Tuesday, 14 November 2017
The Diaspora: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the importance the Government places on the diaspora, or global Irish. I have worked in this important area since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development. Those present who know me well will be aware that I have a deep personal commitment to the global Irish. I am passionate about engaging and connecting with them and providing support and assistance for them where required. Since my appointment I have been working for and with our communities abroad. I have met various groups and organisations in Ireland, London, Leeds, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Tanzania and South Africa. I have been struck by the vibrancy and commitment of our communities abroad and the individuals, young and old, who do such incredible work in sustaining and growing those communities.
There is a strong commitment to our global nation which is shared by many, if not all, of my colleagues present. I will include in my remarks updates on several issues to do with the diaspora that Senators have raised previously with me and my predecessors.These issues include the emigrant support programme, returning emigrants and the barriers to returning, voting rights in presidential elections and our undocumented citizens in the United States.
Through the emigrant support programme, the Department provides almost €12 million to Irish organisations abroad each year, which is a tangible expression of the strong and enduring commitment of the Government and the Irish public to the global Irish. Our priority continues to be supporting the most vulnerable members of our community abroad, with 70% of funding going to organisations which provide front-line welfare services. I have seen the real difference that this funding makes in the lives of our people abroad. Recently in London I met representatives of the very impressive array of organisations across Britain who receive emigrant support programme funding. I would like to take the opportunity once again to commend the contribution of such organisations, their workers and volunteers in sustaining and supporting vibrant Irish communities across the world. Our relationship with the diaspora goes far beyond welfare. We also provide support for the many other aspects of Irish culture that bind us, including music, sport, business and cultural networks and the Irish language.
Our support is not just a question of funding. The emigrant support programme also nurtures a wider sense of connection to home and reaffirms the sense among Irish people abroad that we really value them. In this regard, I was extremely concerned at incorrect suggestions recently that the Government had somehow cut our funding to the Irish abroad in the budget. It is important that I highlight the correct position to confirm that the Department's overall current expenditure budget for Programme A: Our People, which covers the diaspora and the emigrant support programme in general, has actually increased by €2.2 million from €69.6 million in 2017 to €71.8 million in 2018. Not only has the Government not cut funding for our diaspora this year but also we are delivering better, more innovative services that benefit our citizens at home and abroad. For example, since March of this year citizens can renew their passports online. In the case of citizens abroad, this has reduced processing time from a number of weeks to ten days plus postage time to wherever the applicant is located. At the moment the average processing time is four to five days, and more than 100,000 passports and passport cards have been already delivered. This commitment to innovation in the delivery of improved customer service was recognised in last week's customer experience insights, CXI, survey which placed the passport service as the top ranked Irish public sector in terms of customer experience.
In May, the Department hosted the second Global Irish Civic Forum at Dublin Castle, which several Senators also attended. This was an extremely important opportunity for the Government to hear from the global Irish and to get their input to inform future policy development. One key theme to emerge at the civic forum was youth engagement, and this will be a priority area for the emigrant support programme next year.
In Global Irish, Ireland's diaspora policy, the Government committed to work to facilitate the return of Irish people living abroad who wish to return to live in Ireland. The Government continues to deliver to ensure the economic conditions which will allow those who have left Ireland return, should they wish to do so. Separately, significant funding and support is also provided by the Department to support returning citizens. Over the past decade more than €4 million has been allocated to Irish organisations working with returning emigrants. Through chairing the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad, I have been both working to ensure joined-up delivery of the Government's diaspora policy and examining issues affecting the Irish abroad and those wishing to return. Addressing these so-called barriers or any other disproportionate administrative burdens negatively affecting Irish emigrants who wish to return to live in Ireland remains a high priority for me. I have also commissioned an independent socio-economic report outlining what can be done to reduce red tape and overcome other obstacles facing returning emigrants. This report will inform the work of the committee into next year. In addition, since my appointment I have met Crosscare Migrant Project and Safe Home Ireland, both of which are engaged in this area. I took part, with Senator Lawless, in a very useful forum on that issue in Galway, organised by Ciaran Staunton, and I have had several meetings with the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland and Insurance Ireland on making practical improvements regarding mortgage and insurance difficulties being reported by returning emigrants. Earlier today I met again with Insurance Ireland and I am glad to report that car insurance is one priority area on which significant practical progress has been made to facilitate industry recognition of safe driving records abroad for the benefit of those who have lived abroad.In addition to working to ease difficulties, my Department is always looking for new and innovative ways to assist Irish people abroad and those returning. I recently launched Back for Business, an exciting new initiative to support entrepreneurial activity among recently returned immigrants. A period spent living abroad increases entrepreneurial inclination. However, time spent out of the country can often result in the loss of local knowledge, contacts and networks. Back for Business is designed to bridge that gap. We have had a very strong response from interested applicants. The programme will begin later this month. Importantly for me as a representative of a rural constituency in the west, it will have a very strong regional dimension. Returning immigrant entrepreneurs have a very important contribution to make to make to communities across the country, not just in our main cities.
