I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe McHugh, and invite him to make his opening statement.
The Diaspora: Statements
Tá mé fíorbhuíoch a bheith anseo inniu fá choinne na díospóireachta seo maidir le daoine Éireannacha thar lear. Ba mhaith liom m'aitheantas agus mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Ceannaire an tSeanaid fá choinne an cuireadh seo a thabhairt dom.
Since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and overseas development aid, my focus has been on supporting and engaging Irish citizens and those of Irish descent living overseas. I have also been actively advocating for them and highlighting issues of concern to them both internationally and domestically. I do not treat this role lightly. My own county of Donegal has seen decades of emigration so it is something that resonates profoundly with me. I am passionate about being the Minister of State representing Irish people wherever they are in the world. In March 2015, the Government published Global Irish: Ireland's Diaspora Policy, its first clear strategy statement on the diaspora. We recognise that Ireland has a unique and important relationship with its diaspora that must be nurtured and developed. Drawing inspiration from our Constitution, our vision is a vibrant, diverse global Irish community connected to Ireland and to each other. Supporting our diaspora is a key priority for me as a Minister of State.
The Government's emigrant support programme, ESP, is clear evidence of the strength of the Government's continued commitment to our citizens and our communities abroad. Since its inception in 2004, the programme has provided over €148 million to over 400 organisations across the globe. In 2016 ESP funding supported over 230 organisations in more than 30 countries. As I have travelled and met with Irish communities across the world, in London, Glasgow, Boston, San Francisco, Edinburgh, Vienna, Istanbul, Nairobi and Kampala, I have seen the very real difference that our funding and our people make and the fantastic work being done by Irish community organisations. For example, just this week in London, I had meetings with Patrick Morrison and Mary Tilki of the Irish in Britain. I visited the London Irish Centre in Camden and had a lengthy engagement with the staff who provide expert advice and guidance to those newly arriving in London as well as older longer term residents who are now concerned about the uncertainty created by Brexit. I met Fr. Tom Devereux and Eddie Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy and Sally Mulready and Margaret Geiger of the Irish Elderly Advice Network. A month ago, I had the honour of seeing the newly refurbished Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, meeting Jim O'Hara and his team and visiting Nora Higgins, Rita Andrews and their team at Southwark Irish Pensioners Project. I was glad to be able to reassure them all about the Government's work on Brexit and to give a commitment of our ongoing support.
Our support is not just about the funding itself. The emigrant support programme also nurtures a wider sense of connection with home and fosters the sense among Irish people abroad that we value them. The importance of that to the Irish abroad and to families across Ireland should not be underestimated and I see it all the time in my own constituency.
I have also met with Irish community organisations and leaders doing fantastic work in San Francisco and Boston. I was accompanied by Senator Billy Lawless in New York and Boston. While in Boston, I met with Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston and Governor Charlie Baker along with Fr. Dan Finn of the Irish Pastoral Centre, Seamus Mulligan of the Irish Cultural Centre of New England and Ronnie Millar of the Irish International Immigrant Center. In San Francisco I met with Celine Kennelly and Fr. Brendan McBride, from the Rosses in my own county, of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center in San Francisco. I look forward to building on this community engagement when I travel to Philadelphia and New York in March.
We are all aware that this is a particularly uncertain and anxious time for undocumented Irish citizens in the US and for their families here at home. In New York, I chaired a round-table meeting with representatives of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres, which brings together Irish immigration centres from across the United States. It was an important opportunity for me to hear from them at first hand and to reassure them of the Government's support for their organisations. We remain fully committed to the twin objectives of relief for undocumented citizens and greater pathways for migration to the US.
The services funded by the emigrant support programme include welfare and legal advice services uniquely tailored to the needs of undocumented citizens. In 2016, we allocated more than €2.3 million in funding to organisations across the United States. Our ambassador in Washington hosted a key strategic meeting of stakeholders in the area of immigration at the embassy on 12 January. Senator Billy Lawless attended the meeting. We had an exchange of views on how progress might best be made in the new political context.
Amid the uncertainty and concern associated with announcements in the US, including another one this week, it should be emphasised that much will depend on how the executive orders are to be implemented. It is worth noting that many actions in the orders will require additional funding from Congress and possibly lengthy lead-in times to recruit and train additional staff. Our embassy in Washington is currently working with the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres to ensure that undocumented Irish citizens have access to clear, factual information about the executive orders, and also clear, practical advice as to action they can take to ensure they are in the best possible position. The Government will continue to use every channel available to it, including the upcoming visit by the Taoiseach to Washington, and by Ministers to other key US cities, to voice support for Irish citizens and to sensitise the new Administration to our concerns.
Significant funding and support is also provided by the Department through the emigrant support programme, to support citizens who wish to return to Ireland. Through chairing the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad, I have been working to oversee joined-up delivery of the diaspora policy and also to examine issues affecting the Irish abroad and those wishing to return home to Ireland. The next meeting of the committee will take place at the end of March, to allow Ministers to report back on issues raised by Irish communities abroad with them during their St Patrick's Day travel programmes.
