Wednesday, 27 November 2002
Report on Immigration Policy: Statements.
On behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, I welcome this opportunity to discuss this important issue in the Seanad. I convey the apologies of the Minister for not being able to be present. He is abroad on Government business and has asked me to stand in for him.
Almost every family in Ireland has suffered over the years in that they have been affected by emigration. The question of involuntary emigration has been a major challenge for successive Governments. For many years society was not able to provide employment for all our people and emigration became the only option for many. There were other reasons of a social nature that led many to conclude that they had no alternative but to emigrate. Many of those who left were, unfortunately, inadequately prepared for the challenges of living abroad and consequently suffered greatly. On the other hand, many Irish people achieved much success abroad and contributed greatly to their adopted countries, as well as to Ireland. The remittances sent home by Irish emigrants over the years are well known and testify to their desire to give something back to their native country.
Official figures show that, despite increasing levels of prosperity in more recent times, some 20,000 people continue to emigrate each year. This is still a substantial figure. To some extent, the continuing relatively high level of emigration is masked by the even larger numbers of people migrating to this country. Some of these are returned emigrants while others are citizens of other countries coming to work or study here. It should be noted that the 20,000 who emigrate are not leaving in the same circumstances as previous emigrants.
With this background, the Government, together with the social partners, agreed on a commitment in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to address the special needs of those Irish emigrants abroad who were particularly marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion. This was to be achieved by the establishment of a task force under the chairmanship of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, set up the task force on policy regarding emigrants in the latter part of last year and it held its first meeting in December 2001. The chairman of the task force was Mr. Paddy O'Hanlon and its members included representatives of the social partners, the voluntary agencies which provide services to Irish emigrants and the Departments most closely involved in this area. To ensure that the views of the Irish overseas were adequately reflected, representatives of Irish agencies in the United States and Great Britain were also included.
Its terms of reference asked that it recommend, inter alia, a coherent long-term approach to emigration and meeting the needs of emigrants. In this regard, special consideration was to be given to pre-departure services, services for emigrants overseas and services for returning emigrants. Particular emphasis was also placed on addressing the needs of vulnerable young and elderly emigrants. The task force initiated a public consultation process to ensure that all interested individuals and groups would have the opportunity to contribute to its work. It received a wide range of submissions and met with a number of people to discuss issues relating to its terms of reference. Members of the task force also travelled to Australia, Britain and the United States to meet with voluntary agencies providing services to Irish emigrants in those countries. In this context, I pay tribute to the voluntary agencies, at home and abroad, who provide assistance to emigrants and who play an indispensable role in helping them, either before they leave or while they are abroad.
The task force presented its report to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on 28 August 2002. I wish to congratulate the members of the task force, particularly its chairman, Mr. Paddy O'Hanlon, for producing such a wide ranging and thoughtful report in such a short time. The task force recommended that an integrated strategy be adopted to enable the provision of effective support for emigrants in the future. It argued that, for this to succeed, a partnership approach, involving the statutory authorities and the voluntary sector, in Ireland and overseas, as well as the Irish abroad, is needed. In the introduction to its report, the task force set the issue in context very well when it said:
The economic and social developments that have taken place in Ireland in recent years, and the new and inclusive definition of the Irish nation in Article 2 of the Constitution as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, provide a new context in which to view the phenomenon of Irish emigration and present an opportunity to put in place a new approach to meeting the needs of Irish emigrants.
At a practical level, the task force report set out a wide range of proposals to help reduce involuntary emigration and to assist Irish emigrants abroad and returning emigrants who required special support. Some of their proposals will require action by Government agencies. These include a new module on independent living in the school curriculum, which will apply to my Department and to the National Council for Curriculum Assessment. Other proposals are for the provision of television and radio services to the Irish abroad and the provision of housing and other supports for returning emigrants. Additional proposals require increased financial support for services provided by voluntary agencies at home and abroad.
