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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Mar 1969

Vol. 239 No. 7

Committee on Finance. - Vote 45: External Affairs.


"Go ndeonófar suim fhorlíonach nach mó ná £49,000 chun íoctha an mhuirir a thiocfaidh chun bheith iníoctha i rith na bliana dar críoch an 31ú lá de Mhárta, 1969, le haghaidh Tuarastail agus Costais Oifig an Aire Gnóthaí Eachtracha, agus Seirbhísí áirithe atá faoi riaradh na hOifige sin, lena n-áirítear Deontas-i-gCabhair.

The Supplementary Estimate is required to meet additional expenditure. The normal practice is to circulate copies of the Minister's speech. Will that be done in this instance?

I should have followed the normal practice but, unfortunately I did not expect to come on. We shall give it to the Deputy tomorrow. I have only the one copy.

The Supplementary Estimate is required to meet additional expenditure arising on subhead B—Travelling and Incidental Expenses, on subhead D— Repatriation and Maintenance of Destitute Irish Persons Abroad, subhead F—Information Services and subhead G—Official Entertainment.

On subhead B, the additional requirement arises mainly from the payments by way of travel expenses and related expenditure arising from the transfers of diplomatic staff abroad. During the year the number of such transfers was greater than originally envisaged and some of these involved very long distances. In general, such expenditure and also expenditure on other services provided in the subhead —postage, telegrams, telephones and miscellaneous items—have been markedly affected by rising costs. It is difficult to forecast travel costs, especially the incidence of foreign transfers, and the extent of the use of the other services covered by the subhead.

With regard to subhead D, the additional £3,000 is required due to an unexpectedly large increase in the number of persons repatriated or given financial assistance by our missions abroad during the year. As the public becomes more travel conscious we must expect that the number of persons applying to our missions for assistance, especially on the Continent, will continue to increase. This trend is also reflected in the increased receipts under Appropriations-in-Aid, for repayment of repatriation and maintenance advances. Under the present system of accounting, expenditure incurred on the repatriation and maintenance of Irish persons abroad is charged to the appropriate subhead of the Vote and moneys subsequently recovered from persons who are repatriated is brought to account by way of Appropriations-in-Aid of the Vote.

On subhead F—Information Services—printing, freight and postage costs in respect of booklets and other information material for distribution abroad and expenditure on group visits by foreign journalists proved higher than anticipated, as a result of which additional unexpected sums of approximately £2,000 have to be paid before the end of the financial year.

The additional amount required under subhead G is £16,000. This is mainly due to the success of the efforts of Government Departments, semiState bodies and other organisations to promote Ireland as a venue for international conferences. In recent years the number of these conferences held here has increased from 18 in 1960 to 81 in 1968.

I fully appreciate the Minister's difficulty about not having a copy of his speech available and I do not want to be in any way churlish in my reference to it but it is rather difficult in dealing with Estimates of this sort under particular subheads to follow what the Minister is saying without having the opportunity of reading a copy of his speech.

So far as this Supplementary Estimate goes, we are not objecting to providing the money for the objects the Minister has mentioned. I wish to take the opportunity to speak in relation to subhead D as it seems to me I am in order in raising this matter on this Supplementary Estimate. I wish to say a few words generally on emigrant welfare and to inquire if the Government propose to do anything concrete on that subject, particularly in relation to Great Britain. We are providing an additional £3,000 under subhead D for the repatriation and maintenance of destitute Irish persons abroad. I want to express the view to the Minister that there is a responsibility on the Irish Government to keep a watchful and careful eye with regard to Irish people who, for one reason or another, find that they have to emigrate.