We are all rightly concerned about issues that have been identified as potential barriers, for example: job opportunities, especially in rural areas; access to affordable housing; the rising cost of motor insurance and health insurance premiums; access to schools and affordable child care; recognition of foreign driving licences; recognition of qualifications; and social protection issues including transfer of pensions. I invited representatives of Crosscare and Safe Home to brief the committee so that Department representatives would have a clear and complete understanding of the issues. I will invite Departments to bring forward proposals on the next steps at the next meeting. I am also pleased to report that over the past decade more than €4 million has been allocated by my Department to Crosscare and Safe Home, for their work with returning emigrants and I am pleased to report that their funding in 2016 increased by €60,000 on the 2015 figure.
I would be delighted if I could solve all of these issue immediately, but as everyone will appreciate, many of the concerns raised are cross-cutting matters and addressing them will naturally involve the co-operation of relevant Departments and ongoing engagement with industry and service providers. Indeed, some of the issues are not exclusive to returning emigrants. Issues relating to the availability and cost of housing, child care and motor insurance, for example, are relevant to the whole population, and are issues that the Government is working actively to address.
As Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs my objective is to ensure that all Government policies are developed and delivered in a way that takes account of returning emigrants and does not inadvertently create additional barriers. Having spent time as an emigrant myself I know how important it is for the Government to communicate more, and more effectively, with those who have left Ireland and I have made this work central to what we do. Our @GlobalIrish Twitter account has gained on average 60 new followers a week since I took office. Regular newsletters are sent featuring and promoting networks overseas to readers all over the world.
St. Patrick's Day is a particular focal point for communicating with the diaspora but throughout the year the global Irish remain connected with us and with each other through our work with Irish sporting and cultural organisations. Government support for the GAA, for example, has enabled the global games development fund. With our help, people are playing hurling in Buenos Aires and ladies football in Vietnam. With our help also, Irish people and their children are keeping up with the cúpla focal in Hong Kong, Paris and Sydney. Yesterday I was informed that, incredibly, 250 people in London have attended an Irish class in the past six months. With our help, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann is active in Birmingham, the West Midlands, and Birmingham, Alabama.
In May at the Global Irish Civic Forum I will bring together 150 delegates from across the world who are working at the coalface in delivering supports to the diaspora. My ambition is that we build even greater innovation and sustainability into community organisations so that they thrive and grow. In particular, I will focus on digital initiatives so that those organisations can communicate better with us, with each other and with the wider diaspora. The Government is also providing support to Irish business networks who seek to help Irish business people to connect with each other and seek out new opportunities, including for trade and investment in Ireland. In 2016, the appointment of Ireland's first Senator for the diaspora, Senator Billy Lawless, was an important step in recognising the contribution of citizens based abroad.
As regards the important issue of extending voting rights in presidential elections to citizens abroad, I am working actively with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan. Our immediate priority is to complete the report to Government setting out the policy, legal and practical implications of extending voting rights. I am happy to report that extensive work has been carried out by officials in both Departments in this regard.
As we look ahead and consider the review of the implementation of the diaspora policy I am keen to encourage even more responsive solutions to problems faced by emigrants. I urge Members of this House to come forward with suggestions and to use the platform of the civic forum on 4 and 5 May to continue the engagement. There must be even greater cross-Government policy coherence in their service in the year ahead, and better engagement between the different generations of the Irish abroad.
Thank you, Acting Chairman, for the opportunity to address the Seanad this afternoon. As we prepare for St. Patrick's Day and consider the real needs of the diaspora I look forward to the discussion with Members of the key issues facing us, and on the key opportunities we need to embrace.
I welcome the Minister of State. It is great to see him here today. As he alluded to, it is estimated that approximately 70 million people around the world claim Irish heritage or ancestry, as well as the 1.2 million Irish-born citizens living abroad. Fianna Fáil recognises the importance of the diaspora and the need to maintain and build positive relationships with the millions of people of Irish descent around the globe.
Fianna Fáil was the first political party to appoint a spokesperson on the Irish overseas and the diaspora, and subsequently to form policy in that regard. Fianna Fáil is committed to supporting the diaspora through continued funding of the emigrant support programme. The Minister of State has detailed where much of the money from the programme has been spent. We support, in principle, extending voting rights to Irish citizens abroad in presidential elections. Much work was done in 2013 on the issue but progress appears to have come to a halt. It is something we should try to develop further.
I note there are legal, political and policy implications involved but we continue to advocate for the undocumented in the United States and we are committed to maintaining a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora.
The diaspora is a rich resource and a huge benefit to Ireland. Maintaining and building upon our engagements with the diaspora is a core element of Fianna Fáil foreign policy. New technologies and the rise of global media have increased connectivity with the diaspora. That forges the opportunity to engage more than ever before and share ideas, knowledge and influence beyond the physical borders of the island of Ireland.
The diaspora is of significant importance to this country culturally, politically and economically and can help to foster good bilateral relationships with other nation states. While we gain so much from the diaspora it is important that the diaspora is supported by the Government and continues to feel the benefits from our continued friendship and support.
My greatest fear in this regard relates to the undocumented Irish in America because they account for the largest group within the diaspora at present that is in such a quandary. I hope with all the politicking that has gone on in recent weeks that the Taoiseach will focus on the priority of the nation.