The task force also recommended that greater recognition be given to those Irish who have emigrated, or who have been born abroad of Irish descent, through measures such as the establishment of an awards scheme and the provision of increased support to Irish community, cultural and sporting activities abroad that help people to maintain and express their Irish identity. The task force said it believed that new structures would be needed both to achieve the policy objectives and to implement the practical measures suggested in its report. It went on to recommend that responsibility for overall policy on emigration be given to the Department of Foreign Affairs and it proposed the establishment of a new agency for the Irish abroad under the aegis of that Department to co-ordinate the provision of services for Irish emigrants and Irish communities abroad. The task force also recommended a significant increase in the level of official funding for emigrant services. Last month, the Government approved a proposal by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to establish an interdepartmental working group to consider the recommendations in the task force report with a view to submitting proposals to the Government at an early date. That committee has met on a number of occasions and is expected to report shortly.
It is too early to anticipate what measures the Government may take on foot of the report. It is clear that many of the recommendations will require further consideration and development before they are ready for implementation. It is likely, therefore, that the recommendations will have to be phased over a number of years. The Government has demonstrated its commitment to protecting and supporting the Irish abroad by establishing the task force in the first place. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has made clear that he does not intend that the report should gather dust on a shelf. At the same time, the extent to which the Government will be able to provide additional resources will have to be considered in the context of the overall spending plans for next year.
I too welcome the Minister to the House. I thank the Leader for agreeing to put this matter on the Order Paper today. It allows us to have a comprehensive debate following the report of the task force on emigrants which was published last August. It is a very important report and I welcome the fact that the commitment given in the PPF to establish such a body was honoured. Important consultative work has been achieved by the task force over the past year or so under the excellent chairmanship of Mr. Paddy O'Hanlon. We now need to know what will be done with its recommendations.
It is fitting that we address this issue in the Seanad, which has a long and proud history of dealing with matters that affect the Irish abroad. Ten years ago the issue of votes for Irish emigrants abroad was first raised in the Seanad. It is important that the first House of the Oireachtas to debate this issue is the Seanad.
I am sure the Minister will appreciate that all sides of the House would urge him and his Cabinet colleagues to deliver on some of the recommendations. I welcome the fact that an interdepartmental working group has been established, that it has met and that it will shortly produce its report on how best we can proceed to implement some of the many good recommendations that came out of the task force report. It is significant that the issue is being debated.
I thank Paddy O'Hanlon and the members of his task force, many of whom I know. The number of people throughout the world who made contact with the task force is outstanding. The task force visited the United Kingdom, Australia and the US and held hundreds of meetings with bodies that represent the Irish abroad and received countless representations from the public. It is good that there is interest in this issue, including at home, in regard to how Irish emigrants are being treated by us and the plan of campaign that will be implemented in the coming years to ensure their contribution to our society is recognised.
As the Minister stated, our view of emigration has changed and that has largely resulted from the success of the economy in recent years. I am 33 and when I was attending school and college, significant numbers of my friends had to leave the country. That is no longer the case because of the opportunities that exist in the economy for people to take up employment in Ireland. Our view of emigration has changed, therefore, because of changing economic circumstances but, as the report correctly highlights, there are people who are not in a position to make those choices as they live in difficult economic circumstances and are forced to leave the State. We must be conscious of these people in particular.
The Minister stated approximately 20,000 people leave Ireland every year and it is interesting that a significant cohort of the population still decides to emigrate despite the availability of jobs. These people must be kept to the fore of our minds in terms of developing policy to help them to settle in the countries in which they have chosen to live and to keep them in touch with what is happening in Ireland.
As the Minister pointed out, many young people leave the country for one, two or three years to gain new skills and experience or develop language skills and then return home. That is a positive development which should be welcomed. However, we have arrived at a new definition of what the nation is about, which is also a positive development. The notion was that to be Irish, one had to be living in Ireland and it held sway for 70 or 80 years but since a new settlement was negotiated under the Good Friday Agreement, a new understanding has been reached about who are the Irish. The Irish are not only those who are resident in this jurisdiction or in Northern Ireland but also include the diaspora, who have been greatly helped by our past two Presidents. The diaspora still have links to Ireland. They are proud of the country and help it in as many ways as possible. The Government must recognise and develop those links. As John Hume said on countless occasions in the past, if we manage together as a people to develop the goodwill and support for Ireland abroad, there will be tremendous opportunities for the State.
