Thank you, Chairman. I will pass on your kind remarks about Mr. Seán Farrell.
We appreciate the opportunity to come here and explain what we have done in 2006 and what we will do in 2007. We value dialogue with Members because we act in the name of the Oireachtas, which provides us the with the power and the finance to operate. This committee has taken an active interest in the areas of responsibility of the unit. Members have particularly been interested in the undocumented Irish in the US, as well as the welfare of the Irish community in Britain. In visits to the US and Britain, their engagement has been welcomed by the Irish communities in those countries.
I wish to concentrate on the undocumented Irish in the US and on what we are doing in Britain. The Government places the highest priority on the plight of the undocumented Irish in the US. We are strongly committed to securing the passage of legislation which would enable them to regularise their position and provide a path to permanent residency in the US. Along with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has led an intensive lobbying campaign on behalf of the undocumented community. He has ensured that the issue is raised in all contacts with the US Administration and the US Congress. Even when we meet state officials, we raise the issue of the undocumented. It is the priority issue for the Department of Foreign Affairs in the US. That commitment will be reinforced during the forthcoming St. Patrick's Day celebrations. In between visits, the ambassador, the officials of the embassy and the consulates continue to be very active on the issue.
We are conscious that this is not a partisan issue. We have enjoyed complete cross-party support in the Oireachtas. Both Houses passed a resolution supporting the Kennedy-McCain approach last year, which was very helpful. We know we are acting in the national interest and that there are no major differences between the parties here on the issue.
I have spoken to many committee members in the past year, both individually and at the committee. They will remember the highs and lows of the year. The highest point was in May, when the Senate passed a Bill, known colloquially as the Hagel-Martinez Bill, which included key elements of the Kennedy-McCain approach. It was not perfect, but it looked after our essential interests. It divided the undocumented into three groups as follows: those who had been there for more than five years; those who had been there for between two and five years; and those who had been there less than two years. A different approach was taken for each group. The Bill was welcomed by the Irish community and by ILIR, as it provided a path to permanent residency for the vast majority of the undocumented Irish in the US. However, the situation in the House of Representatives was not as conducive to passing this Bill as we would have liked.
The Sensenbrenner-King Bill, which was essentially about enforcement, had gone through. At this stage, we hoped there would be a conference between the Senate and the House of Representatives in which to bring the two Bills together and reach a compromise solution. The House decided, however, that it would not engage in such a strategy but would instead take public soundings on approaches to immigration. This essentially killed the Bill and no further progress was made before the end of that congressional term.
Following the mid-term elections, the complexion of both the Senate and the House of Representatives changed. From the State's perspective, we are always keen to ensure we do not appear to be partisan in our discussions with the United States on such matters. This does not prevent us, however, from articulating our concerns and promoting the interests of our citizens. The changes that have occurred make the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform more likely. The Senate was always amenable to major immigration reform and the House of Representatives less so. The Democrats now have a slender majority in the Senate and a far more comfortable one in the House of Representatives.
The other key developments is the change in the chairmanships of committees. Senator Patrick Leahy, the new chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, through which new legislation is initiated, is a strong friend of Ireland. Senator Edward Kennedy continues as a high-ranking Democrat member of the committee. We are cautiously optimistic about the change of atmosphere in the House of Representatives. We are aware, however, that the hopes of undocumented Irish people in the United States have been raised in the past only to be dashed. This year, we will be cautiously optimistic in our attitude to the prospect of change.
The Presidency is the third House of Congress, and President Bush is very much in favour of comprehensive legislation on immigration reform. It seems, therefore, that the Houses are lined up and that there is potential for immigration reform. There is many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, however, and events may change. Nevertheless, the situation is better than it was before the election.
In an important signal of intent, the new Senate majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, introduced a sense of Congress resolution on 4 January, which called for immigration reform. Such resolutions do not have a legislative effect. The new Senate minority leader, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, supported this resolution and identified immigration as an important domestic issue that remained outstanding from the previous Congress. Within the Senate, the coalition that passed the Hagel-Martinez Bill is essentially intact, if not slightly strengthened, and the composition of the House of Representatives is more amenable to reform. From this perspective, this year looks far more promising than last.