This is one of the biggest crises facing our nation. Some of President Trump's statements about undocumented people are quite alarming, particularly in the Irish scenario. We were one of the forefathers of the building of the United States, and that link should not now be broken. Our undocumented migrants in the US are all there to work, and they are all working hard. They are not there for a free ride.
I ask the Leader to press on the Taoiseach, as he travels to America, that this is a serious concern to Ireland. If the Taoiseach is to do anything over the next few months, apart from appearing in the newspapers for other reasons, this should be a priority.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the continued support for the global Irish by his Department and the Government. I have been working with immigration support groups in Chicago and nationwide for over 12 years. I was one of the founding members of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform. Successive Governments, and the current Taoiseach in particular, have always put the global Irish to the fore of Government policy. The first thing discussed when Irish Ministers come to Capitol Hill is the undocumented Irish. The bipartisan Congress group, Friends of Ireland, met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, last week. The representation included Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
The document produced in March 2015, Global Irish - Ireland’s Diaspora Policy, was the first clear Irish Government policy on the diaspora. It acknowledges and highlights Ireland’s unique and important relationship with its diaspora. This relationship must be nurtured and developed.
Government funding through the Government’s emigrant support programme has been provided since 2004 to non-profit organisations, to projects to support Irish communities overseas, and to nurture links between home and our Irish overseas. This year the allocation is over €11.5 million. More than €2.3 million is allocated to organisations in the United States.
A few days ago a number of memos signed by President Trump sought to escalate his executive orders on immigration enforcement. The memo of most concern to the Irish is the hiring of an additional 10,000 immigration and customs officers, and 5,000 border patrol agents. These Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, officials will focus on deporting convicted felons, and people involved in gang activity and drug trafficking. They will prioritise the arrest of deportable immigrants who have abused public benefits. Fortunately, we have very little criminality among the Irish community. Thankfully, the order exempts those protected by President Obama’s deferred action for childhood arrivals. This covers many Irish emigrants who are now parents of US-born children.
This is a critical time for Ministers visiting the United States for the St. Patrick’s week festivities. We have many friends in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. We have to deliver the message that there is a special case to be made for the Irish. It is very important to remember that in 2013 an immigration reform Bill was passed in the Senate with bipartisan support. The Bill gave 10,500 visas in perpetuity to Ireland. This is the base we should be working from now. The goodwill was there. I spoke with Senator Dick Durbin in Washington DC just before I returned to Ireland. I wanted to find out if there had been any objections to the granting of the Irish visas. He told me that there had not been one objection.
We should be using our economic relationship with the United States. Irish companies in the United States employ nearly as many workers as American companies employ here. There is certainly a special relationship between Ireland and the United States. We should have more reciprocity on visas. This is something that could be worked on. Many Members of Congress have stated that they are going to tackle immigration reform this year. This is entirely necessary, particularly in light of the recent executive orders affecting these issues. I would press upon the Minister of State and his colleagues that when they go to the US they use their platform to seek out the special relationship that is there.
The interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad, which the Minister of State chairs, has at its core the facilitation of cross-border approaches to the needs of the returning Irish. There are many issues facing returning Irish. This week I raised with the Department of Education and Skills the serious issue around access to third level education. A Galway man emigrated to Silicon Valley with his children. He is working for Medtronic. They are there seven or eight years. His children are highly motivated students who are ready to go to university. They would qualify for the merit programme for scholarships to US colleges but, because they are Irish citizens, they cannot avail of any scholarship in the United States. If they come back to Ireland they would have to pay practically full fees to attend an Irish university as they have not been in college for three of the past five years. That is wrong. The Minister must look at that.
There are other problems which face returning citizens. These include car insurance, driving licences, grants for first-time home buyers, farm registrations and so forth. There are a lot of different Departments involved. We should be making it easy for our returning emigrants. It is possible that we will have a lot returning, as we cannot foresee the effects of President Trump's executive orders. We should be ready for them. I am fully confident that the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and overseas development aid, Deputy McHugh, will do everything possible to facilitate policies across Government to ensure that barriers to returning to Ireland are very few.
One issue very close to my heart is voting rights for the Irish aboard. Along with Noreen Bowden and Kevin Sullivan, I am a founding member of votingrights.ie. I was delighted that the public consultation process undertaken to review the diaspora policy reinforced the wish for extending voting rights to Irish around the world. Ireland is one of only three EU countries which do not have voting rights abroad. I welcome the Minister of State's comments that extensive work has been done in this area. It is vital that we progress this matter without undue delay. We do not want to be accused of fudging the issue. I appreciate it is a complex decision. However, we have been able to overcome a lot of other things in this country, so let us hope that this gets done as quickly as possible.
The upcoming global Irish civic forum on 4 and 5 May in Dublin Castle will be an opportunity to connect with representatives of over 140 organisations working with the Irish community globally. The people attending this forum, many of whom I met when the event took place two years ago, are phenomenal. I think the bookings had to be closed as we had so many applying. Of those people, 99% were volunteers. They came from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. There were people I had never heard of there. The untold work they do for our emigrants abroad is outstanding.
Listening to them, one finds out about the problems Irish citizens have abroad. I welcome the forum that will take place on 4 and 5 May.
