Diaspora Issues: Statements

I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the outcome of the Indecon report and the context within which it was drawn up and on my work on as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development on diaspora issues.

My work as Minister of State is guided by the Government's diaspora policy, Global Irish. Published in 2015, this was the first clear Government policy on the diaspora and it recognises that Ireland has a unique and important relationship with its diaspora that must be nurtured and developed. I am particularly guided by the vision of the diaspora policy which states, "Our vision is a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other." This is a vision I wholeheartedly ascribe to and during my time as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, it is a vision that I have seen lived in Irish communities across the globe, whether in the oldest and most established communities of America or in the newest and fastest-growing community in the Gulf States.

We have a huge global Irish family, one that is diverse and increasingly so in terms of where Irish people abroad are making their home and what Irish ancestry looks like. The reason they need to feel a strong affinity with Ireland is changing and evolving all the time, which means we must evolve alongside it.

Our engagement with our global Irish family is underpinned by an attitude of care and respect and this is articulated through the Government’s emigrant support programme. This programme has been in operation since 2004 and has an emphasis on supporting culturally sensitive front-line welfare services targeted at the most vulnerable members of our overseas Irish communities. In addition, support is provided to a number of community and heritage projects which foster a greater sense of Irish identity, as well as strategic capital projects for these Irish communities. Funding is also provided for projects which support business or other networks. In recent years the emigrant support programme has also facilitated a wider geographic engagement with Irish communities.

In addition to the traditional areas of emigration such as Britain, US, Canada and Australia, funding in recent years has been granted to Irish community organisations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Gulf states. Since its establishment, €160 million has been disbursed through the programme to Irish organisations worldwide. The allocation for the emigrant support programme in 2018 is €11.59 million and I am pleased to note that this level of Exchequer support was maintained in recent years, even during the recession. This year alone, there are applications in respect of 490 projects from 319 organisations, with requests for funding far outstripping our budget. I have seen at first hand the significant impact that the emigrant support programme can have on Irish communities and organisations around the world. Funding made available to Irish organisations unlocks a whole new world of engagement and supports the continued flourishing of Irish culture, heritage, sport and identity far beyond our shores. Through a programme like this, we are able to articulate the Government’s position that our diaspora is a group that we cherish and seek to support as part of a long-term, multifaceted relationship rather than a resource which can be mined or harnessed. Only in this way can we develop a genuine two-way engagement and live up to the constitutional ideal which holds that the Irish nation "cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage". Thankfully, we now live in a world where that cherished relationship with our diaspora can be further developed in a very powerful way through the use of technology.

Our special affinity with our diaspora has grown and evolved as we have developed our diaspora engagement in recent years. The diaspora policy itself sets out a role for evolving engagement and commits the Government to meet changing needs in changing times. One of the ways we are evolving is in exploring new ways to increase practical engagement with and meet the expectations of our diaspora. In recent times, this has taken the form of examining the potential to extend voting rights in presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State. I am pleased that we have been able to make progress on this issue and colleagues will recall the Government decision this time last year which approved, in principle, the holding of a referendum to amend the Constitution to extend the franchise at presidential elections to include Irish citizens resident outside the State, including citizens resident in Northern Ireland. Subsequently and following on from that decision, an options paper was published by the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Foreign Affairs and Trade to inform public debate around this significant policy issue. This document was the subject of detailed discussions at a dedicated session of the global Irish civic forum held on 5 May 2017. In response to the question as to which citizens should have the right to vote at presidential elections, the almost unanimous view of those attending the civic forum was that the franchise should be extended to all citizens abroad. The legislative and constitutional issues involved in extending voting rights to citizens outside the State are complex and far reaching. I am sure Deputies will agree that we need to proceed sensitively and with an intention to develop a clear and consensus based platform. Ideally, we will have a referendum campaign on this important diaspora issue which will provide another opportunity to bring together Irish communities at home and abroad.

As for the next steps, the Government has announced its intention that this referendum will take place on the same day in June 2019 as the European parliamentary elections. This is the timeline to which I am working along with my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government with special responsibility for local government and electoral reform, Deputy Phelan. In the coming weeks and months, officers from our two Departments will continue their work of examining all of the issues and teasing out the many complexities before a report is brought to Government with a view to identifying a preferred option to be put to the people in a referendum.