Voting rights is an issue many Senators are interested in and active on. Together with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, I am strongly committed to extending the right to vote in presidential elections to citizens outside the State. This will be another tangible expression of our commitment to ongoing engagement with the global Irish.
In September, the Taoiseach gave indicative timelines for a number of upcoming referendums, with the referendum on voting rights now likely to take place in the summer of 2019, concurrent with the local and European elections. That gives us a very important timeline to work towards. I am in regular contact with Senator Billy Lawless and others who are very active on this issue. Significant work is ongoing at official level between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, my Department and other Departments, given the complexity of some of the issues involved
There is general acceptance that even if a referendum was held immediately and passed, it would not be feasible to have comprehensive arrangements in place for an extension of the franchise to have effect for the upcoming presidential election to be held before 11 November 2018. This will require, among other things, modernisation of the voter registration process and the introduction of arrangements to facilitate those eligible to vote to exercise that franchise from outside the State.
In this regard, the Government has agreed that work should commence to effect improvements in the process with the registration of voters. Preliminary work has commenced on the modernisation of the voter registration process, which will examine all aspects of voter registration, including the provision of registration information and practical experience from other countries which already provide voting arrangements for non-resident citizens.
On the issue of undocumented citizens in the US, the Government’s objectives remain constant, namely, to achieve relief for the undocumented and to facilitate greater pathways for legal
migration to the United States. We do not, however, underestimate the size of the challenge. This policy area has been a deeply divisive issue within the US political system for decades, with pronounced disagreement, even within the same political parties, on the best way to deal with an issue which directly affects over 11 million undocumented people in the US.
The Government has consistently engaged with both parties in a bipartisan way to address our longstanding concerns and this continues to be our approach. During our visit to New York for the UN General Assembly in September, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I met representatives of the four Irish immigration centres in the region and a representative of the US-wide Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, CIIC. It gave me the opportunity to hear from those working at the coal face with the undocumented Irish as to the current situation and the problems they are encountering.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, further emphasised the Government’s commitment to this issue when he travelled to Washington DC from 3 to 5 October and met senior members of the US Administration and members of Congress, including the Congressional Friends of Ireland group. It was also useful that Deputy John Deasy, the Government’s special envoy to the US Congress on the undocumented, who was appointed by the Taoiseach to that position last June, was able to accompany the Minister to those meetings. His appointment was another important statement of our intent and seriousness regarding this issue.
Our ambassador in Washington DC, Dan Mulhall, hosted a round table discussion on the issue on 25 October with key stakeholders, including the CIIC, which brought together Irish immigration centres from across the US. Our embassy in Washington DC and our six consulates across the US continue to work continuously with Irish immigration centres in order to provide vital services to the undocumented in the United States.
The Government remains wholly committed to working with the US authorities to resolve the plight of the undocumented Irish. The Government will continue to articulate to the US authorities our keen interest in this area while respecting the right of the United States to set its own immigration policies. I can assure the House of the Government’s continued commitment to pursuing these matters on behalf of those Irish citizens in the US who are affected, and our continued openness to routes and policies which will provide relief for the undocumented.In addition, through the emigrant support programme, we continue to support welfare and advice services that are uniquely tailored to the needs of the undocumented.
The Government's strong commitment to engage with and provide support for our communities abroad remains. I will continue to advocate and deliver for our diaspora across this wide range of areas and issues. I am particularly committed to increasing our communication with the global Irish. We recently introduced a more dynamic Global Irish newsletter, and I ask for Members' assistance and support in publicising the Global Irish Twitter handle and the Global Irish hub website. These are all important modern resources that help us to keep our diaspora informed on current issues of interest, and encourage them to keep us informed. Significant global digital networks are being established among our diaspora and it is vital that we in the Oireachtas are able to communicate with them in that particular sphere and to do so in a meaningful way that allows them to engage with us and feel supported no matter where in the world they reside. Social media has a vital role to play more broadly in keeping the Irish abroad culturally connected with home. That is an area we must focus on and exploit in the future. A recent survey of the Irish diaspora in the United States, based on a representative sample of some 3,500 people, indicated conclusively that the main method of communication for that cohort is through social media. That is how Irish people in the US and elsewhere interact with each other and it is vital that we are capable of and proactive in finding new ways to engage them on that platform.