I know there is a good deal of pressure on the Minister of State now, particularly from both the undocumented Irish and their families here in Ireland. I hear about it every day also. We have to protect our people, but I assure the Minister I will not leave any stone unturned in my deliberations with US Government Senators and Congressmen to encourage and promote realistic possibilities for a solution. I look forward to continuing to work with the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the Taoiseach.
I gave Senator Lawless a little extra time but it was important that as our Senator representing the diaspora, he had as much time as he needed.
At the outset I want to welcome my colleague and fellow Ulsterman, the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, and commend the energy, commitment and effectiveness he brings to the role. I am also happy to share this platform in the Seanad with Senator Lawless. The appointment by the Taoiseach of the Minister of State's predecessor, Jimmy Deenihan, as Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs, and Senator Lawless to the Seanad is a clear recognition of how Government views the question of our diaspora and its centrality. There is no question about that, nor should there be.
From my earliest childhood the question of emigration impinged on me in a very significant way in terms of my extended family and my neighbours. It was very much part of our lives. One of my earliest memories is of seeing a lovely lady crying at the end of an avenue near where I lived and asking my parents why that was the case. They told me it was because she had just left her daughter in a hackney car which would take her to the bus to go to England. That was the reality of emigration, and it was a reality in every home throughout the community in which I grew up. I am very attuned to it. As a student I worked every summer in areas where there were large emigrant communities. As the chair of a local authority, I undertook many visits to Irish communities in the United Kingdom and in America.
It was important that we had not only the appointments I cited earlier but that in March 2015, we developed Global Irish: Ireland's Diaspora Policy, which sought to support and have a policy and focus on our diaspora under a number of headings.
The funding under the Government's emigrant support fund was continued effectively by this Government. That was initiated in 2004 by a previous Administration. In 2017, we committed €11.5 million to that programme, which supports numerous organisations across the Irish communities abroad and does very good work. I am aware that in 2016, €2.3 million was given to two quality organisations in America. That is highly commendable.
It is a conservative estimate to say that there are 50,000 undocumented Irish. The figure belies the human tragedy, however, including the painful reality of not being able to return home for family funerals or weddings, the living in fear and all that goes with that, and living under the radar, so to speak. I heard one emigrant being interviewed on what I believe was the Sean O'Rourke programme - I am not quite sure - who said there was nothing wrong with that but that she could only work as a waitress in bars. There was a limited number of occupations she could take up because she was undocumented. It is a dreadful no man's land, and it is a very serious situation.
Senator Lawless referenced the fact that some undocumented Irish might be able to come home. That is the case, but the Senator is more aware than any of us in the Chamber that many of them are not in a position to come home because of bonds they have formed and their particular circumstances in America. It is not an option to come home, and that makes it particularly painful and difficult for them. There is great uncertainty and fear among the undocumented Irish now.
I join my colleagues in saying to the Minister of State that we want an all-out diplomatic assault on this question. We want it to be the major priority around the St. Patrick's Day visits of the Minister of State and other Ministers to America and of the Taoiseach. Our commitment to and concern about this issue has to go all the way to Capitol Hill and to all the relevant personnel in terms of what we want done. There has to be a major diplomatic offensive in that regard. I would like to hear the Minister of State commit to that in his response and outline how that would happen, and I know the Minister has a similar view of the world in that regard.
Senator Lawless cited the good work he has been doing and highlighted the great business relationships between the US and Ireland. That must be built on and reciprocal arrangements need to be put in place in that regard. There is not much more to be said other than we want a major diplomatic offensive on this issue and no obfuscation. Nothing else is more important on this St. Patrick's Day, and nothing should be attacked as widely as this move.
I am glad that the global Irish civic forum will meet here again in May 2017 and that it will bring all the wonderful organisations together. I am happy to hear that the Minister of State has done background work on that. In that regard, it has been mooted that we would have The Gathering No. 2 where the Irish abroad would be the focus and send their representatives home. The Minister is probably not at liberty to go into detail on it yet, but I commend the move if it is true and if it is not, it should be considered because it is a great idea. It would be a tremendous potential source of tourism, although bonds and friendships have been formed. It would be very relevant in dealing with the undocumented Irish and what we are trying to do in that regard. I am in favour of holding The Gathering a second time. The previous one was a very successful affair. We should have The Gathering No. 2, with the focus on emigrant communities around the world.
The tourism potential in terms of our diaspora is enormous. We had 8 million visitors to the country last year who spent €4.7 billion. That was a 9% increase on 2015. Much of that is related to the diaspora, and it is very important.
The country has a skills shortage. One thousand jobs a month are being created in the construction sector. According to a DKM Economic Consultants report for the Construction Industry Federation, 112,000 skilled employees are needed in the sector. For that reason, there is potential to encourage some emigrants home from various countries. The Minister of State might respond to that when concluding the debate.
