Tuesday, 14 November 2017
The Diaspora: Statements
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I am speaking on behalf of Fine Gael as its spokesperson on foreign affairs cannot be present. He is leading the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and asked me to convey his apologies. He also gave me a few ideas for my contribution.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for the zeal with which he has taken to his new office. I have followed him extensively and he leaves a favourable impression everywhere he goes both of himself and, most importantly, the country. This demonstrates the vital importance of his office since it was established by the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, in the last Government.
I also thank Senator Billy Lawless for his work. His appointment as spokesperson for the diaspora has been immensely valuable not only in the debate we are having but also in dealing with the many issues the world is experiencing, be it the election of Donald Trump in America, the Brexit vote or how Ireland as a small island nation is seeking to reposition itself on the global stage. I had the good fortune to visit Chicago just over a year ago for a certain rugby match and saw the work Senator Billy Lawless was doing, both formally and informally, in the Irish community in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States. It is a credit to him and the previous Taoiseach that he is in the House to contribute to this important debate.
There is much to discuss. To a large extent, Senators Billy Lawless and Mark Daly focused on the importance of the forthcoming referendum. While I appreciate its importance and agree with many of the comments made, given that the issues involved have been covered in such depth, I will focus on some other issues. The Minister of State has also commented on the matter in detail and probably will do so again in his reply. It is not that I take the issue lightly, but there is much else to discuss. Much of this feeds into overall Government policy on foreign affairs and our place in the world. It is exciting and timely that the Taoiseach has said his ambition for the Government and the country - it is not a party political matter - is to make Ireland an island at the centre of the world. That is vital when so much of the world is turning its back on other countries, populations abroad and new populations coming into their countries and embracing what are disgusting policies of rabid nationalism and protectionism. Ireland should be bold and brave enough to state it sees itself playing a much more important role in the world, not just for our own selfish interests and those of the Irish abroad but also for the nations of the world and the nations with which we seek to work across Europe and beyond. The Minister of State raised a number of issues which feed into this and on which I will ask the him to elaborate further.The first one is the Back For Business campaign. Now that we have come out of the depths of the recession and austerity years we are not where we need to be as an island. The way Ireland and our economy will continue to grow is as a small trading nation open to global markets, prepared to utilise our diaspora, but also to make the most of our diaspora, to be welcoming and open and to make this a warm place for our diaspora to return to do business but also to use our diaspora as key links to developing existing markets be they the US or Australia. I know an extensive trade mission accompanied the presidential visit to Australia and New Zealand last month but we must also look into new markets. The Minister mentioned the Irish diaspora in South Africa. It is a small, recent but powerful diaspora. There are also growing levels of Irish diaspora in countries where Europe and the EU have identified potential trading agreements. Ireland plays a vital role in those markets in South-East Asia with Japan, Malaysia or Vietnam or indeed into the Mercosur regions where there is a little bit of controversy but it is worth noting that the largest Irish diaspora of a non-English speaking country is of course Argentina. There is much to look into there and there is much that we can find common traits with to make sure that any future trading agreements between the Mercosur region, looking at Argentina and Brazil, and the EU is done so that it does not damage Ireland's indigenous producers but that we use those ties to the best advantage.
When it comes to the returning emigrants programme, I would like the Minister to go into a bit more depth about some of the important things he mentioned such as car insurance, and indeed some social needs but also the economic tools that are available for that entrepreneurial spirit, the real graft. How are we bringing together the various Government agencies, including the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, but also the local enterprise offices and those on a more local level? It might not necessarily be people looking to bring 200 or 2,000 jobs to parts of this country but maybe two jobs or one job or they themselves seeking to do business in their home place.
One country that maybe did not get the necessary attention, even though I did mention it when we had this debate with the Minister of State's predecessor, Deputy McHugh, is the Irish community in the United Kingdom. We must put together a really meaty strategy on the Irish community, be they recent emigrants who went over in the last couple of years for economic reasons, those who went over in the 1980s or indeed my uncles and aunts who went over in the 1950s and 1960s and moved into very different communities across the UK. The Minister of State rightly mentioned the centre in Leeds that he visited. I believe London was the first place the Minister of State visited in his new role. That is really heartening because post-Brexit Ireland is now going to have to develop new and different relationships with the UK.
Where we are at a distinct advantage to the other 26 remaining EU member states is that we have formal and informal ties with the UK. It is vitally important that we maintain those ties that have developed and changed in the last 20 years, all the economic and social ties that we have at the moment and the really distinct relationships. We cannot let Brexit jeopardise that. I was part of an Oireachtas delegation to Westminster last Monday organised by my colleague, Senator Feighan, where we met quite a number of the Irish community predominantly in London but uniquely the Irish community within Westminster. A third of the Conservative Party at Westminster, be they Lords or MPs, have an element of Irish heritage and 50% of the Labour Party. I had a great conversation with Conor McGinn MP, born in south Armagh, the son of a Sinn Fein councillor. It does not get much more Irish than that.
When one looks to the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, my own uncle was a Liberal Democrat councillor for 20 years in Surrey. We need to use those informal political ties to our advantage to make sure that Brexit is not too big a challenge for the new developing Irish-UK relations. I believe that our diaspora should be embraced. In return we must look at new systems to make sure that the British diaspora on this island, the 100,000 British citizens living in the Twenty-six Counties who do not qualify for an Irish passport, can retain and remain in Ireland with their families. Maybe that is part of a wider discussion.
I would like to conclude because I know there are other speakers to come in. I want to underline the importance of this debate in every possible angle and every Department, whether in education or health. I encourage the Government to continue its work. I look forward to the upcoming debates and to the debate over the referendum. I commend all the work that the Government is doing.