On behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, I welcome this opportunity to discuss this important issue in the Seanad. I convey the apologies of the Minister for not being able to be present. He is abroad on Government business and has asked me to stand in for him.
Almost every family in Ireland has suffered over the years in that they have been affected by emigration. The question of involuntary emigration has been a major challenge for successive Governments. For many years society was not able to provide employment for all our people and emigration became the only option for many. There were other reasons of a social nature that led many to conclude that they had no alternative but to emigrate. Many of those who left were, unfortunately, inadequately prepared for the challenges of living abroad and consequently suffered greatly. On the other hand, many Irish people achieved much success abroad and contributed greatly to their adopted countries, as well as to Ireland. The remittances sent home by Irish emigrants over the years are well known and testify to their desire to give something back to their native country.
Official figures show that, despite increasing levels of prosperity in more recent times, some 20,000 people continue to emigrate each year. This is still a substantial figure. To some extent, the continuing relatively high level of emigration is masked by the even larger numbers of people migrating to this country. Some of these are returned emigrants while others are citizens of other countries coming to work or study here. It should be noted that the 20,000 who emigrate are not leaving in the same circumstances as previous emigrants.
With this background, the Government, together with the social partners, agreed on a commitment in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to address the special needs of those Irish emigrants abroad who were particularly marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion. This was to be achieved by the establishment of a task force under the chairmanship of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, set up the task force on policy regarding emigrants in the latter part of last year and it held its first meeting in December 2001. The chairman of the task force was Mr. Paddy O'Hanlon and its members included representatives of the social partners, the voluntary agencies which provide services to Irish emigrants and the Departments most closely involved in this area. To ensure that the views of the Irish overseas were adequately reflected, representatives of Irish agencies in the United States and Great Britain were also included.
Its terms of reference asked that it recommend,inter alia, a coherent long-term approach to emigration and meeting the needs of emigrants. In this regard, special consideration was to be given to pre-departure services, services for emigrants overseas and services for returning emigrants. Particular emphasis was also placed on addressing the needs of vulnerable young and elderly emigrants. The task force initiated a public consultation process to ensure that all interested individuals and groups would have the opportunity to contribute to its work. It received a wide range of submissions and met with a number of people to discuss issues relating to its terms of reference. Members of the task force also travelled to Australia, Britain and the United States to meet with voluntary agencies providing services to Irish emigrants in those countries. In this context, I pay tribute to the voluntary agencies, at home and abroad, who provide assistance to emigrants and who play an indispensable role in helping them, either before they leave or while they are abroad.
The task force presented its report to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on 28 August 2002. I wish to congratulate the members of the task force, particularly its chairman, Mr. Paddy O'Hanlon, for producing such a wide ranging and thoughtful report in such a short time. The task force recommended that an integrated strategy be adopted to enable the provision of effective support for emigrants in the future. It argued that, for this to succeed, a partnership approach, involving the statutory authorities and the voluntary sector, in Ireland and overseas, as well as the Irish abroad, is needed. In the introduction to its report, the task force set the issue in context very well when it said:
The economic and social developments that have taken place in Ireland in recent years, and the new and inclusive definition of the Irish nation in Article 2 of the Constitution as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, provide a new context in which to view the phenomenon of Irish emigration and present an opportunity to put in place a new approach to meeting the needs of Irish emigrants.
At a practical level, the task force report set out a wide range of proposals to help reduce involuntary emigration and to assist Irish emigrants abroad and returning emigrants who required special support. Some of their proposals will require action by Government agencies. These include a new module on independent living in the school curriculum, which will apply to my Department and to the National Council for Curriculum Assessment. Other proposals are for the provision of television and radio services to the Irish abroad and the provision of housing and other supports for returning emigrants. Additional proposals require increased financial support for services provided by voluntary agencies at home and abroad.
The task force also recommended that greater recognition be given to those Irish who have emigrated, or who have been born abroad of Irish descent, through measures such as the establishment of an awards scheme and the provision of increased support to Irish community, cultural and sporting activities abroad that help people to maintain and express their Irish identity. The task force said it believed that new structures would be needed both to achieve the policy objectives and to implement the practical measures suggested in its report. It went on to recommend that responsibility for overall policy on emigration be given to the Department of Foreign Affairs and it proposed the establishment of a new agency for the Irish abroad under the aegis of that Department to co-ordinate the provision of services for Irish emigrants and Irish communities abroad. The task force also recommended a significant increase in the level of official funding for emigrant services. Last month, the Government approved a proposal by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to establish an interdepartmental working group to consider the recommendations in the task force report with a view to submitting proposals to the Government at an early date. That committee has met on a number of occasions and is expected to report shortly.
It is too early to anticipate what measures the Government may take on foot of the report. It is clear that many of the recommendations will require further consideration and development before they are ready for implementation. It is likely, therefore, that the recommendations will have to be phased over a number of years. The Government has demonstrated its commitment to protecting and supporting the Irish abroad by establishing the task force in the first place. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has made clear that he does not intend that the report should gather dust on a shelf. At the same time, the extent to which the Government will be able to provide additional resources will have to be considered in the context of the overall spending plans for next year.
I assure Members of the Seanad that the Government remains committed to the important issue of adequately addressing the needs of our emigrants abroad and particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged of our emigrants, both young and old.