This is quite apart and distinct from the occasional case—perhaps it is more than occasional—where a person finds himself involved in some cycle of events abroad, such as an accident or something of that sort, in which he loses all his possessions and money and requires assistance to get home. That kind of case is dealt with by our representatives abroad and dealt with very adequately, but what I am concerned with here is the acceptance by the Government of responsibility for assisting in such matters as welfare centres in England which cater for Irish emigrants and giving financial assistance to help organisations expand in such matters as hostel accommodation and community centres. All this is the kind of work which it would be proper for the Government to undertake through the Department of External Affairs. It seems to me that if this kind of work was undertaken by the Government we would not, in an Estimate of this sort, have to refer so much to the question of destitute Irish persons abroad because we would as a country, and the Government as the Government of the country, would be showing concern for the continued welfare of these people. It is right to say, speaking on behalf of the Fine Gael Party, that we have made it clear in the policy we published on emigration welfare that we would accept responsibility for assisting in the provision of welfare centres in England and we would, as a Government, accept responsibility for providing financial assistance to existing organisations who wish to expand accommodation in hostels and community centres in England.

Subhead D deals with what I have been talking about, repatriation and maintenance of Irish people abroad, and subhead F deals with information services. The information services referred to by the Minister are not quite the same type of information services I have in mind. I think it is necessary and desirable that a Government concerned with the continued welfare of emigrants should establish an advisory service drawn from the various voluntary organisations—I am concerned here particularly with England—dealing with Irish emigrants there. An advisory council should be able to make available both to the people at home and to the Government, and through the Government to those who are contemplating emigrating, information with regard to a whole variety of matters such as the prospects for employment, the prospects for housing accommodation, where a person is emigrating with his family, and other matters of that sort. To my mind this would be a very valuable type of information service to make available and I would urge on the Minister that it should be considered by him in relation to his Department.

On the question of official entertainment, the Minister mentioned this as a reflection of the success of his Department in promoting this country as a venue for international conferences. This is very valuable work which is being done by the Minister's Department and if the increase in numbers, I think the figure the Minister mentioned was an increase from 18 to 81 approximately, can be attributed reasonably directly to an expenditure under this heading then it seems to me the net gain to the country is well worth it. The holding of international conferences of one sort or another here is the kind of thing that not only by the actual holding of the conference assists our economy in a small way but through the aftermath, in publicising the country, it can also be of very great benefit to our economy and our balance of payments position. Therefore, although the wording of the phrase "official entertainment" is one about which some people might immediately feel cynical I think that, if there is a pay-off in terms of advantage to the country and to the economy, a recurring advantage in the form of boosting tourism and the consequent beneficial effects of that on our balance of payments position, then money of this sort is well spent.

I did not quite follow the Minister's references to subhead B which relates to travelling and incidental expenses. I understood him to say that it related principally to the transfer of officials abroad. I suppose that is moving from one assignment or embassy to another and things of that sort. Obviously that is an expense that must be incurred and it is our job to provide the money for it. I do not suppose it would be in order now but it might be as well to pose a general query about another matter. From time to time people inquire—and one must have sympathy with them, particularly at this time when appeals are being made by the Government—whether it is necessary to maintain the number of establishments and the size of the establishments we have abroad. I am not going to enter into a discussion on that at this stage but it would seem to be relevant because obviously if you are to reduce either the number or the size of our embassies or establishments abroad then the amount of money required for travelling and incidental expenses in this connection would be reduced. I simply pose the query in a general way to give the Minister an opportunity of dealing with it when replying. I know the case can be made that even where there does not appear to be particular need for an embassy, so far as the work of looking after the interests of Irish people in a particular country is concerned, nevertheless the existence of an Irish office, embassy or trade ambassador may prove effective from the general economic and trade point of view. Again, in terms of our balance of payments with other countries, from the trade point of view, if the return is to our advantage there is obviously justification in having representation even in cases where people might be inclined to raise their eyebrows at the existence of an Irish embassy or offices.

This Supplementary Estimate is a relatively small one compared with those with which we have been dealing. One or two points strike me as rather peculiar. It appears that on subhead B—Travelling and Incidental Expenses—an additional sum of £32,000 is required, representing about 40 per cent of the original Estimate. This seems to be an extraordinary amount of extra money and perhaps the Minister would say, if he has not already done so, whether or not there was a very big movement or changing of people employed in our embassies.