Facilitating, supporting and engaging Irish emigrants who are seeking to return home after a period spent living abroad is another key priority for me as Minister of State. Yesterday, I was pleased to publish an independent economic report by Indecon on addressing the challenges faced by returning Irish emigrants. Building on the work at the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad, which I chair, I commissioned this report with the goal of identifying solutions to disproportionate or unnecessary administrative burdens affecting Irish emigrants wishing to return to live in Ireland. In a world of increased international mobility and an increasingly global labour market, it is imperative that the Government facilitates the mobility of our citizens, enables them to travel abroad, continues to engage with them while they are living abroad and, most importantly, makes it as easy as possible for them to return home. Our citizens and the Government have worked hard to ensure the economic recovery has deepened, creating the conditions so that those who had to leave for economic reasons can now return. It is good to see that these emigrants are starting to return in large numbers, with some 26,000 people - just over 500 per week - coming back in 2016. This means families are being reunited and local communities are being replenished. From an economic and competitiveness point of view, the country also needs the skills and the very unique and valuable international experience that returning Irish emigrants are bringing back home. The Indecon report will prove invaluable in informing the response across Departments to assist our returning emigrants and those who are thinking of returning home. This is simply about making moving back to Ireland as easy as possible for our citizens. However, we cannot forget that even when moving home, moving one’s life from one country to another will always require some administration and present other challenges unique to every person and every family.

The report was produced by Indecon International Economic Consultants. Following independent research with returned emigrants themselves, consultations with Government Departments and agencies and an analysis of same, the report identifies 30 targeted recommendations which are split across nine thematic areas. The survey analysis featured in the report shows that 43% of respondents indicated that seeking employment was a reason for them leaving Ireland. Monthly unemployment figures continue to fall and there are now over 2.2 million people at work, the highest number since 2008. This means that there are now options here in Ireland for people who wish to return home. The availability of employment was one of the greatest barriers to people wishing to move back in recent years. The report highlights that the perception of barriers was highest in the areas of housing and motor-related issues. Housing issues were viewed as particularly difficult for returning emigrants, with 69.8% of respondents viewing it as difficult or very difficult for returning emigrants to secure mortgages in Ireland and 78.8% viewing purchasing or renting suitable accommodation as difficult or very difficult.

Housing is an issue that affects the wider populace and not just returning emigrants, and the Government has been taking urgent action to deal with the challenges that currently exist in the housing sector In Ireland. The publication of Rebuilding Ireland: An Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness in July 2016 clearly demonstrates the national commitment to ending the current housing shortage and tackling homelessness. The plan sets out a clear roadmap to achieve the Government’s goals to significantly increase and expedite the delivery of social housing units, boost private housing construction, improve the rental market, and deliver on the commitment to significantly ramping up the housing supply. The Government’s mission is to ensure that everyone can access a home, either on their own or with State support. There is a clear determination at the highest level nationally to deal with the under-supply of housing and the problems it generates for families and communities. This commitment is backed up by significant multi-annual funding of more than €6 billion to 2021. As early as 2017, good progress was made on meeting the ambitious targets set out. It is expected that by 2021, the housing needs of almost 140,000 households will be met through the various housing initiatives provided for in Rebuilding Ireland. A number of the specific recommendations in the report are already being progressed in Government Departments.

One of the key issues identified early in the report is the difficulty for returning emigrants in accessing clear information about Government services and returning to Ireland. That was identified by around 60% of survey respondents as creating difficulty. As an immediate response to Indecon’s recommendation, I have already prioritised this area and we now have a new expanded "returning to Ireland" section on the departmental website. We will continue to work to communicate better with our returning citizens so that they get the best information possible to help make their return to Ireland as smooth as possible.

In respect of the health area, a statutory instrument is currently being drafted in the Department of Health to give effect to provisions in the Health Insurance (Amendment) Act, 2017, which includes a specific provision that anybody who has resided outside the State for a period of not less than six months and returns to take up residence in Ireland will have nine months to purchase private health insurance without incurring loadings for the time spent residing outside of the State.

Barriers to driving a car and accessing insurance were seen by emigrants consulted as among the most difficult barriers faced. Some 39% of survey respondents perceived that obtaining an Irish driver's licence was difficult or very difficult. Over 78% of survey respondents perceived that obtaining car insurance, including recognition of their driving record abroad, was difficult or very difficult, with 62.1% indicating that it was very difficult. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the RSA have worked together to reduce the requirement for returning emigrants with non-exchangeable driving licences from 12 mandatory driving lessons to six.

In respect of motor insurance, ultimately the pricing of any individual motor policy is based on an individual assessment of risk and the commercial decision of the private providers of motor insurance in Ireland. That said, the Government has taken forward very important work on the question of the cost of insurance generally given its importance for the wider population and returning emigrants. Late last year, the Department of Finance cost of insurance working group announced the agreement of a new protocol with Insurance Ireland to assist returning emigrants get motoring cover. The protocol provides that, where a person can demonstrate claims-free driving experience in a different country, insurance companies will take that experience into consideration. This move by the Department of Finance and Insurance Ireland is already helping to address the disproportionate cost of car insurance that some people have faced on returning home. Insurance Ireland has noted that the protocol was introduced in the second half of last year and we have already seen a halving in the number of cases referred under the declined cases agreement for drivers from overseas, from 85 in 2016 to 47 in 2017. I expect to see a further decline in 2018.