In the contributions of all Members of the Seanad who speak in this debate, and it would be the case if there was a debate in the Dáil, the focus is on the one question that concerns us, namely, the position of our undocumented Irish in America. I do not want anything to distract from that. I look forward to the Minister of State's further comment on that when he concludes the debate.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, cé go bhfuil tréimhse fada imithe ón am a thosaigh muid ag iarraidh go dtiocfadh sé isteach ag caint linn. Mar is eol dó, is mise urlabhraí Shinn Féin maidir leis an diaspóra. Tá mé an-bhródúil as an taithí agus an stair atá ag Sinn Féin ó thaobh déileáil lenár gcuid saoránach thar lear ar fud an domhain. Ar bhealach, tá sé deacair glacadh leis nuair a deirtear go bhfuil an Rialtas ar an leathanach céanna linn ós rud é nach féidir linn i gcónaí na gníomhartha atá ag tarlú ar an talamh ó thaobh chúrsaí diaspóra de a fheiceáil. Ní fiú faic dóibh siúd atá ag smaoineamh ar teacht ar ais go hÉirinn an dea-thoil atáimid ag léiriú anseo agus atá le cloisteáil ón Rialtas. Tá lucht an diaspóra ag rá liom go bhfuil na húdaráis anseo ag cur bac ar dhaoine atá ag iarraidh teacht abhaile, cé go bhfuil siad ag rá go bhfuil siad ag cur fáilte rompu. Míneoidh mé é sin ar ball. Caithfear tacaíocht chuí a chur ar fáil don diaspóra agus an beart a dhéanamh. Ag cruinniú den Comhchoiste um Ealaíona, Oidhreacht, Gnóthaí Réigiúnacha, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta an tseachtain seo caite, léirigh na heagraíochtaí a tháinig chun cainte linn go soiléir an frustrachas agus an díomá atá orthu. Mhínigh siad go bhfuil siad ag streachailt leis na mblianta aird an Rialtais a choinneáil ar an gceist seo. Molaim an Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, Safe Home Ireland agus na grúpaí eile a labhair ag an gcoiste sin.
Last week in the Joint Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, we had a very informed debate on the issues facing the Irish diaspora.
Much reference was made during the contributions to the interdepartmental working group on the diaspora. Many third parties such as those in attendance last week had made submissions to that committee, and I know that the Minister of State has said that it is meeting again in March, but can he clarify how often it has met since he has become Minister of State? What has the committee actually achieved? We were told that the work of that committee is very slow. Which Ministers are taking part and what have they achieved? On a practical level, while I was researching this debate I asked for a copy of the submissions that were made to that interdepartmental committee and I was not successful in getting those documents. Perhaps the Minister of State and his Department could furnish us with those detailed submissions so that we can review them in greater detail.
The most refreshing point of view I heard during that debate was that we should not think of those who emigrated as anything other than Irish citizens, that is, Irish citizens wanting to return to Ireland. The role of the Government is not just as a goodwill ambassador but as the representative of these citizens, therefore there is a role to play in removing any barriers that remain for those wishing to return. We are all very well versed in this Government's rhetoric about how the Fianna Fáil-led Administration ruined the economy and forced thousands to emigrate.
It follows then that as some form of recovery takes place there must be an increased effort by the Government to reverse this emigration. I was in the Department of Social Protection in Galway last Friday and we were looking at the unemployment figures, and yes, there is a fall in the unemployment figures in the Galway area, but when one looks at the age cohort it is clear that one of the major reasons the figures fell so dramatically is that most of the people under 34 have emigrated, and that has a huge effect.
On a point of order, they are actually returning at the moment.
They are returning-----
There is a net return at the moment.
-----but there are serious barriers. I will talk about the barriers in a moment.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh without interruption, please.
Many want to return but cannot for practical reasons. It is not just Sinn Féin that is pushing for this Government-centred approach. In 2014, addressing a US multinational forum, An Taoiseach said that the job of Government is to make Ireland more attractive so that people will want to come back. I could not agree more with the sentiment. The fact that the roughly 300,000 people who left between 2010 and 2014 were between 16 and 45 years of age means that most of them will be looking for employment on their return. There are many difficulties facing emigrants wishing to return to Ireland, and Sinn Féin has consistently made the Government aware of these issues and we continue to put pressure on it to act upon them. We want an Ireland that is seen as an attractive and viable option for emigrants thinking of returning home.
Many returning emigrants face difficulties in obtaining car insurance and are often charged extortionate premiums. For example, someone returning from five years in Australia with a no claims record may not have that record recognised when applying for cover upon returning to Ireland. In the report by the finance committee Sinn Féin ensured that reference to this was made, and will be keeping the pressure on the insurance companies to act quickly.
The Minister of State is currently putting our undocumented emigrants in the United States in jeopardy. Many of those were dependent on their driver's licence as their photo ID in the situation that they are in. Changes in the way that the licences are being issued mean that people now have to come to an Irish department on the island of Ireland to get their new licences reissued, and they cannot do that if they are undocumented because it would mean that they cannot go back. That must be addressed as an issue because this has been a crucial piece of documentation that many of the undocumented Irish have been using.
Many banks now demand that recent utility bills be produced as proof of address in order to open a new account. Mobile phone bills are not accepted for this purpose. It is impossible to sign up to utility services in the first place if one does not have the utility bills to back up the opening of the bank account. The banks must ensure that habitual residency regulations are not allowed to act as a barrier to returning emigrants, and I am not sure if there is an engagement with the banks on those issues. Many returning emigrants also face difficulty in having their previous year's PRSI contributions recognised, especially when applying for assistance in the first few months after returning.
