Tuesday, 14 November 2017
The Diaspora: Statements
The Senator spoke about our people in UK who are concerned about their opportunities to continue having a vote in the EU elections following Brexit. I agree with Brian Hayes MEP, who spoke in London recently and outlined his opinion that we need to find a mechanism for Irish citizens resident in the UK to continue to have a say in EU elections and to be able to elect an Irish MEP or MEPs.
On the difficulties around returning emigrants, there is an interdepartmental committee which meets again tomorrow, and Senator Lawless and I will attend that meeting. The committee is seeking to address all of the administrative and bureaucratic issues which the Senator rightly points out have been an issue in the past. One by one, they are being resolved. For example, the issue around driving licences was raised by Senator Conway. We have a licence exchange agreement with the whole of the EU, so if one did one's test in London, that licence can very easily be swapped for an Irish licence. It is for jurisdictions like the US and Australia that this is particularly difficult because there are significant differences, particularly in terms of driving standards across the US, and there are also very convoluted licence exchange agreements within the US states. For example, if one was to make a concession to the state of Illinois tomorrow morning that we would have a formal licence exchange agreement on the basis that its driving standards are as good as ours, we would then have to consider what other states it has an interstate licence agreement exchange with, and whether they share the same standards as this country. It is very complex but we are working to address that as best we can.
The whole issue of international fees for our students is an area about which I am very concerned. So far, no solution is apparent to us, and I will explain why. If we, tomorrow morning, as I think we should, were to extend the right to the child of every Irish citizen across the world to study at third level in Ireland at the same cost as a child based here in Ireland, we would have to extend that same right to the children of every single EU citizen across the world. That is the law as it applies at this point in time. I am meeting with the Department of Education and Skills the day after tomorrow to discuss this further and to see if there is any way within EU law to allow for some sort of support structure to be put in place. It would be exceptionally important to have the children of our citizens abroad coming to Ireland and bringing with them their experience of living in another country and all of the positives associated with that, studying in Ireland and then becoming very powerful and effective ambassadors for us worldwide. The benefit to Ireland as a whole would be significant if we could find a way to do that.
On the area around the national reserve, it is my understanding that the criteria applying for entry into and support from the national reserve are applied equitably across the whole country, be it to a person resident here or a person coming in from abroad, and there is no significant requirement or burden placed upon returning emigrants. They simply have to comply with the same criteria as would be necessary for somebody resident in Ireland.
Senator Black was right to point out that our Irish Abroad unit has been very effective in supporting our people internationally, particularly in partnership with our embassies. I am seeing repeated evidence of that as I visit our embassies around the world. They are exceptionally competent at building a strong sense of community across the cities and countries in which they are located. Something the Senator may be interested to hear about, because of her exceptional talent and track record in music, is Ireland's Other Voices, Philip King's extraordinary initiative, which is now essentially going on tour, which I am delighted to see. We have had Other Voices Austin, Other Voices Belfast and Other Voices Berlin. The Irish ambassador in Berlin remarked recently that at an Other Voices event in Berlin targeting the Irish community, 300 Irish people turned up who the ambassador simply did not know existed. We need to acknowledge that there is a whole new cohort of our diaspora for whom that cultural engagement is exceptionally important, and it might not be in the traditional areas of cultural engagement that we had in the past. The contemporary, cutting edge music that is supported by Other Voices can call out to, engage with and be the glue that allows us to communicate with a whole other generation of our diaspora abroad.
The Senator spoke eloquently and passionately about the whole issue of voting rights. She is correct that the obvious next step is a referendum on presidential voting rights. Senator Ó Clochartaigh asked me how I feel at a personal level about the subsequent actions. I hope the Irish people who are resident on this island will extend the hand of community and of friendship to our people internationally and allow them that very precious opportunity to elect our first citizen. At a personal level, I think that should be the platform for further extension of voting rights to our people in terms of who represents them in these Houses.
Senator Feighan again referred to the issue of using our particular talents to engage with the diaspora as best we can. I congratulate him on the wonderful work he does in building strong interparliamentary links between Ireland and the UK. These links are serving to protect the very precious and hard won peace that we now have. It also allows for the Irish in the UK to feel very much part of a sense of a greater Irish community.
Senator Conway is right that it is about results and I am a person who has always been driven by achieving results. I do not see the point in producing reports without action. We have asked Indecon to undertake an in-depth and forensic analysis of why these returning emigrant issues are arising. Once I have that report, which I hope to have in late December or early January, I will begin to act on every recommendation contained within it. Some of them will apply within the structures of the State, which I hope can be easily resolved. Others apply to organs outside the State like the insurance companies and the banking federation. I met today with the Insurance Ireland, which is the umbrella group representing Irish companies here. Change is happening and, thankfully, it told us it has discussed this issue with eight major insurers who supply most of the market here in Ireland. If persons returning now can provide evidence of having had a no-claims bonus or a claims-free and safe driving record abroad, that will be taken into consideration in terms of an insurance quote here. We will be producing some documentation on that in the coming weeks to explain to people how they go about doing it.
I would engage a lot with some of the people who run an excellent Facebook page, Irish Expats Returning to Ireland, which has about 15,000 people. The key issue is to prepare. If one simply turns up on the shores of Ireland having been in Australia for five years and expects all of these issues to somehow disappear, they will not. The key issue is to prepare, prepare, prepare. Insurance Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are going to produce a document that outlines to people exactly what they need to do in terms of preparing for getting insurance quotes in particular, so they have all the documentation and necessary records in place to ensure they get the most competitive quotation.
I have already addressed the issue of the national reserve and farming. On naturalisation, any barrier that is in place needs to be addressed, and €900 is a significant barrier to most families. I hope this issue is addressed within the Indecon report and a solution is suggested, which I hope we can pursue in order to resolve that issue.