A clear whole-of-government approach is to be taken in implementing this report. Departments will report back to Government before the summer with an update on progress made in addressing each of the 30 recommendations. In addition to progressing this report, we are already doing much more to assist returning emigrants. We have put in place, for example, a "back for business" initiative, seeking to support returning emigrants who develop the seed of a business idea abroad and want to establish that business in Ireland. We have 46 returning emigrants currently on that programme, supported by volunteer business mentors who have already proven their track record in the Irish business environment.

My work as the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora is broad. The breadth of engagement is something that is ongoing. It is my goal to ensure that each of the recommendations provided for in this report is addressed in a very serious manner by the respective Government Departments and, ultimately, that the message will go out to all of our people internationally that if they are making the decision to return home, they are going to be very welcome and there will be few barriers in their way.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed contribution and welcome the publication of the Indecon report. I have raised this matter with the Minister of State at the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and have tabled parliamentary questions on a number of occasions. I commend the Minister of State on the work he has done. I do not often say this to Government Ministers but he has added a great deal of energy to the role, which is a very important one. In my own role as foreign affairs spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, I have had the pleasure of meeting many Irish communities abroad over the past number of months. All of them speak very highly of the work done by the Minister of State and his Department. It is important that good work is recognised when it is being done.

The Minister of State has outlined the high level items in the report. We need some time to read it and, most importantly, to consider what actions come from it. The statistics in the report are stark in respect of the number of people who have encountered grave difficulties when returning home. I am aware of these issues through my own office as well and want to touch on a couple of them. There are actions we can take quite quickly. I raised one such matter with the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, a number of months ago. I recognise that the Minister of State referred to the new agreed protocol with Insurance Ireland. The anecdotal evidence from my constituents in Dublin Fingal and beyond is that insurance premiums are still much higher for returning emigrants. The Minister of State noted a reduction in the number of insurance contracts that have been declined. However, we need to look at the premium cost itself, which is a big issue. It is still an issue in that certain insurance companies are not taking no-claims records from driving experience abroad into account. Those who may have driven in Ireland previously and have now come back after a number of years are being treated like brand new drivers. That is a big issue and a big cost. I have sent examples to the Minister of State and the Minister previously of people for whom the insurance cost per month is higher than the loan repayments on the car. That needs to change.

In the year from April 2016 to April 2017 we had about 28,000 people returning and the figure is increasing. This is good news for us and our country. As well as motoring, banking needs to be looked at given that 36% of returning emigrants said opening a bank account at home - something that should be pretty simple - was either difficult or very difficult. That is something we can address with the Irish Banking Federation and I suggest that the Minister of State invite it in and ask it why this is allowed to happen. We are finding in the financial services realm that there is a two-tier system. There is one system for those who have been here a number of years and another for those who are returning. That should not be the case, as the Minister of State has recognised in his speech. Delving further into the research, more than 40% of people described transferring pensions or other savings as difficult or very difficult. The whole area of financial services needs to be looked at. That can be done under the watch of the Minister of State, by his Department.

I submitted a parliamentary question recently about the reciprocal arrangements on driving licences between Ireland and other countries outside the EU. We are not really at the top of the class on that. We have arrangements with countries such as Australia, Gibraltar, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, New Zealand, Taiwan and four provinces in Canada. Bar that, there are no other agreements.

I would like to know whether we are advancing agreements with other countries. That is a significant problem for people. While the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in one of his few announcements over the past year mentioned a reduction in the requirement from 12 driving lessons to six, which is positive, many of these people would not have to do this if reciprocal arrangements were in place. Someone who returns from any country I have not mentioned has to go back to scratch, including for insurance premia and so on.

The report is welcome and we need to agree actions based on it because how we treat returning emigrants is a measure of our society. We should welcome them back and they should not face the barriers they experience. I refer, in particular, to health insurance companies, to which the Minister of State also alluded. I am not sure the Health (Amendment) Act 2017 is being applied as it should be. I have specific cases with the VHI in which a lead-in period was insisted on before cover would be provided.

A statutory instrument has not been introduced.

That should be expedited because access to health insurance is a big issue for people, particularly those with young families. I have had to write to the VHI, the country's largest insurer, regarding specific cases and I have sent examples to the Department. I would welcome the statutory instrument. Perhaps the Minister of State can advise on the timeframe for its introduction. There would be broad support in the House for that. I do not see much evidence of the protocol agreed with the insurance industry. That needs to be republished. It would be handy for us if that happened because we could advise people through our clinics that it exists in order that they might be armed with the necessary information when they approach insurance companies.