The report makes a number of practical and sensible suggestions. It proposes that an awards scheme should be established that would recognise the exceptional service of the Irish abroad, which is an excellent idea. Senator Mooney is present and over the past two days he and I were in Manchester representing the Oireachtas on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. We had the opportunity to meet the officials of many organisations in Britain which represent Irish emigrants. Sterling work is done on a voluntary basis by those people throughout the UK. Many of them look after people who have been marginalised and left to one side in difficult situations.
It is important that Ireland recognises the effort and commitment of successful Irish people in Britain who still spend time and money trying to represent those who are less fortunate than themselves. The awards scheme is an excellent proposal that would not cost money and would recognise the contributions of volunteers. I met a number of them in Manchester over the past few days and I was impressed by the work that is being done in the UK. This scheme is worth supporting.
The task force makes a clear commitment to the use of the Internet as a communication tool to help Irish people abroad keep in touch with what is happening at home. This is a radical change. Over the past few years, excellent websites have been developed by RTÉ and most national newspapers and there is no reason for emigrants not to know what is going on in Ireland. We must ensure the use of the Internet is promoted. The report suggests the development of a special, corporate website that would deal conclusively with all the issues that affect the Irish aboard. It would not cost a great deal and it is worth supporting.
The voluntary organisations that met the members of the task force made a plea to the Government to provide financial support for their work. Investment in this area has increased in recent years but much more needs to be done. Significant work is undertaken with small budgets and I ask the Minister to push for investment in this area at Cabinet meetings. We need to support these voluntary organisations abroad because they do tremendous work.
The task force examined an ingenious idea which would help many elderly Irish people living abroad to return home. Deputy Cowley, a Member of the Lower House, has developed an excellent project in County Mayo that provides housing at affordable rates to returning emigrants. The task force has sought the establishment of a pilot scheme in the UK and I call on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, who has responsibility for this area, to discuss with local authorities whether such a scheme could be undertaken. It is a marvellous idea. If a 60 or 70 year old Irish person is living in London, Manchester or Birmingham, has no friends and has decided to return home, we should do everything in our power to reach out to them and give them the opportunity to return to parts of Ireland that have suffered significant rural depopulation in recent years. The scheme in County Mayo is successful but we must move beyond setting up pilot schemes.
The task force also suggested the establishment of a holiday in Ireland scheme to enable many elderly emigrants to return home. This suggestion is worth examining. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Callely, made a similar proposal whereby a cheap fare would be made available so that Irish people could travel to meet loved ones on the continent.
There is one proposal, which is central to the report, that would not cost a great deal. It is proposed that one agency should work in tandem with the Department of Foreign Affairs in this area. Progress could be made if one agency dealt with all the Departments of State and took ownership of this project, not only in terms of funding but also in terms of administration. That would be a positive development in the long term. The report recommends that the annual budget of €18 million needs to be raised to approximately €34 million by 2005.
The Seanad played a role in this area a number of years ago when it examined the issue of votes for emigrants. The task force also examined this issue but did not reach a conclusion. Every citizen who is living abroad should have an automatic right to vote in the presidential election. Under the Articles of the Constitution relating to the President, his or her role is more than territorial or judicial. It is a role for the nation. The idea is that the President represents the nation abroad. Our last two Presidents have certainly attempted to represent and reflect the diaspora.
I ask the Minister at least to consider my proposal. The Irish abroad who are still citizens of Ireland should be entitled to vote in presidential elections because of the significance of the President of Ireland in the Constitution. It is a sensible proposal. Other states have similar means of ensuring their citizens abroad can take part in the franchise. It is worth considering.
By learning more about the role of the Irish abroad and reflecting on it we can do huge good in this country in terms of the new multiculturalism that is taking hold. We have much to learn from Irish emigrants and how they managed to fit into new societies and communities. This should be reflected in how we try to provide a good, decent and honourable home for immigrants to this country and create a multiculturalism that is vibrant, democratic and open.
