Wednesday, 30 March 2011
Ceisteanna - Questions
Question 9: To ask the Taoiseach if he discussed with US President Barack Obama the withdrawal of funds for the International Fund for Ireland; and if he has any plans to pursue this matter further with Congress [5815/11]
Did the Taoiseach have an opportunity to raise the issue concerning the tens of thousands of Irish people who were forced out of their homeland in the 1980s as a result of the crisis at that time? They continue to live undocumented lives in the US, often in very insecure situations. There are many tragic stories, such as being unable to return for the funerals of their parents. This was a major issue a few years ago, but we have not heard anything very recently. Did the Taoiseach get any indication of the current position of our fellow citizens under the presidency of Barack Obama, and whether they and other migrants from elsewhere in the world would be given their full rights in the US?
Did President Obama say anything to the Taoiseach about the use of Shannon Airport by the US Air Force, and the facilitation by the Irish State - I presume the current Government will continue this policy - of the US armies of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan?
During his meeting with Representative Peter King, did the Taoiseach raise the concerns of those interested in human rights about his hearings into the so-called radicalisation of the American Muslim community? This has been compared to a McCarthyite witch hunt against Muslim Americans and it has been led by a representative who, ironically, dragged his political career from obscurity to national prominence among certain Irish Americans 25 years ago by declaring his support for the disastrous paramilitary campaign of the Provisional IRA. I would like to know if the Taoiseach discussed this issue and whether he pronounced that it was deplorable to be stirring up hatred against American Muslims who have no connection with al-Qaeda or any such organisation.
Immigration reform is obviously a matter of some considerable importance to us. I know many people who have found themselves in that position for a number of years. The answer to everybody's problem would be comprehensive immigration legislation, which is very difficult, given the scale of what is involved and the number of nationalities involved in a country the size of the US. It has been on the agenda for quite some time. The previous President made attempts to push it through, but it did not happen.
The current focus of attention is on the Australian E-3 visa for Irish nationals. This might release an amount of pressure that is building up here. There have been attempts to introduce a number of Bills in the US Congress, but they all failed. I raised this matter with President Obama, the Irish ambassador and the Vice President, who has connections with Ireland. For many people involved in this, it is an issue of increasing interest. A number of those who left before the dates mentioned by the Deputy find themselves in isolation in huge conurbations, and there is a growing need to look after many of these elderly people. With enforced emigration again being a factor, this is an issue for young people as well. We will keep it on the agenda and hope that the E-3 visa system becomes a reality soon. With the change in political circumstances on Capitol Hill, it is not going to be as easy to get comprehensive legislation as it might have been in the past.
I did not have an opportunity to speak to Representative Peter King at any great length. These meetings do not lend themselves to long discussions, but the issue of his comments about American Muslims were a matter of discourse in the New York area.
There was a sense of excitement among Irish American businesses about rebuilding strong links with our country, investing and creating jobs in Ireland. That is something I would like to work on, because American business interests were focused clearly on the retention of our corporate tax rate at 12.5% in respect of employment and investment opportunities. It was a great opportunity to make these connections, reinforce our traditional links with the United States and continue to build on them for the future.
The President was grateful for the opportunity to thank us for allowing transit through Shannon Airport and the use of the facility there in accordance with the United Nations' agreement and resolution.
It is welcome that the visit to the United States was a success on many fronts. It bears out the importance of such visits. When I was Minister for Foreign Affairs, they were subject to attack from time to time, not from all elements in the House but from certain elements in it. I recommend that in the future all major cities in the United States should be visited by Ministers during the week in which St. Patrick's Day falls. That did not occur on this occasion, for a variety of reasons. We should not always pander to simplistic commentary on these issues. No other country has the opportunity we receive to profile itself. That is why I am glad the Taoiseach participated in the Enterprise Ireland trade mission which has become the hallmark of such visits in recent years. We initiated the mission to use the opportunity to promote Irish companies.
Some of the tax policy initiatives of the Obama Administration have become less pronounced, if not weakened, over time. When we were in power, we took the opportunity to locate a tax specialist in the Irish Embassy in the United States to keep an eye on how emerging tax policy in the United States might affect our corporate tax rates and the tax policies of American multinationals based in Ireland and globally. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach indicated whether he has any updates on American plans for taxation issues pertaining to multinationals and global companies.
Does the Taoiseach accept that the introduction of E3 visas means a new bilateral approach to work permits that lead to residency has been established between Ireland and the United States? Does he think it is the best approach in the short term, given that the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform is receding owing to changes in the electoral and political landscape in the United States? I refer to the recent congressional elections there. Did the Taoiseach seek agreement with Irish-American lobby groups that such an approach should be the sole focus of attention and policy direction in the coming weeks? It has been a long-standing view of mine that a bilateral arrangement with America is essential for the present and the future. It would create a bilateral framework by means of which we could try to improve and enhance the situation for those in the United States. In that context, does the Taoiseach accept it is important for the Government to ring-fence funding under the Irish emigrants support programme - the Irish abroad programme - for welfare organisations in the United States? I refer to organisations which support those who are undocumented, particularly young Irish people who are experiencing legal problems and individual predicaments, by providing valuable social, counselling and legal services.