Staff in the various offices, including those of Senators Kennedy, Leahy and McCain, are working together to prepare a draft Bill, which they hope to introduce at the end of February or beginning of March. Members are aware, however, of the tendency for slippage in any legislative process. It is likely the Bill will be considered by the full Senate in late spring or early summer. If passed, it will then go to the House of Representatives. The United States system, where legislation is initiated in the House, means there will always be a variety of Bills. There is a possibility, therefore, that the House Bill may be slightly different from the Senate Bill and that a reconciliation conference will be required. If the Senate Bill goes through by early summer, it will most likely be in September or October that the legislation is passed. I am constantly reminded to be cautious in this regard, however, and I reiterate that caution for the benefit of members.
The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform plans a series of public meetings in the United States in coming months. The purpose of these meetings is to keep the undocumented informed of developments in Washington. The lobby will work to keep in touch with its support base, maximise Irish community support for its campaign and reach out to members of Congress in various districts. The next day of action is 7 March. We maintain close contact with people in Washington, including Senators Kennedy, McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton. They believe that the Irish presence, as part of the campaign for major immigration reform, has been beneficial. It has probably been most beneficial in respect of us, but they have also brought in people like Poles to show that this is not a single country issue.
The Government has very warm relations with the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, ILIR. When it was set up, the unit helped the fund get off the ground. Since then, like the children of Lir, it has taken off. Initially, we donated almost the entire amount of funding, but now we would not even pay for one quarter of its budget. Corporate donations are coming in and I am glad to see that even people from Irish industry have given some support to ILIR. The people running ILIR, including Niall O'Dowd, Grant Lally and Ciaran Staunton, have done a very good job in mobilising the community and keeping it together. We have avoided that perennial Irish difficulty of the split so we have all stayed together.
Overall, the next year in the US for illegal immigrants offers hope and opportunity. The President and the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives are now behind the legislation long advocated by the supporters of comprehensive reform. Seeing the passage of the legislation will not be as easy as that. Significant challenges will remain, but the Government is cautiously optimistic.
I will turn to the second major item, which is Great Britain. Clearly, the unit has considerable interest in the welfare of Irish people in Great Britain. People will remember the RTE programme on Arlington House Hostel and the conditions in which people were living. The programme provoked quite a reaction in Ireland. I know members have travelled to Irish centres in Great Britain and are very aware of conditions there. We have made an enormous contribution to Great Britain and as the Chairman said, most of the publicity about people who have emigrated always focuses on the success stories. However, many people have not been successful and as a rich western European economy which benefited during our troubled times from remittances, there is a moral onus on us to help our less fortunate people abroad when we can now do so.
In recognition of that, the Government has massively increased finances. We started the programme in 1984 and since then, €40 million has been spent in Great Britain, 80% of which has been spent since 2000. Last year, €10 million was given to community organisations in Great Britain. It is having a tangible and positive effect. Sometimes it is hard to measure the alleviation of poverty, but there are one or two things I should probably mention.
The Simon Community, which carries out surveys on homeless people, estimates that the number of homeless Irish people in the central London boroughs has fallen by a factor of six. In 1999, it found that 600 Irish people were homeless, while in 2006, it found that the number was 100. The Simon Community has not been slow in ascribing this to the Government. We put a question to the Irish embassy yesterday. There are approximately 200 workers in Great Britain dealing with social matters who are funded either directly or partly by the Government so a massive effort has been made. A total of 140 Irish community organisations from Glasgow to Portsmouth are now in receipt of Government support.
Support has extended beyond the traditional Irish communities in Manchester and Birmingham. We have spread out much more and have concentrated very heavily on supporting older Irish members of the community. We all have relations and know of people who went over in the 1950s and 1960s and worked on the lump, did not integrate very well into UK society and formed defensive communities of their own people where they did not interact very well with the British state. I would not say these communities were ghettos. These people are now coming to the age when they need state services. With Irish organisations, we have helped bring them into the welfare state. We do not try to recreate the welfare state because Great Britain already has one. We help Irish migrants to access the available entitlements. The number of people who have not managed to do so is surprising.