I am sure the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, experienced a spark of recognition when Senator Brian Hayes called for votes for emigrants. He would have been present for the many previous debates on the issue in the Chamber. The task force has come to no conclusions on the matter, but I must nail my colours to the mast. I would go further than Senator Hayes's noble aspiration of giving the vote to emigrants for presidential elections and state my belief that Irish citizens, like practically all other citizens of the European Union, should have a right to vote in all elections.
The famous argument against this proposition is that one would not wish to be waiting for the box of votes from Boston to determine the last seat in Galway West and that the multi seat constituencies and the nature of our proportional representation system mean that votes for emigrants might distort the votes cast on this island. However, I could not help reflecting on the initiative undertaken by the Minister in introducing electronic voting. How could the policy be implemented now that the paper element has been removed?
One way of addressing the problem would be to introduce single seat constituencies, but that is an argument for another day. I also support the Minister's views in that regard.
All countries which have introduced voting for citizens of their countries who are non-residents implement a registration process. This can, in a sense, be inhibiting in that it makes people stop and think about whether they really wish to participate. Having registered, they must then physically cast their votes in the various designated centres. The result is that there is no distortion. I accept, however, that Ireland has a small population and a unique electoral system. It is a powerful argument against votes for emigrants and politicians will not vote for it, just as turkeys will not vote for Christmas, and a future Minister for the Environment and Local Government who wishes to introduce this initiative might find himself or herself up against this political reality. The Minister discovered as much on a variety of issues.
I welcome the task force report. The volume of work done by the task force is astonishing. The appendix outlines the number of people its members met and the places they visited. It is interesting that there were no elected politicians on these trips abroad. If there had been, would there have been a public outcry about them travelling here, there and everywhere on what would be a legitimate exercise for politicians? I am disappointed there were no representatives of the Oireachtas included and that the initiative behind the task force originated from outside the parliamentary process. It originated in the discussions between the social partners and the Government.
This is another example – I regularly get on my soapbox about this issue – of the denial of the mandate held by Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas with regard to issues that transcend pay and conditions. The social partnership process has now moved into a range of policy areas where the partners are influencing the Government of the day to such an extent that they can get the Government to agree to an initiative such as this, among many others. It is long past time that the concept of the social partnership process was examined to ensure the elected representatives of both Houses should have some input from the initial stages. They should at least be aware of what is happening rather than being faced with a fait accompli when the agreement made in Government Buildings is brought before the Houses. However, I will not use up my time discussing that issue.
I agree with the Minister that there is a focus in the task force report on the changing patterns of emigration from the 1940s through to the present. The Minister correctly pointed out that the 20,000 leaving this country are leaving in far different circumstances from those in which I left. I was an emigrant. I took the infamous mailboat as a seventeen and a half year old innocent abroad, who left the wilds of Leitrim for London where I spent seven years and was involved in a variety of emigrant organisations, but, like many others, I was primarily there to get a job because I could not get one here.
The experience enriched me, but that is because I am looking at it from this remove. For my contemporaries who were there, however, it was not an enriching experience. It was a salutary, emotional and sad experience to be away from home. In conversation with my friends and contemporaries they always expressed the aspiration to return home, but they met partners, married and had families and their commitments kept them there. I encountered this in Manchester last weekend in discussions with the emigrants I met. One told me her mother to her dying day always called Monaghan "home" even though she had been in England since the 1940s. Her daughter, who is first generation Irish, also refers to Monaghan as "home," even though she was born and reared in Manchester. That aspect of the report is worthy of being expanded.
The results of a survey carried out by a university in England were released in the last two weeks. The university claimed they were surprising, but, as a former emigrant, I was not surprised. The survey found that the sense of identity among first and second generation Irish in Britain was huge. They saw themselves as Irish. There was a strong sense of identity even within the British experience. The same would be true of Irish Americans, but more so in England. That is where I lived and saw it on a daily basis.