I commend all our embassy and consular staff throughout the world. I have had the pleasure of dealing with many different embassies and consular services. For example, Deputy Ó Broin and I visited Egypt last year and we witnessed embassy staff working in difficult circumstances in Cairo, including the former ambassador, Mr. Cole, and his successor, Mr. O'Regan. These officials do an exceptional job but they are not taken for granted. I had the same experience when I visited Chicago and Washington last December. That is the case across the board and it needs to be recognised. They are an absolute credit to the country - they are our front-line abroad. They are our representatives and they reflect what Ireland is at for people abroad.

We have a massive diaspora of up to 70 million and it is a major resource for us. However, this is a two-way street. The emigrant support programme has funded the Irish American Heritage Centre in Chicago, which I visited. People who are fourth and fifth generation Irish run the centre and some of them have never set foot in Ireland but they rightly see themselves as Irish and they are proud of their heritage. We need to monitor the position in America in particular. Fewer people are emigrating there and we need to ensure that we do not lose our foothold and the connection between Ireland and Irish America. That is why it is important to keep second, third, fourth and fifth generation people in tune with Irish heritage through our language, culture, networking, and social occasions. The GAA has been successful and useful. There are GAA clubs everywhere you go. I understand, from the Irish ambassador to Portugal, Ms Orla Tunney, that a club is being established in Lisbon. That is important because it maintains a connection with home.

The Minister of State referred to the emigrant support programme being sustained through the difficult times but its budget has not increased in recent years. It has remained at €11.5 million. In the context of the Department's budget, that is a small amount. I visited the London Irish Centre in Camden last month. The centre is supported by the programme and I saw the good work that is being done with little funding. The programme's budget should be increased substantially. It is tiny relative to the overall departmental budget. We can do much more and this should be a priority for Government. As each party examines its foreign affairs policy, it should examine the benefit of the programme and the good work it does with small allocations. A sum of €11.5 million is not a lot. Fianna Fáil will support the Minister of State in seeking a substantial increase in the budget. He said the programme is over-subscribed, which means we are saying to Irish organisations abroad that they cannot be provided with funding this year. I acknowledge that not every application will be successful but there is headroom there.

With regard to voting rights for the diaspora, Fianna Fáil supports their extension to Irish citizens abroad in presidential elections in principle but this requires detailed scrutiny of the practical, legal and policy implications involved. The Minister of State and the Taoiseach will be in US and I ask that the issue of the undocumented Irish again be raised in the context of an overall conversation. That cannot be our only conversation piece. Our relationship with America is important but it is a partnership. I acknowledge there are difficulties and we have many differences with the current administration on policy issues but I agree with the Taoiseach's comment yesterday that the relationship between the countries will endure through different administrations, different taoisigh and different presidents. We have to be level headed and practical in our approach. We are the tenth largest investor in the US and it is the number one investor here. Irish companies employ more than 120,000 people in the US. I had the pleasure of meeting those engaged in food research in the American mid-west last December. They worked for good Irish start-ups that were investing and employing American and Irish people. Our relationship with the US is strong, deep and important and we should tread carefully with it. The Minister of State and other Ministers travelling there next week should use the opportunity to strengthen ties with the Irish community abroad and our friends in America such as the Friends of Ireland group in Congress whom I had the pleasure of meeting again when I visited Washington. I briefed Congressmen Neal and Boyle and approximately 20 other Congressmen who turned up that day on Brexit. We should utilise the influence that our friends in the US Congress have because they are ready, willing and able to use it. They have never been found wanting in providing assistance to this country. Many other countries view us jealously given the access we have and the friends we have in Congress. I thank Congressmen Neal, Boyle, Crowley and others for all the assistance they have given us over the years.

The Indecon report is important and we need to agree actions on it. It should not take an inordinate time to address these issues. Practical steps are needed. The support programmes are great for returning emigrants who wish to start up businesses and so on but let us deal with the financial services, health and driver's licence issues and the other practical issues the survey highlighted. It was a detailed survey of more than 1,000 returning emigrants but it makes for stark reading. It points out clearly where services need to be improved for returning emigrants in order that they know there is a céad míle fáilte and a fáilte ar ais for them.

I wish the Minister of State well in his trip and in the work and his endeavours next week and genuinely commend him on the work he has done as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. I encourage him - I will say this at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence meeting later on - to look at increasing substantially the emigrant support programme.

I wish to share time with Deputy Ó Broin.

There are approximately 70 million citizens across the globe who claim Irish roots and a link to Ireland. While it is a small island, we are a considerable nation scattered across the continents.