There is a need for Quality and Qualifications Ireland to update the current list of qualifications and to respond speedily to requests for recognition and placement of qualifications earned abroad. This issue has been highlighted in various surveys of emigrants as one of the main obstacles. The Government has entered into a number of separate agreements with regional governments in several countries for mutual recognition of driver's licences. These agreements do not cover all areas of countries. For example, in Canada only a few provinces have made such an arrangement with the State. Perhaps the Minister of State can update us as to what work is ongoing to increase the level of acceptance.
We have been asking for the Minister of State to come here since we were all elected last year. Without wanting these topics to dominate the debate, Brexit and President Trump's election have added urgency to the need to act and to show Irish emigrants that we can match deed with word. The uncertain situation of the 50,000 Irish people who are undocumented in the US and the broader implications of the policy decisions being taken by President Trump for the lives of the 50 million Irish people who live there are of huge importance. This week's announcement has been particularly worrying to people who have been in contract with me, and the fact that more police at a lower level are going to be given extra powers to stop and detain people who have any kind of a record against them is very worrying. It appears that there is no plan or strategy to address these challenges.
The rights of women, members of the LGBTQ community, religious freedom, social and cultural rights, the business community and others are in danger of being seriously undermined or changed dramatically, and we need to know what supports are being provided and what advice is being given to these Irish people in the United States. We know that the Ministers are travelling on St. Patrick's Day, but what is the message that our Ministers are actually going out there and giving?
I have so much more I could say on this issue. A mother contacted me during the week. Her daughter has moved to Canada as a student, and the mother was the guarantor of a bank loan of hers. The bank is now hounding this lady's daughter even though she is making repayments on her bank loan. The mother is the guarantor of the loan and the bank will not engage with the mother, who is actually physically on the island of Ireland. It is a disgrace. It is little practical stories like that, of agencies and organisations on this island that are not engaging and are not making it easy for the diaspora and our Irish citizens to return.
There has been a lot of talk on the subject of voting rights. It is time for action. I want to know what is in the report, what type of a model of voting rights the Minister of State is going to advocate, when it will come forward and if we will have it in time for the next Presidential election. Those are the questions I am being asked by the Irish diaspora.
I thank the Minister of State for his time this afternoon. I welcome the chance to have the debate on the Irish diaspora in this House as I often think that it is an issue that can fall by the wayside in the day to day proceedings of our domestic politics.
It is no secret that Ireland has had a long history of emigration reaching back to the 19th century and the time of the Great Irish Famine, with significant emigration numbers in the intervening period now resulting in an estimated 60 million people around the world claiming some form of Irish descent. While I do think that there is a great deal to be proud of when it comes to the achievements of our rich, varied and expansive diaspora, with many Irish Americans in particular becoming leading worldwide figures in commerce, politics and science, it is an unfortunate reality that they are abroad and are succeeding because for a long time Ireland was unable to create a country in which they felt they could succeed and flourish. Today that unfortunate reality has returned, with EUROSTAT reporting in 2013 that Ireland had the largest net emigration rate of any European member state. Many Irish young people in recent years have found that their home country has not been able to support them in finding appropriate employment, housing and ensuring that they are free to build a full and happy life here, especially as a result of the economic crash. As a result many have made the decision to leave, and in the context of our recent economic challenges who could blame them?
As legislators it is my firm belief that one of our greatest political priorities should be to consider how we can attract and convince our recent emigrants to return home. How can we show Irish people living abroad, young and old, that Ireland is a place that they can return to and that there is a place here for them? This is a huge, complex issue that covers a range of policy areas, but I do think that there are sensible and straightforward steps that could be taken. For example, to echo Senator Lawless on education, the fact that many Irish citizens abroad cannot access free EU fees when they come back here to study is a real issue. It is not the Department that imposes this but the individual universities. They can change that on an ad hoc basis. I do not know if the Department should play a role in having a universal rule across all the universities that they do not decide who they exclude and include on an ad hoc basis with regard to EU fees.
The most proactive initial step that we could take would be to strengthen the civil and participatory links between Ireland and its diaspora. A diaspora that is able to engage in Irish politics from abroad is a diaspora in the country that they have left behind and gives them a voice in how the country is governed and moving forward. As a result we should be looking at innovative new ways to politically engage with our diaspora, with moves such as the extension of the presidential voting rights representing a good first step.
Moreover, one of the most welcome aspects of the debate on Seanad reform has been consideration of how the House could become a centre for political engagement and ensure the voices of the Irish abroad are heard in domestic politics, as proposed in the Seanad Bill 2016.
In terms of engagement with the diaspora, we should also consider using our embassies abroad to enable citizens living abroad to vote. The university panels provide a good model for how the diaspora could be included in Irish politics. In many ways, I and the other university Senators represent the diaspora, albeit only those who have a degree. In recent weeks, I have been back and forth to London meeting members of the diaspora, mainly Trinity College Dublin alumni. We should capitalise on their engagement, interest in their home country and desire to know what is happening here and how the country is moving forward. We must also ensure that representation of the diaspora in the Oireachtas extends beyond university graduates.
