Seanad debates

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

2:30 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank each and every Member for his or her impassioned contribution. It is more than apparent that each and every Member has a significant interest in this issue and that he or she shares our common objective to be as supportive as we possibly can be of the diaspora, the global Irish.

I will quickly go through the contributions made in which a couple of recurring themes were apparent. If I refer to only one speaker, it does not mean that I was not listening respectfully to the contributions made by others on the same matter.

I congratulate Senator Mark Daly on being a very vocal advocate for the diaspora for many years. He is correct to point to the ongoing need to support in particular the forgotten and isolated Irish, especially in the United Kingdom. From my experience of working with the Irish abroad unit and allocating the budget within the €12 million emigrant support programme, it is a very significant objective of the officials in the unit and the embassy in London, in particular, to ensure they are not forgotten but very much nurtured and supported. Whenever we support an Irish community organisation, no matter in what city it is located in the United Kingdom, a very significant part of the programme is supporting isolated and, in particular, elderly Irish emigrants who left this country many years ago and made a significant contribution through the moneys they remitted to this country. They must not be forgotten. I assure Senator Mark Daly that it is very much at the heart of the work done by the Department.

To be frank, I do not really care whether the diaspora number 11,000, 15,000 or 50,000, as the numbers do not really matter; what matters is the ongoing engagement through Senator Billy Lawless who has done extraordinary work in that regard. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney; Deputy John Deasy and I use every opportunity to continue to make the case for some solution that will allow the issues to be resolved for the undocumented. They form a small minority within an overall figure of 11 million people across the United States and it is difficult to see how we can extract a solution that will pertain to them alone, but we are doing everything we can. I assure the Senator that that engagement will continue for as long as it takes.

Senator Mark Daly also mentioned Ireland Reaching Out as an initiative we should support. We do support and have supported it for the past six years and will continue to do so. I very much appreciate the work done by its founder, Mr. Mike Feerick, and others on the board. The model they are adopting is very interesting. One or two speakers referred to the fact that engaging with the diaspora worldwide was about much more than attending St. Patrick's Day parades and giving a congratulatory pat on the back to Irish emigrant organisations. It is also about engaging with the diaspora at an individual level, one by one. That is what the Ireland Reaching Out programme is especially successful at doing.

It is interesting to note that in a recent survey carried out on behalf of the Department and administered through the IrishCentral news site we surveyed about 3,500 members of the diaspora across the United States, of whom a total of 69% said they considered themselves to be Irish but did not engage in any shape or manner with any Irish organisation in their local community, town or city. There are thousands, if not millions, of people, in particular in the United States, who do not feel any real affinity with a local community organisation, yet they feel Irish. We need to find to find some mechanism to connect with them in a more meaningful manner.

Senator Mark Daly referred to the fact that it had been said that as the crisis was over, we did not need the diaspora any more. That is very much not the case and it has never been the case. Deputy Enda Kenny was the first Taoiseach ever to appoint a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora in Jimmy Deenihan and it continued under the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. The new Taoiseach has appointed me to that role. He has repeatedly used the phrase "global Irish nation" and referred to the fact that we need to develop a very strong sense of the community that extends far beyond this island on the edge of Europe.

Senator Billy Lawless mentioned the referendum on a right to vote in presidential elections and how important it was to build a sense of the global Irish community. The referendum will be held in the shortest possible timeframe. It is important to point out that it would be physically impossible to provide for an opportunity to vote in a presidential election any sooner than the election of 2025 because of the intricacies of the mechanics involved. It would be impossible to do so within a shorter timeframe.

Senator Billy Lawless also mentioned that it was important to continue to engage with the diaspora beyond the intergovernmental and corporate engagement we have had in the past and to somehow drill down to engage with each member of the diaspora on an individual basis. I commend the Senator for the very important work he has done. The very fact that he was appointed by the Taoiseach to the role of spokesperson for the diaspora in the national Parliament is indicative of how precious this engagement remains to the Government.

Senator Neale Richmond pointed out that the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, had appointed the first Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. He also asked for more details of the Back for Business initiative. It is a very exciting one in that it acknowledges that a large majority of the people who are returning to Ireland are doing so on the basis that they have a good business idea which they wish to develop in this country. We are taking 48 returned emigrants or people who will be returning in the coming months and partnering them with very successful entrepreneurs who have founded and developed very successful businesses here, all of whom are involved on a voluntary basis. It is taking the seed of an idea emanating from an entrepreneurial returning emigrant and nurturing and supporting them to develop the idea in an Irish context.

Senator Billy Lawless referred to the challenges posed by Brexit, in particular in respect of the common travel area agreement which was in place long before the European Union ever existed. The retention of the common travel area between the United Kingdom and Ireland is very much at the heart of our Brexit negotiations and will remain so.

To be frank, as he might understand, when Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh issued his press statement in which he said there had been a reduction in the budget for initiatives for the diaspora, I was somewhat taken aback and concerned. If it was the case that we were setting out to reduce the budget for the emigrant support programme, that discussion would have taken place, but I assure the Senator that it did not.I will clarify this with my officials tomorrow and send the Senator an email. Those are the figures I have and they indicate a significant increase in the programme aid which covers our emigrant support programme. I do not know how that anomaly has arisen. There is no way a discussion would have taken place to deliberately reduce our emigrant support programme when the needs of our emigrants internationally are increasing all the time and we have the resources to support them in a much more effective way. Again, I will check those figures for the Senator.


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