Over the centuries, generations of Irish have been forced to leave our homeland to find work and the opportunities to make a better future for their families. Ireland, like most colonised nations, was robbed of its potential and resources by British imperialism's economic and social policies. This forced millions of Irish people to travel to the furthest parts of the globe in search of liberty, freedom and a better life for their children.

We are immensely proud of our diaspora who have braved the enormous challenge of emigrating and who have built for themselves a home in a new land. Over the years, past generations of emigrants have contributed significantly to their new adopted nations. Our diaspora has rightly earned a reputation for hard work and diligence and it has excelled in the fields of the arts, sports, music, politics, education, business and philanthropy. No matter where they have gone, the Irish have left their mark.

Sinn Féin believes much more must be done to develop and strengthen our relationship with the diaspora. We recognise their role in Ireland's freedom struggle and their support, particularly in the USA, for the Irish peace process was a crucial element in its development.

The economic crisis caused by Fianna FáiI-Green Party Government's weak governance combined with the greed and criminality of developers, speculators and certain banks created a lethal cocktail that led to another generation leaving our shores.

During the Troubles, many people left.

The lack of opportunity, promotion and work forced hundreds of thousands of our citizens to emigrate over the past ten years. This was exacerbated by the austerity measures implemented by Fine Gael and Labour. Many of our young people, who lost their jobs or had no opportunity to build a life or career here, left. Then, just like now, there was no expectation among large sections of our people that they can be born, live, work, set down roots and grow old in the place of their birth. This is an Irish tragedy that needs to be addressed.

Many have been able to return or want to return, but they face significant barriers in doing so. According to recent figures from the Central Statistics Office, almost 127,000 Irish emigrants have returned home to live in Ireland.

One of the barriers they face is the recognition and transfer of driving licences. Sometimes their driving licences will not be recognised here and they have to go through the lengthy process of sitting a theory test, 12 compulsory driving lessons and the driving test. Surely a more streamlined system can be set up where they could perhaps skip the compulsory lessons and simply take a theory and practical test here or the authorities might adopt a more flexible recognition of foreign driving licences. I listened to the Minister of State say the requirement on returning emigrants with non-exchangeable driving licences has reduced from 12 mandatory driving lessons to six but that is still a barrier. Many of these returning emigrants have been driving all their lives.

Another major hurdle is the astronomically high cost of car insurance which the Minister of State also addressed in his speech. This is a problem affecting all drivers, but particularly returning emigrants because their previous driving experience abroad is set aside, ignored and in no way taken into account. The Minister of State said he is meeting the motor insurers. However, we have not seen it impacting on those returning emigrants and I suppose that will be the proof that it is working or not. In fact, insurance costs are increasing for many, including many drivers. We all have experience of that.

Additionally, many experience considerable difficulties in getting loans for buying a house or car when they initially return. As with all citizens in Ireland, access to affordable housing is the most prominent issue of concern for returning emigrants, as is access to schools, third level education fees and affordable child care. We need to end the inequality in Irish society, invest in public services and properly regulate the banks and financial institutions. Only then will we make Ireland a prosperous place for all our citizens and end these barriers for returning emigrants. There needs to be joined-up thinking and a new Government approach to tackle these issues and remove these unnecessary road blocks. The Government has commissioned an economic report on the improvements needed to facilitate returning emigrants. We were told in January it would be ready in the coming weeks. Can the Minister of State inform us when it will be completed and published? Will he commit to having a debate on it here in the Dáil?

Voting rights were mentioned in the Minister of State's speech. Sinn Féin has long advocated for the diaspora to be enfranchised. This is the norm for countries around the world and Ireland's total disenfranchisement of its diaspora makes it an outsider in this regard. According to research by the Overseas Vote Foundation, 115 other countries extend some form of the right to vote to citizens living abroad.

We unequivocally support the right of all Irish citizens of voting age to vote for the President, regardless of their place of residence. Furthermore, we believe that the Irish diaspora should have the right to appropriate representation in the Dáil by way of a reserved constituency, with voting rights subject to a valid passport and regular registration requirement, and also be entitled to representation in a reformed Seanad. We also believe that the right to vote in Dáil, Seanad and presidential elections should be extended to Irish citizens in the North and all adults of voting age who have been legally resident in this State for at least five years.

The diaspora is a fundamentally important part of the Irish nation, in both historical and contemporary terms. For many Irish emigrants departure from and-or continuing non-residence in Ireland has been promoted by an economic or political situation beyond their control. For those diasporic citizens who exert the effort to maintain connections to the nation of their birth or ancestry, that is to their credit. More than ever before, Irish citizens abroad and the diaspora are connected to Ireland and are able to keep themselves informed of developments at home, mainly due to modern technological advances. Extending voting rights and allowing the Irish diaspora to express their democratic voice is one of the inclusive actions which the Government can take to help improve and strengthen its relationship with the diaspora. We urgently need to have a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to the diaspora and citizens in the North, but we also need to have a detailed debate on how to open up the Dáil and Seanad for these citizens and to grant them voting rights so they can elect Members of the Oireachtas to represent them.

