Seanad debates

Thursday, 19 December 2002

Adjournment Matters. - Investment Based Naturalisation Scheme.

 

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I tabled this matter because some years ago I began to have nightmares. These were not serious, but they did recur. I dreamed of arriving at passport control in some foreign country and the immigration officer saying: "Oh, it is one of those" when he saw my Irish passport. I hope that will never happen. I do not wish to rake up the past, but rather to copperfasten the future. In recent replies to parliamentary questions the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has comprehensively outlined the history of the passports for sale scheme. He has also published the findings of a departmental inquiry into its workings.

I welcome the Minister's uncompromising opposition to the sale of passports and his guarantee that no such scheme will ever be re-introduced as long as he is in office. Unfortunately, that does not put my mind at rest because my uneasiness arises from the basis on which the passports for sale scheme was introduced and continued for several years under different Governments.

The scheme was apparently perfectly legal in that it broke no law, but the basis for it was not set down either in the form of legislation or a ministerial order. It worked entirely within the scope of the discretion available to the Minister of the day under the nationality and citizenship legislation. It came into being with an informality that is quite staggering, particularly in view of the importance of the issues involved. There seemed to have been no rules governing the scheme at all. A number of unofficial rules were applied later, but these made no difference. It is a matter of record that little or no effort was made to keep to those rules or to discover whether they were being observed. This position continues to obtain many years later. I understand it would be open to any future Minister to set up a similar scheme on a similarly informal basis.

Despite our experience in the meantime, there is apparently still nothing in law to prevent the same thing happening again. I am totally opposed to the selling of Irish passports, but I recognise that there is another view on this matter and also that circumstances may arise in the future when our economic position could be so desperate that we would wish to leave open the possibility of selling our birthright in this way. I cannot accept that we would deliberately leave a loophole in our legislation that would permit any future Government to introduce a scheme that would operate in such an informal manner as heretofore. We are all aware of the unfortunate consequences and none of us wish to see them repeated.

I am delighted by the Minister's goodwill in respect of this matter. However, I would prefer to rely on legislation. We cannot bind the decisions of a future Government, but we can put a legal framework in place that will require anyone introducing such a scheme to do so only on a statutory basis. The latter must have built into it the need for openness, transparency and accountability that history teaches us is all too necessary, particularly in respect of this issue. I urge the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to consider the introduction of legislation to bring this about.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McDowell. I would not wish to see the Senator's sleep pattern overly interrupted in the future or even during the Christmas period.

On 20 April 1998, the Government abolished the investment based naturalisation scheme which had commenced in 1989. In doing so, it decided that the Minister for Justice. Equality and Law Reform should initiate a review of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956, to see how it might facilitate investment. The Minister was asked to consider additional legislative measures if, in the course of the review, information emerged which would warrant such measures.

To assist him in conducting the review called for by the Government, the Minister established the review group on investment based naturalisation comprising representatives of various Departments, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and two outside experts.

The report of the review group on investment based naturalisation in Ireland was brought by the Minister before Government in July 2002. The Minister arranged for its publication on 4August 2002 and a number of copies were placed in the Oireachtas Library at that time. Since then, the report has provided a useful focus for debate, which the Minister wholeheartedly welcomes, on the scheme.

A majority of the review group believed that the Government should retain the option, in the event of a changed economic or employment situation, of introducing an investment based naturalisation scheme and suggested a framework and rules for such a scheme. The group saw merit in a legal, as opposed to an administrative, basis for the scheme.

The motion proposed by Senator Quinn reflects a similar view. He proposes that the Minister considers legislation to make it impossible for any future administration to reintroduce an investment based naturalisation scheme except within a rigorous and transparent statutory framework. His motion, therefore, contemplates the possibility of an investment based naturalisation scheme, albeit on a statutory basis. The Minister is afraid that this is where their views diverge.

The Minister has always been opposed to the principle behind the investment based naturalisation scheme. He has no difficulty with the State according rights of residence to non-nationals who come here to establish businesses and create employment and who intend, in good faith, to become full members of our community. This is an essential feature of any modern and thriving economy which is becoming increasingly integrated with world markets and trends. Citizens of European economic area states and Switzerland already enjoy rights of free movement and residence for that purpose. Furthermore, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform operates a business permission scheme to enable citizens of other states to take up residency here for the purpose of engaging in business activities.

The Minister has no difficulty with such persons being given the right, in due course, to apply for Irish citizenship where they intend, in good faith, to become members of our community. However, he fundamentally disagrees with any proposal which would enable the privilege of Irish citizenship to be bartered to investors who have little or no connection with Ireland and who have no plans to strengthen those connections. Consequently, the Minister can confirm that there are no circumstances in which he will recommend to the Government that we should return to a situation, either with or without statute, where Irish citizenship can be bartered for economic reasons. If there is an economic case for conferring benefit on investors, that benefit, as far as the Minister is concerned, will have to take a form other than Irish citizenship.

For the purposes of clarity, the position in relation to the investment based naturalisation scheme is as follows. Neither the Minister nor his predecessor accepted any applications from new investors under the scheme. Only applications from investors made before September 1996, the date on which the scheme was suspended by the rainbow Government, or accepted for processing by that Government after that date for exceptional reasons have been dealt with since then.

A total of 107 investors were naturalised under the scheme since its inception in 1989. In addition, 71 spouses and minor children of investors have been naturalised. It is important to distinguish, however, between investors who have been naturalised and the naturalisation of their spouses and children, which flows from the fact that the investor had been naturalised. Notwithstanding the existence of the investment based naturalisation scheme, it is open to any naturalised Irish citizen to apply to have his or her minor child naturalised also. It is further provided in law that the spouse of a naturalised Irish citizen can apply for naturalisation.

The Minister is opposed, in principle, to what has become known as investment based naturalisation. For that reason, he is unable to support the motion proposed by the Senator.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Am I allowed to say a few words on this matter?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

No. I am sorry, Senator.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I would like the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to convey to the Minister, Deputy McDowell, that I question—

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

The Senator is out of order.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Why? What can I do?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

The matter was raised—

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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It is a very serious issue and I do not think the Minister understands.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

The Senator will have to find another vehicle for commenting.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister does not understand that it could be very important for the future of the economy. I agree totally with Senator Quinn.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

Senator White is out of order.