Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 June 2003

Adjournment Matters. - Emigrant Welfare Organisations.


10:30 am

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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This matter stems primarily from an experience I had in January. A friend of mine who was backpacking through Australia was involved in a serious road accident – he was hit by car. A couple of us who were good friends of his travelled to Australia to see him because he was in a bad condition. I am happy to say that he has partially recovered since and has returned home. While I was there, the plight of the Irish emigrant welfare associations, which look after Irish emigrants, was brought to my attention. Based on the representations they made to me, I asked my colleague, Deputy Paul McGrath, to raise a number of issues by means of a Dáil question.

It was brought to my attention that while there are at any given time approximately 280,000 Irish-born people living in the USA and between 85,000 and 90,000 Irish-born people living in Australia, significantly more funding is given by the Irish Government to emigrant welfare organisations in America than to those in Australia. Although there are four times as many Irish emigrants in America than in Australia, the American organisations receive eight times as much funding. This imbalance should be addressed.

In the Sydney area, a committee of nine people works on a voluntary basis for the Australian Irish Welfare Bureau. Last year, the total funding given to the Irish welfare agencies in Australia was in the region of $56,000, Australian, which is a small amount of money when one considers the costs involved and the services they provide.

While I was in Australia, members of the committee were constantly visiting Irish people in Australian hospitals who had no family members with them. That provided great support in times of trouble for them. I am aware that the Irish-Australian welfare bureau in Sydney received in the region of Aus$20,000 in support from the Irish Government last year. That is welcome but, sadly, far from adequate. It was brought to my attention, in relation to the costs of running the organisation, that one of the largest costs incurred in any year was in a situation where a person who had travelled from Ireland died in Australia, in whatever circumstances. The transportation cost of bringing the remains back to Ireland can be up to Aus$10,000, or half the annual grant the organisation receives from the Government.

I appreciate that the national purse strings are being pulled rather tighter. However, the current imbalance is unjustifiable and should be rectified for the future. These organisations provide a massive service for thousands of Irish people who had to leave this country to make a new life in far-flung places, mainly due to economic circumstances at a time when the Celtic tiger was far from these shores. Their efforts deserve greater monetary assistance from the Government. I await the response of the Minister of State.

Photo of Tom KittTom Kitt (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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As a nation, we are very proud of our links with Australia, which began with the earliest settlements in that country and continue today with an annual exchange of working holidaymakers in both directions, as the Senator stated. I appreciate his personal interest in the matter. The historic links are very profound. More than 200 years have passed since the first Irish settlers were transported to Australia and, since then, the Irish have merged into every aspect of Australian life. As many as one third of all Australians lay claim to Irish ancestry which a rough calculation puts at almost six million people, some of whom have been settled in the country for generations and whose Irish origins are little more than a curiosity. Many more, however, have moved there in the past 50 years and have strong psychological and emotional connections to their home country.

More recently, a number of Irish societies have been formed, contributing greatly to feelings of Irish identity, forming social outlets and putting in place support systems for the elderly and vulnerable. The Department of Foreign Affairs recognises the responsibility it has, both to these Irish-Australians and the thousands of young professionals who travel from Ireland to Australia each year. Through the Embassy in Canberra and the Consulate General in Sydney, the Department has worked closely with various organisations to ensure their safety and welfare.

The Australian-Irish welfare bureau in Melbourne is an invaluable resource for the Irish Embassy in Australia's second largest city. With the Irish-Australian welfare bureau and resource centre in Sydney, it provides support services for the elderly Irish and is of great assistance to young people who travel there on the working holiday programme. The Australian-Irish welfare bureau in Woolongong, an industrial city south of Sydney, also acts as an important social and community resource in an area with a strong Irish connection.

In recognition of the good work of these welfare centres, both with the elderly and marginalised Irish and the 10,000 or so working holidaymakers who travel each year, the Government has made an annual grant to each centre since 1996. The grant for 2002 totalled Aus$64,000. Following my visit to Australia a number of years ago, I can appreciate as well as anybody the invaluable work carried out by these centres. More recently, in March 2002, several members of the task force on policy regarding emigrants met representatives of all three centres and were highly impressed at the services provided in each case for emigrants young and old. The report of the task force recommended increased funding for all Irish immigrant services, including those in Australia. However, conscious of the difficult budgetary situation facing the Government, it was not possible to provide any additional funding this year. The Minister for Foreign Affairs intends maintaining the grants for this year at Aus$64,000.

The new partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress – the successor to the PPF – contains a chapter on special initiatives which will be addressed during the lifetime of the programme. One of these special initiatives concerns migration and interculturalism and includes a provision, arising from the conclusions and recommendations of the task force, for the development of a coherent set of initiatives in consultation with the relevant interests. The arrangements for carrying out this work are being developed and will help provide a mechanism for advancing the implementation of the task force report.

While this may lead to increased funding for emigrant services in Australia, the level of funding for next year will depend on the budgetary situation facing the Government. The Irish Embassy in Canberra and the Consulate General in Sydney will continue to address the consular needs of the Irish in Australia and work closely with the emigrant welfare centres to ensure the experience of all Irish people in Australia is positive. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue on the Adjournment.

The Seanad adjourned at 12.55 p.m. until 10.30a.m. on Wednesday, 18 June 2003.