Lastly, I want to discuss the undocumented Irish in the USA whom others have referred to. Next week will, once again, see the Taoiseach travel to Washington D.C. for St. Patrick's Day and I hope he will make reference to the difficulties faced by the undocumented in the USA. Unfortunately, the political situation has changed radically in the USA in recent years and immigration reform has become a hugely partisan and politically contentious issue. Clearly, there is no consensus there at present. There will be no deal for the undocumented Irish as a single unit but rather there will have to be wide-ranging immigration reform to deal with the millions of undocumented citizens in the USA. This is sensible and logical. This is a difficult and contentious issue and ultimately a domestic issue for the USA but, because it concerns so many Irish citizens, we need to continue to advocate for it.

However, we must not forget the undocumented living in Ireland. According to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, there are between 20,000 and 26,000 undocumented persons of all ages living and working on our shores. The Government must introduce measures to help create a pathway to regularise the immigration status of undocumented persons in this State as well.

It is time to take a new approach on how this State and our diaspora engage. This must be based on sustainable connectivity, which is both strategic and meaningful and has a real sense of purpose. Ireland is in transition and as we move forward, we must do so as one nation and a people together.

I welcome the publication of the report and the Minister of State's speech here today.

I will focus on one issue, namely driving licences and the amended requirements for returning emigrants. Over the past year, I have been contacted by quite a number of constituents. These are people who took their first driving tests and got their first driving licence in Ireland.

They would have driven here for five, ten or, in some cases, 20 years. On moving to the USA, particularly during the recession, they were able to get diving licences simply on the basis of a theory test and the presentation of clean Irish driving licences. Yet, on returning home, none of that history is taken into account. Even with the reduced six-lesson driving licence requirement, they still have to pay for the test, book lessons and obtain provisional and novice permits. These are people who may have been driving for 20, 30 or 40 years. I understand and accept absolutely the statement by the Minister, Deputy Ross, that we cannot have anything which compromises road safety. I am not arguing for anything which does, but I wonder if something can be done for those who had clean Irish driving licences and then had clean driving licences with no points or their equivalent from similar jurisdictions such as the USA. Can an additional system be put in place whereby those people might be required to do a theory test while having their clean driving history otherwise taken into account?

This is not just a question of money, although the amount involved is considerable. It is also a question of time, impact on employment opportunities and also one of recognition. If someone has a clean driving history, the idea that he or she needs to overcome those kinds of hurdles to drive officially here seems unfair. If someone here on a temporary visa can drive unrestricted for a period of 12 months, it seems an odd proposition. I ask the Minister of State not necessarily to answer these questions in detail today but, leaving aside the issue of state-to-state arrangements, surely something can be done to make it easier for a driver with a clean driving record here and abroad to be reintegrated into Irish society. I ask the Minister of State to look at the issue again and revert with additional proposals.

I welcome the report from the Minister of State. It sends a message to our diaspora that we take very seriously what is happening. From an economic point of view, I also welcome what is happening. As the Minister of State pointed out, 500 people are returning each week. If one were to have mooted a figure like that a number of years ago, people would have thrown their eyes to heaven in light of the way matters stood. There was a feeling of no hope. I was part of the diaspora for a number of years. I left Ireland because of the economic crash in 2008. When I and others were getting on aeroplanes to leave, there was a feeling of no hope and no idea as to whether or when we could return. When I was away, a senior business owner where I was living put it to me that our country had spent billions to educate us to such a high level but, from an economic point of view, other countries were going to make money off us. That is what was happening at the time. We were seen as a lost generation. I do not know if anyone remembers the talk of a brain drain in 2008 and 2009, but it was the big debate and it accorded with the way in which that person to whom I spoke put matters in simple economic terms.

That is not to take away from the social implications. Given how many of us left, there was a quite a sense of loneliness for the people who stayed, particularly those in rural areas. Many of their friends had left and everything had quietened down. There was a crash and it became a recession. It was always poignant when I returned on visits to meet those who had remained here. While they were lucky enough to still have jobs, they felt the sense of loss also with people from their hurling, football and soccer teams and friends and family having left. There was a real backdrop of a lack of hope and no one could look into a crystal ball to see where things would go. I have heard ideological comment from the Opposition on policies that were taken up by the last Government, but things crashed in 2008 and 2009 and the policies that were put in place in 2011 meant that, by 2013, people started to come back. That was within two and a half years. If one looks at the policies that were put in place in countries such as Greece between 2012 and 2014, one can see that they gave rise to a completely different environment.

