Seanad debates

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

2:30 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá mé an-sásta go bhfuil muid ag plé ceist na saoránach Éireannach thar lear. Is ceist fíor-thábhachtach í. Tá sé thar am go mbeadh muid á plé arís. I would like to take a different tack to my colleague, Senator Daly, whom I often agree with on issues on the diaspora. He spoke about a lack of political engagement with the diaspora. I would not say that about our own party. Sinn Féin has a long and proud history of engaging with our diaspora for scores of years and we will continue to do so. It has been a really important part of the work that we do and I have been the spokesperson for the diaspora for the last number of years. I have engaged, as have others from across the House, and I think it is really important that people from across the Houses do engage on a regular basis with our diaspora wherever they may be.

I might ask about the budgetary issue first. The Minister of State's statement refers to the overall current expenditure budget for programme A, "Our People", increasing by €2.2 million from €69.6 million in 2017 to €71.8 million in 2018. I am raising this because there is a €5.5 million differential between that figure and the figure published by Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe on budget day. I refer to page 191 of the Budget Expenditure Report, which is the report of the Minister's Department, under subhead 1, "To serve our people at home and abroad and promote reconciliation and cooperation". The Vote for 2017 for that was €79.044 million and in 2018 it was €77 million. Now I was not the smartest kid in our school but the difference between €79 million and €77 million in the calculation that I have is €1.7 million less.

Looking at the capital expenditure on page 221, there is an almost €4 million differential from €9,443,000 down to €5,500,000. There is a huge disparity between the figures the Minister of State is putting to the House today and the figures that were put to us on budget day. Either the budget has decreased or the Minister of State's figures are wrong. Could he clarify the situation? If the Minister of State is saying that figure is correct, there seems to be about a €5.497 million differential between the figures Deputy Donohoe gave us on budget day and the figures the Minister of State is now giving us for expenditure under that Vote. Clarity on that would be welcome.

I also want to commend the presentation we had in the Houses recently from the organisation Votes For Irish Citizens Abroad. It put its position paper to these Houses in a very good presentation and Senator Black hosted that meeting. It was very good. There is huge frustration with the lack of urgency around voting rights for the diaspora. From the conversations I have with them, they feel that in many cases presidential voting rights are a first step in this process but that even at that it may be seven or eight years before they get the chance to vindicate their right to vote. They are frustrated about that.

Our country has such a significant history of emigration yet compare the rights of our diaspora to other countries across the globe who give voting rights to their citizens in national elections. Those concerns are shared by the OECD and the European Commission. The European Commission has expressed concern that Ireland's disenfranchising of its citizens living abroad runs contrary to the principle of freedom of movement within the European Union. On one hand we cannot be arguing for freedom of movement for all of our citizens when we are not allowing our own Irish citizens to enjoy that principle as well when it comes to voting rights.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs has called on the Government to accept the principle that Irish citizens living abroad should have the right to vote in elections. The Constitutional Convention has recommended that right since 2013 but we are still waiting for that to be brought to fruition. I would like to push the boat a little and ask the Minister for his opinion. We have the possibility in the future of Irish citizens voting in a Dáil election. What is the Department's position on that? A strong case can be put forward that that should at some stage in future be put forward. Even closer to home is the issue of referenda. We saw the Home to Vote movement demonstrated a huge level of interest recently in referenda in this country and in emigrants retaining a voice and a vote. We are told there are going to be a number of referenda coming up next year. I am sure many emigrants would like to vote.What is the Government's position on referenda? Is there any cognisance whatsoever that the right in this regard should be vindicated?

Another very interesting point raised by Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad in its presentation was that, until now, Europeans living in the United Kingdom could vote for British MEPs but that, after Brexit, Irish people in the United Kingdom will become unrepresented EU citizens. Other countries will facilitate their emigrants in voting for their MEPs. For example, German citizens living in the United Kingdom will vote for German MEPs after Brexit. What plans has the Irish Government? What discussions are being held at EU level in regard to Brexit to vindicate the rights of Irish citizens living in Britain who would like to vote in EU elections?

I attended the very good seminar in Galway run by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. Mr. Ciarán Staunton and Ms Karen McHugh were in attendance, as was the Minister of State. A very interesting A to Z of issues comprised part of the lobby's presentation. Although the Minister of State raised one or two of the issues raised at the seminar, a considerable number have been left unmentioned or are unresolved. The organisation talked about the administrative difficulties and delays across various Departments and official agencies. It talked about issues related to banks and challenges that arise when trying to open a bank account abroad. It stated that although circumstances are improving, they are still very difficult. Facilities where an existing non-resident account is set up while holidaying in Ireland can make the process of converting to a resident account when one moves much easier. The organisation states that in order to obtain a loan, a recent credit history is required. A US credit history, for example, is not acceptable, however. This is an issue faced by people on a very practical level.

The organisation also raised the issue of uncertainty over access to health care under EU regulations among people based in Britain after Brexit. It talked about access to secondary social protection entitlements, such as household benefits, pension, travel rights, passport controls and border issues. These are also related to Brexit. The Minister of State might address them.

I welcome the fact that the Government is in discussions with the car insurance companies but we really need action from them rather than just discussion. This is because, in many cases, they do not recognise a no claims bonus earned abroad. They really are screwing Irish citizens with absolutely extortionate premiums when they try to come home. Issues arise over child care, as for many Irish citizens living here.

There are issues associated with driving licences. In particular, a driving licence from the United States is not recognised or allowed to be exchanged for an Irish one. Therefore, people must re-sit the test and take the required number of lessons. This was a point of considerable discussion at the seminar we attended. The Minister of State might update us on what is happening in this regard. I am told the expiry of an Irish driving licence after ten years and the fact that one must attend in person to renew one comprise an issue. I appreciate steps are being taken to address this. The Minister of State might elaborate on this.

International fees for children of Irish-born parents, unless they have been in Ireland for over three years, presents a significant difficulty. The universities seem to have been quite inflexible to date on this. What can be done in this regard?

Farming entitlements are not available to returning emigrants under the national reserve. Issues were raised over family and social support systems in that they comprise one of the main reasons people come home. This is important.

The organisation addressed many other issues, as the Minister of State is quite well aware. These include housing, obtaining a mortgage on coming home, nursing care, difficulties registering with a general practitioner, etc. There was a sense at the seminar that there is a considerable number of issues to be addressed. I acknowledge that a group has been tasked with examining this. When does the Minister of State expect the report to be issued? How quickly will it be acted upon? Which Departments have been brought together to address the issues? In fairness, we have been raising these for the past four or five years and we have seen very few of them being addressed. I would welcome a comment on this and another soon after Christmas, if possible.


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