The perfect example is the sheer determination and commitment Mick McCarthy brought to the job of being Irish captain in his playing days and subsequently as Irish manager. Although it was never stated publicly, except by people for whom I have no respect, Mick McCarthy had the view that there was a suggestion that he was less Irish than the rest of us. To a first generation Irish man or woman that is the ultimate, gratuitous insult. It was an insult to the cultural environment in which Mick McCarthy and others like him had been reared, where their love of Ireland and Irish culture and identity was so strong that it transcended the environment in which they lived. He achieved the ultimate accolade of captaining and managing his country, but the whispering campaign and innuendo that he was less Irish than us were the ultimate insult. I am not surprised that, with many other factors, it may have hastened his departure. We should harness that sense of identity. We have not fully acknowledged this element in the Irish diaspora.
This leads to a key area, one in which I have an expertise, communication with the Irish abroad. There is reference in the report to radio and television programmes and how we communicate. Every Minister who has travelled abroad will have been asked, whether in Melbourne, Australia or Savannah, Georgia or San Francisco, "How are things at home?" Home was Ireland, even though they may have been second generation Irish, and they would ask, "How is the old country?"
To some degree we have failed in not communicating with our diaspora in the way other countries have. The perfect example of that is the BBC World Service, which is lauded internationally as a radio service par excellence. Its raison d'être from day one was to be a propaganda vehicle for the British way of life. The impartiality for which the BBC is well known eventually became the corporation's raison d'être. English speaking people all over the world, who wish to achieve an unbiased and impartial knowledge of international affairs, will tune into the BBC World Service, whose remit has been broadened considerably.
As Senators will be aware, there were discussions many years ago about establishing an Irish short wave radio service. The matter was examined but was not pursued. The recent demise of Tara Television in the United Kingdom proved to be almost a fatal blow to many Irish, particularly the elderly who could access Irish television programmes on a weekly basis. If anything can be done at Cabinet level to restore that service, or create a new one to replace it, it should be. Our ability to communicate through the media is an essential ingredient in our continuing relationship with the Irish abroad.
We should facilitate those who wish to return to Ireland. Many local authorities, however, operate a system whereby Irish applicants who are not resident here are placed down the list because of the pressing need to provide such housing for those already resident. In the same way that the social housing initiative was introduced, local authorities should be obliged to set aside some housing for returning emigrants, even in an environment where there is a housing shortage. It is the least we can do for those who wish to return at the end of their working days – and are prepared to pay for it, in so far as they are able – rather than having them living in bed-sits in London, Manchester and Birmingham or in apartments in Boston.
A greater emphasis is also required in caring for elderly Irish people living abroad. Increasingly, it is not just the men who left home in the 1940s and 1950s, but also single women now in their 60s and 70s who are living in disadvantaged accommodation and are disconnected from the communities in which they are living. They are now retired, having supported elderly parents by sending remittances home over the years. In the twilight of their days, they should receive some acknowledgment of the contribution they have made. It is not enough to say that support services are provided by various Irish societies and social centres, although they are doing a great job, because the evidence suggests that elderly Irish people are disconnected from the foreign communities in which they live. Consequently, as was stated in the report, there is need for a proper liaison structure between Irish and UK agencies in particular because they are closest and the ones we know best.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes about the awards scheme, which is a wonderful idea. I acknowledge the great role played in this respect by the Irish Post newspaper for the past 25 years. It has an annual awards ceremony which is widely publicised among the Irish in Britain and is seen by many as the social highlight of the year.
The holidays in Ireland scheme is a first class recommendation in the report. The Government has a moral imperative to initiate it in order to bring back some of our elderly Irish, from whatever part of the globe they are living, for a short holiday in the old country. It would be a wonderful initiative.
The proposals regarding employment and training schemes are less important than preparing returning emigrants for the radical changes that have occurred here over the past 20 years. Many people with young families who returned for the Celtic tiger period are now finding it difficult to readjust because the Ireland they remembered is totally different to the country today. Although I was single at the time, I found it difficult to readjust to coming home after seven years away in the 1970s. I have met many married people who found it difficult to readjust when they returned here after living abroad. In fact, there is more than anecdotal evidence to suggest that an increasing number could not make it work and dcided to return to England or America after only two or three years here. That was because their children could not settle, their accents were different or they faced all sorts of subtle racial abuse. I know "racial" is a terrible word to use when we are talking about our own, but they were seen as being different. Some parents found it difficult to readjust to the social environment and also found it difficult to reconnect because they were not going back to areas from which they had emigrated but to new dormitory towns.