The correction started in about 2008 or 2009.

The Deputy will say that but if we are going to get into a political debate, we can discuss why we all left in 2008 in the first instance.

I am glad the Deputy is back, but I want to correct the record.

Allow the Deputy to speak without interruption.

Those 2011 policies put us back on a footing in 2012 and 2013 after which these issues in relation to barriers for emigrants who returned began to arise.

I came back in September or October 2013 and the first thing with which I had to deal was car insurance. I then had to deal with medical insurance and bank account issues. I was lucky enough to get medical insurance as a benefit of the contract of employment I secured, albeit one had to be six months in the country before one could start to benefit. However, the lack of a no claims bonus really pushed up the price of car insurance. In one of my first contributions in the Dáil, I recall saying that when I was abroad, I had driven on the same side of the road as we do in Ireland in a city of 5 million people. One had five, six and seven lanes merging with highways with busier traffic and that challenged me more as a driver than returning to drive in Croagh, Adare or Rathkeale, where I am from. It was a completely different driving experience. I could not understand, from a risk point of view, how I was being penalised and could not have my no claims history from overseas recognised here. It was completely daft and I could not get my head around it. If one looks at it from a risk mitigation point of view, there is greater risk driving in a big city than there is driving back home as a result of the sheer volume of vehicles on the roads. As such, I welcome the report as it relates to insurance.

I also welcome the comments on driving licences. The issue of driving licences has been a particular concern for contractors who have been flying back and forth to Canada. They have approached me about this matter and about needing driving licences to get work. It is a globalised world now and a lot more contractors will fly in and out, particularly within the EU but also beyond that to the USA, Canada, etc. We should not take our eye off the ball.

I welcome the fact that people are coming in but we had to make decisions previously from a position of weakness. We are now in a position of strength and we should make decisions that will carry us forward to the next level. We need to utilise the link to those people in our diaspora who are not coming home but want to continue their connection with this country and harness it, socially and economically. That can be across areas like sport and the arts which can have an economic by-product. I can give anecdotal evidence from experience. When one is away from home, the people with whom one mixes from Ireland may include individuals with whom one might not have mixed at home. One's group may have been more homogenous at home but because people from different backgrounds and counties are all out there together, one's friends become one's family and fill the void that is left when one is away from one's family. That generates a whole new synergy.

If we can get that synergy between Ireland and the USA, Australia or the UK, we should look at it not from an economic point of view but a social one. The economic by-product is a result of that. People set up GAA and arts organisations in other countries which draw people from all over Ireland and from different backgrounds, be it construction, multinational companies or public service. As a result of being drawn to that GAA club, they network through each other. They are probably in positions of influence and power within the countries in which they are living and we can utilise that if we can organise it. We can organise it socially because that is attractive and then we will create the economic by-product.

I was blessed regarding where I lived abroad. I worked in recruitment there.

I had to start from scratch and did not have a network. It was a sales-oriented job. When I went on LinkedIn, the first people I looked up were Irish people in positions of influence. They might have been there for two, three or four years before me. When I rang them and they heard I had come over from Limerick, they put their hand out straight away and were ready to give me a chance and help me. For that, I will be forever grateful. Since I had that experience, I tried to return the favour when I heard of others coming over as a result of the crash. I understood what they were coming from and what was driving them. It is recognised that the Irish who arrived down through the years are hard workers. We are recognised across the world as being hard, committed, diligent workers and employers. If we can harness this, make a decision from a position of strength and not take our eye off the ball, both strands can run in parallel. It is just a different way of thinking. I acknowledge there are groups outside Ireland that are considering what I am referring to. I refer to "modern emigrants" - for want of a better phrase - who are lucky enough to be able to come over and back because of air travel. A direct flight between London and Perth was launched this month. There is a synergy allowing us to have networks. People are able to come over and back now whereas, generations ago, including in the 1970s and 1980s, they might have been gone for 15 to 25 years before coming back to visit.

Those of my generation who left are highly educated, unlike those who went before them. They have made it into positions of influence and decision-making positions. They are still there. We really need to develop the relationship between this island and our diaspora across the globe. Both socially and economically, doing so will push this country forward and develop it further.

I thank all the Members for their very informed and passionate contributions. It is more than apparent that they hold very close to their hearts the interests of our diaspora and its future. I thank them for that. I thank Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in particular, for the work he has done abroad in engaging with Irish communities. Repeated affirmation by Members of this Parliament of the work done by the diaspora in strengthening Irish communities worldwide is critical in allowing it to draw the conclusion that we care about its welfare and future.

