Dáil debates

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Diaspora Issues

8:15 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I am thankful for being facilitated in this short debate this evening. In the context of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, after almost two difficult years, it is appropriate that we should focus on the issue of the Irish diaspora. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the House. I wish him a renewed vigour in the context of his work now, considering he probably was not engaged in the type of travel over the past two years that he might otherwise have been in his role. I wish him a successful and busy year in 2022.

Similarly, the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the USA brought a renewed focus on the special relationship between Ireland and America. The history between our two countries is rich and enduring. First and foremost, it is a people-to-people relationship. It is also complemented, however, by deep political ties and a vibrant political relationship from local authority level, here and in the US, right up to the White House. Over the years, millions of Irish people emigrated to the USA. They eked out livelihoods there and built homes. More than 10% of the population of the USA, almost 33 million people, claims to be of Irish descent. Pre-Covid-19, more than 1.5 million people visited Ireland annually from the United States for tourism and business or to visit relatives. The strong people-to-people contacts I mentioned are also accompanied by dynamic economic and social contacts. Some 800 US firms across Ireland directly employ 180,000 people. The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, ACCI, states that another 140,000 are indirectly employed. Equally, more than €3 billion annually is added to the Irish Exchequer in this regard.

Therefore, what I want to discuss with the Minister of State and ask him to examine are the possible elements of an enhanced package of measures on immigration, which I trust he would examine in conjunction with his Government colleagues. I refer to a new programme, or an extension of existing programmes, to those who wish to live, perhaps work or even retire to Ireland. It would be targeted specifically at US citizens. I am calling for a package of measures for those demonstrating real and close ties to Ireland. They might be joined by a spouse or partner.

There would, of course, be conditions. The people concerned would have to be of good character. There would also be certain income criteria to be met. Equally, there would be a pathway to citizenship after several years. Let us look at the success, for example, of the various schemes which run for a shorter time, such as the Fulbright programme. What I would like to see is a bespoke residency scheme for US nationals. The programme would be US-specific and not available for the nationals of any other country.

It would of course have to comply with EU law. It would require amendments to our employment work permit schemes. We are going to be doing that in any event having regard to the shortage. I ask the Minister of State to give this appropriate consideration. Perhaps between now and the summer we can see how best we can enhance and develop that really important relationship.

8:25 pm

Photo of Colm BrophyColm Brophy (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this topic and I pay tribute to the work which he undertook, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and as Minister for Justice and Equality, in regard to facilitating a whole-of-government response to issues affecting the Irish abroad, whether in the context of recent emigrants or the broader diaspora issues he is raising this evening, particularly with regard to those seeking to return to Ireland.

The Government's new five-year diaspora strategy, which I had the honour to launch in November 2020, owes much to the vision and strategic thinking underlying his work. A key pillar of that strategy is our people. This includes our goal to "empower vibrant Diaspora communities that are connected to each other and to Ireland" and the related commitment to be a voice for Irish citizens who wish to find pathways to legal migration, especially the undocumented in the US. The proposal which the Deputy has raised this evening touches on both of those areas. Under the existing scheme, which was developed by the Department of Justice under the Deputy's direction, the financial threshold for American citizens looking to take up residency in Ireland was set at €50,000 per person per annum, in addition to proof that they would have access to sufficient funds to cover any unforeseen major expenses. To a large extent, this adjustment of the threshold has meant that the majority of Irish Americans without Irish citizenship who are looking to retire to Ireland are in a much better position to do so.

The reciprocal agreements that we have with the US in regard to taxation and social security are another important aspect that needs to be borne in mind. As Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, I am supportive of looking at how that scheme has operated to see whether additional modifications could appropriately be made to improve it further. I agree with the Deputy that there is particular scope to look at how we improve the provision of relevant information and communication in countries such as the US that are home to significant Irish diaspora communities about these opportunities, whether this relates to retiring to Ireland, returning here to set up a business, which is a programme for which we have doubled the funding this year - it is a very successful programme and we are hoping for even more success out of it this year - or to students travelling under the working holiday authorisation.