I agree with the idea that the Department of Foreign Affairs should have overall responsibility for such immigration matters. I wish to pay tribute to the agencies that have been involved through the Department of Foreign Affairs, particularly DÍON, and its predecessor, the Committee on Welfare Services Abroad, on which I was honoured to serve for five years. At the time, I had severe difficulties with the Minister, Deputy Quinn, who was in charge. I thought he had emasculated the original aims of COWSA, as it was known, but DÍON has proven its worth since 1983. One can see from the detail of the report that it has been doing excellent work with the money provided by the Government.
In accepting the contribution that successive Governments have made in increasing the allocation to the Irish abroad, there is a real need for the establishment of an Irish council along the lines of the British Council. I hope the Minister's officials will take note of that suggestion. The British Council operates exclusively to ensure that British excellence is propagated around the globe. A similar body is needed to promote Irish excellence abroad, as well as bringing the Irish diaspora closer. Although we have a wide variety of excellent social, sporting, cultural and industrial activities for the Irish overseas, these need to be better co-ordinated. This proposal has already been made in writing by a number of people. Senator Hayes and I are agreed on it and we are pursuing it through the Department of Foreign Affairs. The interdepartmental committee established by the Minister might be able to examine that proposal, although I accept this is a complex matter and does not concern emigrants alone.
At this point I will conclude on the basis of the philosophy adopted by the former British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan. When he first entered the House of Commons he sought guidance from a senior MP as to how he should approach a debate. He was told, "As a backbencher you are entitled to one good idea, as a Minister you are entitled to two."
I compliment Senator Hayes and Senator Mooney on their contributions to the debate. In the past, on the Order of Business, Members have clamoured for statements on Irish emigrants, yet when they get the opportunity for such a debate they are not present. Unfortunately, the small number of Senators present is proof of that fact.
We can all remember that some of the school friends with whom we studied or played hurling, had no choice but to emigrate. In many cases, entire families moved to London, Birmingham, Manchester or American cities. We should recognise the contribution they made by repatriating part of their earnings to their relatives here.
They also contributed hugely to the cities to which they emigrated. Great credit is due to the county associations which were very vibrant and active in the cities concerned, particularly in England, at a time when people emigrated with few contacts but still had to set up homes. In many cases county associations gave the people concerned help in getting work and setting up. That was one plus – they were prepared to take whatever work was available, for which they might have had to queue, but they did it. However, things did not work out for many of them. We have a responsibility in that regard.
Many people who emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s are now no longer able to care for themselves and depend on the services of other countries. There is an onus on us to do something for them. I, therefore, welcome the task force. The Minister said there may still be 20,000 people emigrating annually, but the circumstances are different. The people concerned are well-educated, with trades and degrees, and can avail of work almost immediately, which was not the case in the past. The situation is different, but we still need to support the county associations. Many of us, as public representatives, have attended their annual dinners, meeting people who have been gone for many years and of whom many, advancing in years, are looking to come back and want to know if there are homes for them in Ireland. Senator Mooney referred to the social housing mix. While there is a real demand for housing, we should give some of our emigrants a chance to get houses. They should be told they will be considered on an equal footing with people in Ireland for housing here in order that they can come back.
Small amounts of money should be made available in order that the people concerned can come home for holidays. In some cases they have never come back to Ireland. Small amounts of money would allow them to come back for holidays which would be of some help to them. The families of some emigrants returned to Ireland and made a huge contribution at a time when posts could not be filled in the country. The families of many who emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s have returned and settled, making a huge contribution to organisations and parishes around the country.