A number of themes emerged in all the contributions. I will address them quickly. All the Members spoke about insurance. It is critical. I met Insurance Ireland twice since being appointed. The protocol is now in place. It is being implemented with wonderful enthusiasm by some insurance companies, with fairly muted enthusiasm by others, and not at all by others. Indecon, in doing its research in preparation for the publication of the report, contracted an insurance broker to contact every major motor insurance company in the country to determine how enthusiastically and effectively it was applying the new protocol. The broker got very varied responses, from "very effectively" to "not at all".

A recommendation in the report is that the protocol be applied consistently across the whole sector. I will write to each insurance company in the very near future to determine how each is implementing it, and I will publish the responses. Therefore, it will be more than apparent to each person contemplating returning to Ireland or who has returned recently which insurance companies are enthusiastically supporting their return and offering fair and competitive quotes.

On the issue of bank accounts, I met representatives of the Irish Banking Federation. The newly constituted information that we have made available on our Department's website shows that one can now open an Irish bank account from abroad using an online service. The information on how to do so is on the website. It links through to the various banks that offer the opportunity.

Many Members spoke about driving licences. In this regard, let us consider the most recent driving licence exchange agreements with Canada. In the recent past, much of our emigration was to Canada. The significant number of people returning are the ones most affected by not having an exchange opportunity. That is why the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, have been working hard to establish licence exchange agreements, particularly with Canada. The challenge in extending licence exchange agreements to other countries is that, because Ireland is a member of the European Union, it must, in establishing a licence exchange agreement with a new country, ensure all its EU partners are equally happy for it to be in place. Once a person from another country can secure an Irish licence, he or she can also secure a French, German or Italian licence, and so on. That is why these licence exchange agreements are exceptionally complex and difficult to put in place. That is not to say the work should not be ongoing. One of the recommendations of the report is that there should be significant additional impetus behind the new licence exchange agreements. I am confident that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the RSA will respond accordingly.

Reference was made to health insurance. Deputy Darragh O'Brien spoke earlier about the need for the provisions of the new Health (Amendment) Act to be put in place. I am told the statutory instrument is currently being drafted and will be in place very shortly so people will not experience a hiatus on returning to Ireland during which they can secure no health insurance cover whatsoever.

A challenge Deputy Darragh O'Brien mentioned concerned how we ensure new generations of the Irish diaspora abroad, particularly in the United States, can be engaged with effectively so they continue to feel a sense of Irishness. As one moves from generation to generation, there is a very real danger that the sense of Irishness will be diluted.

I visited Philadelphia recently and was really delighted to be involved in the launch of the first ever Foróige club in the United States. It was in an Irish community centre in Philadelphia that has long been in existence and that has really served the local community in the city very well. Mr. Seán Campbell and the team in Foróige have been working assiduously over recent months to establish the club, with the intention of establishing many more. When listening to the people who had come together to establish the club - young people in their early to late teens - it was interesting to learn that many of them, despite their being members of the Irish community in Philadelphia, had not met one another before. Therefore, their coming together under the auspices of an Irish-based youth organisation that will significantly enhance their ability to become community leaders was a very valuable opportunity for them. We hope to work with Foróige on developing new Foróige club opportunities across the whole Irish community worldwide.

Deputy Crowe raised the driving theory test and the reduction in the number of lessons from 12 to six. That is already in place and it will be made real in about two or three weeks' time. The recommendation from the Indecon report is that we go further again so anybody who held an Irish driving licence in the past will be able to return, do the theory test and proceed straight to the driving test. There is an EU requirement that one must do the driving test and there is no way around that but there would be no lessons whatsoever required for the theory and driving tests. The report also suggests that if one has not held an Irish driving licence but has significant safe driving experience elsewhere, one need do only two of the mandatory 12 lessons along with the theory and driving tests. We will engage with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on this matter in the coming months.

It is critical to point out that the publication of this report is not the end of a process but the beginning. For the past two years, we have had an interdepartmental committee in place involving all the Departments that can effect the desired changes. The 30 recommendations serve as the impetus for the committee. The committee has already received a copy of the report and I will ask it to respond with the actions it will now take to deliver on the recommendations. We will have three months in which to deliver on the actions. At the end of the three months, I will present a report to the Government on the successes of those actions. I hope that at the end of the three-month period, we will have seen significant developments in eliminating all the barriers. That is what we should be doing. There is no question but that it is the right thing to do.

The 500 people who are returning every week have a great deal to offer in terms of their skill sets and the experience they have garnered working in so many business environments internationally. Bringing these skills back to Ireland is invaluable to us as a people. We want to make returning emigrants feel welcome. This report and the recommendations therein are the beginning of that process. My colleagues and I in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will not rest until the vast majority, if not all, of the barriers are removed for good.