I welcome this debate. I will try to build on rather than repeat a couple of the points made by previous speakers who articulated the concern about recent executive orders issued by the President of the United States. The migration orders will have a significant impact on the Irish diaspora. Concerns also arise from Brexit given that we have had a sizeable diaspora in the United Kingdom for centuries. The increase in powers of detention and deportation in the United States are also a serious concern.
As a country with a history of emigration and one of the highest levels of emigration in the world, Ireland has an obligation not only to make the case for Irish emigrants but also to speak about migration more generally. Our history gives us a moral authority and obligation in this regard. When we assumed a leading role in the United Nations summit on migration and refugees in September 2016, we also assumed an obligation to speak in solidarity with all migrants and champion the positive narrative about migration at a global level.
As important as the Taoiseach's forthcoming visit to Washington may be, we must also send people to places such as Boston which the Irish-American mayor, Martin Walsh, has declared a sanctuary city. We must also support Irish migrants in the United States who have championed a positive narrative on migration and ensure this is part of the message we give. I hope the Minister of State will also bring this message to New York and the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia.
Many Irish people in the United Kingdom have partners who are European Union citizens. This gives rise to an interlinking issue not only of protecting the freedom of travel of Irish citizens but also of considering the ability of EU citizens to travel and their security in the UK, as well as recognising that our migrants are integrated, as they should be, in a vast network of people from all over the world.
While it is good to discuss the returning Irish, we must also be honest about the emigrating Irish. I have stated frequently that the unemployment figures do not reflect the hundreds of thousands of people who have emigrated.
I ask the Minister of State to comment on a few specific and practical issues. Resources must be provided to the registry of births, deaths and marriages to support those who are trying to trace their Irish ancestry. Will the Minister of State comment on PRSI and, in particular, pensions for older migrants returning to Ireland? While I welcome the support provided to this group, emigrants returning from Britain face new challenges as a result of Brexit in terms of PRSI and pensions. Will the Minister of State also comment on the impact of the habitual residency condition?
It is important to have political representation and engagement. The university Senators offer emigrants one of few opportunities they have to obtain representation. I encourage emigrants to register for the university panel by 26 February. However, Seanad reform is needed to ensure everyone can have his or her voice heard.
I have benefited from the J1 and Fulbright scholarship schemes, both of which are very important for our educational institutions. I ask the Minister of State to comment on the schemes and the cultural links and ambassadors who have played a key role.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this debate on a wide-ranging issue. My colleague, Senator Ruane, spoke about emigration from the Famine years. However, we know Irish emigration extends much further back in the past. We had St. Brendan, for example, the Wild Geese and the Ulster Scots who went to America. Irish people can be found all over the world, including Australia, Canada and the United States, whose Irish immigrants are represented very well by Senator Lawless. However, people with Irish roots can also be found in less well-known countries such as Argentina.
I would like to use my time to develop the comments made by Senators Ó Clochartaigh and Higgins and focus on the members of the diaspora living closest to home, namely, Irish people in the United Kingdom who find themselves in uncharted territory and a difficult position as a result of the vote on Brexit last year. I appeal to the Minister of State, who was in Westminster earlier this week, and the Minister for Education and Skills, who will be in Britain for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations, to use every visit to the UK and every opportunity available to them to press the case of Irish people in Britain and emphasise our ideas for solutions to the problems presented by Brexit. They must also emphasise to their UK counterparts the need to come together.
Two issues emerged from an excellent committee meeting we had this morning with colleagues from the House of Commons. First and foremost, it is time to identify solutions to the problems arising from Brexit. We all know what the problems are but it is time to identify solutions. We must use all the institutions and forums available to us, whether here, in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and including the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and British-Irish Council, to find solutions to be presented, jointly with the United Kingdom, to the 27 EU member states for inclusion in the Brexit negotiations. Some of these solutions are obvious.
I welcome Irish people who decide to return to Ireland, especially those working in the city of London, many of whom are friends of mine. While I look forward to them coming home, many are not in a position to do so as they have settled in the UK where they have found good jobs, bought homes and started families. We must ask what special status can be secured for EU citizens living in the UK and what reciprocal status can be provided for the several million British citizens living in the European Union, including 300,000 in the Republic of Ireland and large numbers in Spain. We must maintain the common travel area between Ireland and the UK. There is a desire and momentum towards viewing the island of Ireland as a solution and ensuring it does not have a hard internal Border. There is an openness to this issue at a European level. I and Senator Craughwell spoke to Mr. Guy Verhofstadt and Mr. Michel Barnier in the past two weeks and both men regard this proposition as acceptable.
While it is important that we hammer home our long-term goals, we must identify and secure a transitional agreement. Brexit negotiations may last for two years but the outcomes will take much longer to implement. For this reason, I fear many of the diaspora living closest to home may fall into the gaps. An agreement must be reached as early as possible on transitional special recognition of Irish workers in the United Kingdom. The arrangement should apply to all EU workers in the UK and reciprocal arrangements should apply to British workers in the EU. I am aware, for example, that there are large numbers of Cypriots and Maltese citizens living in the UK. Let us make clear to our negotiating partners in the EU and our counterparts in the UK, starting with the meetings which will be held this week and next, that we have an ideal solution to a very obvious problem that must be resolved in the short term by means of a transitional agreement.