In regard to subhead D—Repatriation and Maintenance of Destitute Irish Persons Abroad—there is a very small increase from £3,750 to £6,750— an extra £3,000. Does it mean that we shall not bankrupt ourselves helping Irish people who are in trouble abroad? I know people who have been abroad and for some reason required assistance and some of them tell me they had to go to the British Embassy to get assistance, that the Irish Embassy did not want to know about them. I am only stating what I was told; I have no proof of it. If this is so it is regrettable. With all our talk about the number of Irish abroad, particularly in Britain, it is extraordinary that so many of them are really "hard up". Those of us who go over there occasionally find quite a number of Irish families who are really down on their luck and it seems strange that the total sum to be spent on this work for the year is to be £6,750.

I do not know if we have any machinery for checking up on the situation over there. My knowledge of it is mainly through Irish clubs in London and other places where people are doing a tremendous amount of voluntary work very well. Most of them have said that they would very much appreciate some encouragement or assistance from the Irish Government. There may be the danger that if the Government attempted to do something there would be a flood of applications which would cost a great deal of money. Even if it meant a very big increase in the sum required I think the Minister will agree that if it helped a small number of people who really needed help it would be far preferable to having such people destitute with—as they say over there—no way of raising the wind. Many of them must do things that they would never do but that they are forced into. I do not blame the Minister or suggest that he is unmindful of this matter but it requires very careful attention. It would be no harm if some special committee were set up to go into it fully with responsible heads of the Irish organisations, in Britain particularly, and see if something could be done. It would not be right to rush in headlong and throw out money right, left and centre as the Maundy silver is thrown out but this is a problem that must be tackled some time and the Minister would do well to consider it.

The answer is not to have somebody sitting in the ivory tower that it is almost impossible to approach made responsible for whatever assistance can be given. He might be a very decent fellow, ideal for the job, but if he has not some connection with people really needing help or if there is no channel through which the help can flow he will not be able to do his job.

While this is not a matter that is exactly covered here, one point was brought forcibly to my notice recently. Previously, I and other Members of the House have suggested that Irish embassies abroad could, and should be used as trade missions. Those of us who have been abroad, in most cases, have been received very courteously by the officials abroad who do everything possible to make one's stay comfortable and iron out any snags that arise. Recently, I spoke to a number of members of the Meath team who travelled to Australia to play friendly football. With the team travelled a number of enthusiasts who wanted a holiday and who decided to kill two birds with one stone and see if some trade could be whipped up. I found that those businessmen who spent only a matter of days and in some cases hours in Australian towns and who were away for only about three weeks altogether came back with notebooks loaded with orders for Irish products which they are at present manufacturing here and selling in Australia.

I asked them how this happened? Why was no effort made to canvass this trade before then? I was told that in the areas in which they travelled it appeared that Irish products of the type they were selling had never been heard of. The people concerned were amazed to find that such fine products could be produced in Ireland and were only too glad to order them.

This emphasises the point that Irish products should be pushed on every possible occasion and that if a trade mission which is at least partly comprised of good businessmen is established it will, of necessity, result in orders for goods which are not at present being received. I should hate to think that our representatives abroad feel that they are above looking for orders. The Minister said on a previous occasion that it was part of their job and that they were doing it. If so, they are not very enthusiastic about it with the result that people who went to Australia for three weeks were able to get orders which apparently had not been sought there before that.

There was also the incident when some of us who went abroad found that at least in one of our embassies the whiskey which was produced was Scotch and that Irish whiskey was never produced there until a couple of bottles which some visitors had brought out in their bags were taken out. Then there were a few red faces. This sort of thing does not help our trade relations. Our embassies should emphasise Irish products as much as they possibly can in the country in which they are located.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.