As funding has increased, we have broadened our activities and are looking at funding and reaching Irish clubs and centres. I do not believe there is an enormous difference between welfare and helping Irish centres and organisations on the capital structural side because these places provide venues for Irish people and fight social exclusion. When I lived in Australia, I remember how the Irish club in Canberra organised games of 25, which seems a very simple thing to do, but people who had worked in the Snowy Mountains schemes came to the club and it revitalised them and brought them back into communities. Since 2004, the Irish Democratic League of Great Britain clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire have been financially supported. The membership of those clubs, the first of which was established by Michael Davitt during the Irish Land League's struggle in the 1880s, comprises mainly older Irish people who have settled in the north of England and second generation Irish. We want to keep people of Irish background involved and identified with Ireland.
The Minister has extended grants to a number of capital projects. In this way, the Government has supported community groups in their efforts to secure and maintain properties that will serve their communities well into the future. In 2006, 13 Irish community organisations received capital funding of €1.27 million, which they have used to leverage more money from local authorities and, in one or two cases, to access European funding. Good examples include the Luton Irish Forum, the Emerald Centre, Leicester, and the Cricklewood Homeless Concern, London.
We have established good links with the GAA, which plays a significant role in the Irish diaspora, as it does in Ireland. Recently, we announced that we will help to support three youth coaches in north America. We regard the GAA as playing a role in bringing the community together. It helps social inclusion rather than being just about sport; we term it "sport plus social inclusion". It helps to bring together the children of Irish people in places like Boston.
I will briefly outline what we are doing elsewhere. Since 1990, funding allocated to Irish centres in the United States has provided information and support services across a range of issues. The problems we face in the United States are not of the same magnitude as those we face in Britain. If one were to visit Yonkers and Woodside, one would often find old Irish people living in traditionally Irish areas, but everyone else has moved out. A small scattering of Irish people live in apartment blocks that have since become Hispanic. Those people are becoming isolated. We have worked with the centres to employ outreach workers to visit people and keep them in contact with their communities.
In Australia, we work with three groups in Melbourne, Sydney and Woolongong. We have also extended our funding to Canada. I met people in Toronto who were members of a seniors' club, as it is called there. They complained about how they would have received money if they had been on the other side of the lake in Buffalo. A man named Pat Rooney, who has brought together 200 Irish pensioners in a club, asked why they could not get money in Canada, which was a reasonable question.
We have started our first programme in Argentina, the Irish population of which moved there a long time ago. There has been no recent migration, but there is an active Irish community. We have three projects in Argentina. We have helped to get new equipment for the local Irish newspaper, theSouthern Cross, the main organ keeping the scattered community together. We have also paid for someone to work full-time with the Irish clubs and provided €15,000 for the renovation of a number of clubs, which went a long way in Argentina last year.
We have a small programme in southern Africa that relates somewhat to missionary issues. We have given €40,000 to Irish organisations in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In Mashonaland, where missionaries in isolated areas sometimes find travelling dangerous, we have paid for a bus to bring them to the Bulawayo Irish Society. We have done the same in South Africa. We also support groups based in Ireland. We have spent approximately €320,000 on a programme to advise emigrants and to help returnees.
In terms of outreach, we have covered the majority of traditional Irish areas. An application for assistance has been received from Irish pensioners in New Zealand, to which we will take a sympathetic view, but I cannot foresee the unit starting programmes in other areas. In the Estimates, we have been given €15.1 million, an increase of €3 million, for next year. We intend to maintain our strong welfare bias in that our number one issue is the relief of distress. With increasing resources, we would like to assist, for example, Irish clubs in Britain, many of which are approaching the end of their useful lives because they were built in the 1950s and must make a transition to a newer type of community. We would be interested in assisting them in that regard.