st state of the United States?'' Today the massive departures of the Irish for America are only memories. More than two-thirds of Ireland's emigrants now go to Britain.
But most people here have a relative or two in the US. Cultural and economic ties are tightly strung. And despite the fact that most Irish leaving now for the US must accept illegal status, the pull of America persists.
``The draw of the US remains remarkably strong - and that despite the benefits considerations and other advantages of remaining in Europe,'' says Rory O'Donnell, economist with the National Economic and Social Council.
Emigration experts here say the continuing draw stems from the existing large Irish population in the US - particularly important to the less-educated emigrant - the common language, and a sense, for the more accomplished, that the US is still in the vanguard of many fields.
What worries the Irish is that many of their bright young people end up in unskilled work in the US because they cannot get legal status.
``The problem of illegal status is generally recognized and regretted here,'' says Terence Baker of Dublin's Economic and Social Research Institute. He says the ``popular figure'' in Ireland for Irish illegals in the US is 100,000, although he does not believe the number is quite that high.
Given Irish sensitivity to the problem, Mr. Baker says the government likes to be viewed as ``keeping pressure on the US'' to improve the illegals' status. US immigration policy is closely watched here. Baker says any move to liberalize US openness to Europeans, as is being discussed in Congress, ``would be quite welcome.''