I welcome the task force and wish it well, but funding should be made available to ensure it delivers. There is only one way for a task force to implement recommendations, that is, through financial help. If this help has to be given to associations in Britain or America, it must do so. I hope the Department of Foreign Affairs will work hard on this to ensure those who left in difficult times will have a good quality of life in their later years, either in Ireland or the country where they live.
I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well with his new portfolio. I also welcome this report and congratulate those who travelled to many countries to complete it. As previous speakers said, the various county organisations have done tremendous work with emigrants all over the world.
Many Irish families were raised on money sent back during hard times from the 1940s to the 1960s. Counties along the western seaboard are used to emigration – Dublin and some eastern counties would not be as used to it. Tremendous amounts of money were sent back from emigrants in various countries to educate their families and pay for others to emigrate. It is only right, now that Ireland has prospered, to do something for those who were not as lucky as other emigrants and have fallen on hard times. Not everyone who emigrates does well and it is only right to do something for them. As Senator Hayes said, those who look after emigrants who have fallen on hard times should be rewarded. They are doing tremendous work in finding shelter and support for our emigrants. It is about time we had an awards system to reward them.
I agree with Senator Mooney on setting up a council, but these things will not come about unless funding is made available. I urge the Minister of State to bring the message to the Minister for Foreign Affairs that we need a reasonable allocation of funds to look after our emigrants. On the one hand, we must look after those going away, but, on the other, some of those returning must have work, rehabilitation or housing provided for them. This can only be done with funding.
I welcome the interdepartmental working group being set up to examine this matter and hope these issues are brought to its attention. I also congratulate Mr. Kevin Burke from Ballyvarry outside Castlebar who has done tremendous work to bring emigrants home from England and sought housing and rehabilitation for them. The interdepartmental working group will have to work closely with local authorities. A certain percentage of the housing stock should be put aside for returned emigrants. That would be one way to look after those who have fallen on hard times.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Aylward, to the House. I welcome the report of the task force. I heard the Minister of State begin his deliberations by saying Ireland has suffered more than most countries from emigration. Over the past 50 years we have seen our share of emigration, particularly in the 1950s and 1980s.
I was surprised to read in the report that we still have an emigration level of 20,000 per year but I am gratified by the knowledge that the majority of those leave by choice rather than necessity. I am further gratified to think that in the past five years the previous Government played a major part in bringing about an economic situation which allowed people to stay in this country and put a cap on the number of people who had to emigrate.
I was also surprised to read in the report that there are 1.2 million Irish born emigrants throughout the world. What if they all decided to return to us? We might find ourselves in a right mess.
Successive Governments have made efforts to tackle this problem, with limited success. The commitment given by the previous Government in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to helping emigrants who are marginalised and socially excluded has led to the setting up of the task force whose report we are discussing. It is right and proper that we should look at how our emigrants are faring in the countries where they have decided to live. This is laudable and the support the Government has received from all sections of the political divide is commendable.
Irish people can be proud of our contribution at all levels to the nations to which we have emigrated. We are always proud to hear Prime Ministers of Australia, Presidents of the United States and political leaders in the United Kingdom giving credit to the contribution of Irish emigrants to their countries. The infrastructures of Australia, Britain and America owe much to the sweat of the brow of Irish emigrants. We are given due credit for that contribution and we should be proud of it.
Many of the people who emigrated from our shores have been successful beyond the seas. Most of them have not forgotten their roots in Ireland. As someone who works with a voluntary organisation I can give testament to an individual who left Ireland in the 1950s and who was successful in Boston. When this person had made his own way in America he undertook to give something back to the nation he had left. Although he had left Ireland out of necessity and had got nothing from Ireland, because there was nothing there to give, he did not forget how proud he was to be an Irishman. He set up a fund raising chapter in Boston particularly for people with a disability in this country. As someone who works with disabled people I can give testament to the magnificent work this man did for the agency with which I work. On his death we were delighted to name a wing of our establishment in his honour. That is an example of the work done by people who have emigrated and of their commitment to their own land.