Irish America - comprising those who are Irish born, those who claim Irish ancestry and those with a strong affinity for Ireland - is of tremendous importance to Ireland. As the Deputy knows, we work closely with grassroots organisations and community groups right across America in support of Irish citizens. In 2021, my Department provided more than €4.22 million from the Government's emigrant support fund to support diaspora organisations in the US. This represents one third of our total expenditure on emigrant support. I had the opportunity to be in New York to announce some of that funding. Our relationship with our diaspora and emigrants in the US, as the Deputy said, is greatly important. The Deputy mentioned Covid. A dedicated Covid response fund was also set up to help these organisations meet the needs of those who are most vulnerable, including the undocumented.

In recent years, we have also expanded and reinforced our network of diplomatic missions across the US, including opening a new consulate general in Los Angeles in 2018. We will be opening a new consulate general in Miami this summer. We have established Ireland House operations in New York, Austin and San Francisco to provide for a team Ireland footprint. This includes not just our diplomatic but our economic State agencies. We have also worked closely with Culture Ireland to deepen our cultural ties by appointing dedicated cultural officers in the consulates in New York and Los Angeles.

Returning Irish emigrants or those of Irish heritage bring with them skills and knowledge gained abroad that help develop both the national and local economies. They help maintain and strengthen bonds between the Irish at home and abroad. Thankfully, as we move away from the restrictions, we will have a greater opportunity to engage with our diaspora.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for the very positive nature of his reply. I look forward to sitting down with him over the coming weeks to see how best we can fine-tune a new and enhanced scheme. I ask him to engage in discussions with his colleagues, the Minister for Justice, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Taoiseach, who will embark on what I trust will be a very positive visit to the US on St. Patrick's Day.

Tomorrow ambassador-designate Claire Cronin arrives from the US to our shores. She arrives here as a friend of Ireland. She arrives here with a very active and engaging programme of work. I wish her well in that regard. I also acknowledge the announcement over the past few days of the reintroduction of the very successful J1 visa scheme, which has facilitated in excess of 150,000 Irish students and young professionals who undertake summer work on an annual basis, and travel programme. I acknowledge the Fulbright Commission scheme supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs under the auspices of the Minister.

This is a two-way relationship that benefits both our countries, the US and Ireland. It is time that we should look at all of the schemes. I understand there are about nine different schemes for people travelling from the US to Ireland. It is important that we put together an enhanced scheme which would facilitate a more long-term arrangement, a long-term residency for people who are currently citizens of the US and who want to settle here in Ireland. The least we should provide them is a form of long-term residency and security.

Photo of Colm BrophyColm Brophy (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for those remarks. I would agree very much with what he is saying. The thrust of my work since I became a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora has been to strengthen and deepen the ties with our diaspora. There is a need for that recognition that the Deputy talked about that it is very much a two-way street. We must deepen and strengthen ties with our diaspora but we must also be willing and open to bringing our diaspora back and to recognising that there is a large percentage of people who want to come to Ireland for many reasons, to study, work or live, who are part of that diaspora. We have benefited greatly from our diaspora. I do not think there is another country in the world with a comparable diaspora to that which we have and that has enjoyed the benefits of its diaspora in the way we have.

It is very welcome that the changing situation in respect of Covid-19 and the pandemic will ensure that we will have an opportunity for a really strong engagement starting with St. Patrick's Day and the engagement right across that day not just with the US authorities but with the diaspora and with civil society in the US. We are going to be building on that. I will be in the US on a number of occasions throughout the year to strengthen and deepen those ties with our diaspora group. It is critical for that in terms of the new diaspora strategy that I mentioned earlier in my opening remarks, that is all about recognising the deepening of our ties, reaching out to elements of the diaspora that we have not engaged with in the past and particularly that facilitation of people, be they Irish born or part of our greater affinity diaspora, who want to engage with Ireland in terms of being able to come here and experience what Ireland is all about. We will very much be working in that area. I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter.