Tuesday, 14 November 2017
The Diaspora: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for outlining some of the Government's policies in respect of the Irish overseas. Given that the first policy paper in this area by any political party was published as recently as 2012, we can see where the issue was positioned in terms of political priorities. The fundamental reason for this lack of prioritisation is that the Irish abroad do not have a vote. People who have votes are listened to, while those who do not tend to be ignored. I thank the Minister of State for his comments on the forgotten Irish in Britain. The organisations that provide those people with a degree of support do receive some funding, but a lot more needs to be done for the generation who left in the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom did not get married, are now unemployed or retired and find themselves isolated in areas where communities of Irish no longer live and socialise.
The Minister of State also outlined the issues in regard to the undocumented Irish in the United States. I note he did not refer to the figure of 50,000 of which we hear so much. There is some dispute as to the exact numbers of undocumented Irish and there are difficulties in arriving at an accurate figure. However, the organisations working with undocumented Irish in the US are adamant the number is approximately 50,000. Senator Lawless and I would be delighted to share information on these matters with Deputy John Deasy, the Government's special envoy to the US Congress. Deputy Deasy has a great knowledge of Capitol Hill from his time working there and knows how the legislative process in Washington works. We all hope the undocumented Irish will be accommodated when some type of emigration Bill eventually goes through both Houses of Congress. Ciaran Staunton and the Irish Lobby for Emigration Reform worked hard to ensure Irish interests were reflected in the McCain-Kennedy Bill which nearly got through Congress. The subsequent legislation which went through the Senate but not the House of Representatives did allow for visas specifically for the Irish. A great deal of work remains to be done on that issue.
I am concerned that the Minister of State did not refer in his opening statement to the various initiatives that were put in place during the crisis and which now seem to have gone by the wayside. These include the Global Irish Parliamentarians Forum, which encouraged parliamentarians of Irish descent across the world, members of both national and regional parliaments, to come to Dublin. Senator Ó Clochartaigh and others attended the discussion that took place with those international parliamentarians in the Dáil Chamber. It was a great initiative, developed by the then Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, to connect Irish-affiliated decision makers around the world, but it has not been developed further. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, consider reviving that forum, as an annual or at least biennial event?
Another useful initiative was Ireland Reaching Out, based in the Minister of State's part of the world, which encouraged people, including those living in non-traditional tourist areas, to research their past, locate descendants of relatives who had left Ireland many years ago and invite those descendants back to see the home place. That type of initiative can be done relatively inexpensively but, again, it is not getting the Government support to allow it to flourish. ConnectIreland is another initiative that has not been adequately developed. The conclusion of the contract underpinning the programme was debated hotly in these Houses, with an acknowledgment by many that this was a worthwhile initiative which engaged members of the Irish diaspora and provided an outlet to allow them to contribute to economic development in this State. The programme was put in place during the crisis but IDA Ireland does not seem to want it and the Government seems unable to hold onto it. It continues, nevertheless, to provide jobs in areas where IDA Ireland does not traditionally look to secure employment opportunities. The Global Irish Economic Forum and the Global Irish Civic Forum are still there but, again, are no longer considered a priority because, now the crisis is over, we no longer need the diaspora. Of course, what we should be doing is engaging consistently with the Irish abroad, not just calling on them in our times of need. It comes back to the fundamental question of why the Irish overseas were ignored for so long. When I was appointed spokesperson for the diaspora for my party in 2012, it was the first such appointment in the history of party politics in Ireland. The lack of engagement by the political system with the Irish abroad is, as I said, because they do not have a vote.
I thank the Minister of State for outlining the issues in regard to the forthcoming presidential election. Next year we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of women securing the right to vote in this State, and this year is the 188th anniversary of Catholics obtaining that right. Forty-nine years ago, meanwhile, people marched in Derry for the right to vote. We are now talking about extending the franchise to citizens of this Republic living abroad.
The most fundamental right of citizens of any state is the right to participate in the democratic process. There are some 1.7 million Irish citizens living overseas who do not have the right to vote in elections here, not including the nearly 1.8 million living in the North who, under the Good Friday Agreement, are entitled to Irish citizenship and are, therefore, eligible to vote in elections here. We have the equivalent of the populations of the cities of Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Cork who, although citizens of this State, are not entitled to vote because they do not live within the boundaries of the State.
Nothing more clearly points to the fundamental unfairness of the current system than the fact that if one happens to be a degree holder from Trinity College or the National University of Ireland and living in Australia, one has the right to vote in a parliamentary election in Ireland, while another Irish person - a plumber, say - living in Australia or anywhere else abroad who did not attend one of those institutions does not have the same right. A true republic does not treat citizens unequally.
We had hoped there would be a right to vote in the upcoming presidential election for all Irish citizens regardless of where they live. We must ensure that change is implemented before the following election. I accept that bringing it about will necessitate a complicated process in terms of ensuring it is cost effective and also that it is a referendum which can be won. I was at the meeting of the civic forum where the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government outlined the complexities of the situation. We accept there are legal and technical issues, but many people in this country who have loved ones living in Australia, Britain and the United States would argue that those relatives should have the right to vote, at least to elect the first citizen of the State but also to have representation within this Parliament.What does the Government hope to do with initiatives such as ConnectIreland, Ireland Reaching Out, the Global Irish Civic Forum and the Global Irish Parliamentarians Forum? They appear to have been put on the shelf now that the crisis is deemed to be over and the Irish overseas are no longer required. That is not the way we should treat Irish citizens overseas.