If we reflect on the bad old days when emigration was involuntary we can only imagine the pain of mothers and fathers, particularly in rural Ireland where emigration was at its worst, who saw 75% of their children emigrate through no fault of their own. I remember the anguish of my own mother when my eldest brother decided to emigrate to England, her joy on his return and her anguish when he had to go back again. I am delighted we can stand here today and say the majority of those who emigrate do so by choice rather than necessity.
The task force believes the Government has a major responsibility in supporting emigrants who need to be assisted in whatever way it can. One of the greatest needs identified in the report by people who provide services to emigrants is better preparation for people going abroad. For people who have to emigrate the three key words are information, information, information. The more comprehensive the information they have before they start on their journeys the better.
Since many of the most vulnerable emigrants are between the ages of 15 and 24 years the task force suggests that the starting point for information should be a pre-emigration service in the schools. I agree totally. I cannot imagine what it must be like for a 15 year old emigrant and I hope they are few and far between. The task force recommends that a module of education for independent living in a multi-cultural world be included in the new social, personal and health education programme. When children see this appearing on the curriculum I hope they do not look on it in a pessimistic way and think we are educating them for emigration. I hope that will never be the case again.
May I raise a point of order? In the enforced absence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs we are extremely grateful that the Minister for Education and Science and the Ministers of State, Deputies Aylward and Gallagher, have been here. Officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs are present in the House and I know they will take a report of this debate to the Minister.
As a former emigrant I am personally disappointed that no representative of the Labour Party or of the Independent group contributed to this debate.
It is important that we have had this opportunity to discuss the report of the task force policy regarding immigration because emigration has affected almost every Irish family in one way or another. It is timely coming so soon after the recent publication of the report, which was well received by all sections of the community, particularly those voluntary organisations, both at home and abroad, which make such an important contribution to supporting our emigrants in so many ways. The men and women of these organisations, whose work on behalf of our emigrants, both in assisting them in their preparations before departing and, in particular, providing services for them overseas, have not always received the recognition they deserve. The report of the task force has rightly highlighted the invaluable work all the organisations are doing in this area.
I am pleased to note from my colleagues the general welcome expressed today for the initiative taken by the Government together with the social partners to establish the task force in the context of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. A number of very thoughtful points have been made by Members of the House which the officials and Ministers who were present will bring to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen.
It is significant that the report of the task force was based on a wide-ranging process of consultation undertaken to ensure all interested individuals and groups would have the opportunity to contribute to its work. The success of the process is illustrated by the remarkable number of people and organisations who chose to contribute. This contributed greatly to the depth of the analysis in the report and the wide-ranging nature of its recommendations.
I join other speakers in congratulating the members of the task force, through its chairman, Paddy O'Hanlon, for their excellent report. The Minister for Education and Science has already indicated in the House that it is too early to anticipate what measures the Government may take on foot of the report and that it is clear that many of its recommendations will require further consideration and development before they are ready for implementation. Nevertheless, I share his hope, as I believe do Members of this House. It will be possible to make a start in implementing some of the recommendations in the coming year.
It has been extremely useful to have had this initial debate on the report. I have no doubt that it will stimulate further public discussion on this important topic which has such a profound effect on our history, community life and sense of identity. A number of the contributors referred to the importance of caring for elderly emigrants, including those who wish to return to live in Ireland. There has also been support for an awards scheme to enable recognition to be given to Irish people abroad who have contributed to the development of their adopted countries and Ireland. There has also been support for making more information available to the Irish abroad and a new organisation to support them.
Some speakers in this House come from County Donegal where we have a great ethnic connection with various parts of Scotland, England and Wales. So many people have left our shores to earn a living and provide for their families back home. I can think of so many people who have contributed in many ways, right back to the beginning of the last century. I want to be associated with the contributions of speakers of the House, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, and Deputy Cowen who has taken such a profound interest in this matter since his appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas arís a chur in iúil duitse, a chathaoirligh, agus do na Seanadóirí a ghlac páirt ins an díospóireacht fíor-thábhachtach seo. Bíodh Seanadóiri cinnte de go mbeidh tuairisc á chur roimh an Aire faoin díospóireacht seo nuair a thiocfaidh sé ar ais go dtí a oifig anseo i mBaile Átha Cliath.