I share the Deputy's sentiments. It is important for us to re-establish and renew our contacts in American cities. We normally have such contacts in New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and, to an extent, Los Angeles. I have received correspondence from other places such as San Antonio and Cleveland. It is important to encourage and motivate those who do business in both directions. Deputy Martin is aware that a significant number of American people are employed in Irish firms in the United States.
I agree with what the Deputy said in that regard. The issue of the repatriation of tax to the United States is not as live in that country as it was a number of years ago. The Deputy dealt with that matter when he was in government. It was of some concern that people assumed this country was somehow deemed to be a tax haven for certain purposes. I was glad that was cleared up at the time.
It is right to say we should prioritise the renewable E3 visa. It was assumed that the DREAM legislation would be passed by Congress, but that did not become a reality. It would be difficult to put it through now because of the change in the balance of representation there.
Rather than ring-fencing moneys as suggested by the Deputy, I am keen to ensure the things he mentioned actually happen. People tend to say funds should be ring-fenced for one purpose or another. The money provided through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for various purposes, including the provision of the social, legal and counselling services needed by young people, is very important. I would like it to be maintained because it is becoming more important than ever owing to the increase in the number of Irish people drifting out there. Those forced to go overseas sometimes carry problems which are exacerbated when they arrive in a new country. I share the sentiment that regardless of whether the moneys are ring-fenced, it is important that they are made available. We need to work with counselling services and other organisations which assist those who need support when away from home. I accept and share the sentiments expressed.
Bhí cuairt an Taoisigh go dtí na Stáit Aontaithe an-mhaith. Táimid buíoch dó as an obair an-mhaith a rinne sé sa tír sin. The Taoiseach had a very good visit to the United States where he did some very good work on behalf of citizens here. I particularly commend the approach he took to the International Fund for Ireland which affects Border counties on both parts of the island. I have lobbied many of those to whom the Taoiseach spoke on the issue of emigration reform, although I do not have his influence. I ask that this brú be maintained. Will the Taoiseach make it clear that he would like to see President Obama visit the North when he comes to this island? Perhaps he could stop in County Louth on his way to west Belfast.
I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach raised the issue of the undocumented Irish. During his discussions with various groups, did he get any sense that conditions were getting worse and the fear of the knock on the door in the middle of the night, followed by arrest and deportation, was growing? I am worried that the pathway that has been put in place to allow some people to obtain E3 visas does not assist tens of thousands of people who are living in the shadows. Many are not covered. While I am pleased that the Taoiseach raised the issue, is it possible for the Government to take a leading role in resolving it? The Taoiseach referred to bilateral agreements, etc. Surely measures could be taken to allow a more flexible approach to be taken to American visitors who come on holidays to this country. That would send a signal back to the United States in this respect. The fear I mentioned is growing in Irish communities in the United States. I remind the Taoiseach that at one stage an all-party group was working on this issue in the Dáil. If such a group were to be initiated again, perhaps by the Whips, does the Taoiseach think it would be helpful on this issue?
I accept that the all-party group played an important role in building bridges. The members of the group travelled to Washington and New York on a number of occasions to strike up new relationships with Congressmen and Senators. Its role was accepted on a cross-party basis. Although the group played a part, it did not work in the sense that the legislation it sought was not passed. It had a value in the sense that it motivated those who provided services for young Irish people abroad.
Deputy Adams spoke about the International Fund for Ireland and Northern Ireland. I had a good conversation with Senator Leahy. Members will be aware that the Obama budget provided that funding would continue to be made available to the International Fund for Ireland, but this proposal was removed by the Republican Party when it presented its view of the budget. The ensuing hiatus will end in the next ten days or so when the budget will actually go through. Senator Leahy has strong connections with Ireland. He is chairman of the Senate committee on appropriations, a very powerful position. I explained to him the value, as we see it, of keeping IFI funding alive not just for itself but also as a signal for leveraging further funding in Europe for disadvantaged and vulnerable areas. I think he understands that very well and while I cannot confirm what the appropriations committee will do, the case was made clearly to him and I hope it will happen.
In respect of President Obama visiting west Belfast, Derry or Antrim, this matter was also raised with me by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, MLA, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, MLA. The problem is that the President, under existing protocol, is not allowed to go to Northern Ireland without first visiting Britain. That is a protocol issue and I am not sure I have any control over it. If President Obama decided to go close to the Border, from a protocol perspective he is expected to go to London before travelling to Northern Ireland. From that point of view I do not have any control over the issue.
Nevertheless, I am glad President Obama is coming here and I hope the people of Ireland will give him a wonderful welcome and when he associates himself with part of his ancestry. I hope his visit will be an outstanding success and will build on the tourism and business opportunities it undoubtedly presents. When his itinerary is finally agreed, I hope he will have an opportunity to speak to the young people of this country about his hope and confidence for a new future in a world that is changing rapidly and in which many problems of a global magnitude cross his desk every day.