I welcome the Minister of State and appreciate the opportunity to speak on this issue. As with most Senators, I have family members abroad. Most Members will recall the dark days of the 1980s when contact was made via long distance telephone calls and we welcomed our emigrants home at Christmas time. It is often said that the cameras are always rolling in Dublin Airport at Christmas time when emigrants are returning but they rarely capture the images of heartbreak as people leave on flights to Britain or the United States in the new year.
I am fully conversant with that situation and know exactly what it is like to have an empty chair at the table. It is a difficult reality that almost every family in Ireland has been through at one stage or another. I have a brother living in Canada and a sister in London.
We now find ourselves between Trump and Brexit. Trump's executive orders are fundamentally xenophobic and patently racist. On the other hand, we have a Brexit debate which is centred around the issue of immigration. We have an international, historic and moral obligation to tell the world the story of the Irish people. As we approach St. Patrick's Day and enter the most powerful rooms in the world, with Ministers travelling around the world, we need to reiterate the fact that Ireland knows better than anybody about emigration. We had a country of coffin ships with people seeking refuge as they fled conflict. Our country knows exactly what the suppression of rights is all about.
At this historic moment in time, the first St. Patrick's Day since Brexit and Trump, we have a moral and historic obligation to stand for something that is more profound than our own diaspora. Senator Lawless and myself have been working with the Migrant Rights Centre to correlate two issues: the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States; and the 26,000 undocumented workers here. Both issues are the very same - there is absolutely no difference between them. We who have been working on that project stand in solidarity with those who feel fearful at this time of great uncertainty.
Almost 50 years ago, in April 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York, Martin Luther King made his anti-Vietnam war speech. He said: "Yes, we must stand and we must speak." On St. Patrick's Day in that iconic venue there will be an event called "Irish Stand" at 7.30 p.m. that evening, featuring writers, actors and activists. The gathering will include people from the Waking the Feminist movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as Colum McCann, Richard Schiff, Shaun King, Maeve Higgins and myself. I am calling on the Irish community in New York and elsewhere across America to support it.
At the moment it is not good enough for us to speak only about our own diaspora because people across the world are facing into this new political reality. They are fearful, but they need to know that there is a country which lies between the great traditional powers of Britain and America whose people have a story to tell. It is deeper than just having a St. Patrick's Day parade. It is about the human condition, interconnectivity and realising that our forebears had to flee this land, while others are doing the very same today. On St. Patrick's Day it is our historic and moral responsibility to take that stand. I want everybody in this House to realise that there are people willing, able and ready to do so.
I welcome the Minister of State's report and thank him for it. I would have expected a little bit more on the actual delivery and focus on the progress that was made by the committee on the Irish abroad. I acknowledge that Sinn Féin moved a motion here last week, on 16 February, calling on the Minister with responsibility for the diaspora to update the House on the implementation of the global Irish diaspora policy with particular focus on progress. I concur with that.
I have tried to do some research on these matters. The diaspora policy refers to the global Irish, the interdepartmental committee and relevant stakeholders, but there is very little detail on the progress that has been made to date. I do not want to start on a negative point because I appreciate that the Minister of State is relatively new in his post. At some stage, however, we need to flesh out the detail of the policy.
I acknowledge the Taoiseach's brave decision to appoint my colleague, Senator Lawless, to this House after his outstanding commitment to the diaspora, which dates from long before he became a Senator. He is a very successful businessman who is very committed to the broader context of the diaspora. Let us be honest - the diaspora is not all about the undocumented Irish in America. We can come closer to home. A few weeks ago, I was in St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in the heart of London in Trafalgar Square. The Anglican community there is feeding young Irish teenagers aged 16 and 17. There are also 80 year olds. They run a famous centre in the heart of London which feeds the Irish. My own sister is involved in a help community in London which supports an Irish club that meets three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It is in a little place outside Bexley in Kent. They are offering lunch, fellowship and friendship to Irish men and women, many of whom are single or widowed and who cannot come home for various reasons. They are not getting support to come home. The support group is struggling to sell raffle tickets for bottles of wine to provide a few meals for Irish people living in London.
Too many people are hung up on the diaspora for the commercial, financial, business and industrial relationships, and the benefits it can bring to us. I can understand people wanting to tap into that. I would support it, but the diaspora is far bigger than the commercial impact it may bring to this country.
The Irish have an affinity to, and with, each other that is not bound or defined by geography or time. It is firmly rooted in the articles of our Constitution. The Minister of State will be familiar with Article 2 which states: "[...] the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage." There can be no more clear-cut statement of the importance of the relationship between Ireland and its diaspora.
Over many generations large numbers of our people have had to leave Ireland and make their homes and lives elsewhere, but the bond between many of them is there to stay and is cherished. It will reconnect given time, opportunity and support.
I commend the work that is being done but we need to know more about what this interdepartmental committee is doing. I appeal to the Minister of State to re-examine a Bill that came before this House back in 2006. The Genealogy and Heritage Bill referred to the genealogy that is tied up with the diaspora. Much of this work was done by a colleague of mine, Councillor Michael Merrigan, who is involved in the Genealogical Society of Ireland. I would like the Minister of State to consider the contents of that Bill to see if there are aspects of it that we could revisit and bring back into legislation.
I thank the Minister of State for giving us his time.
I thank the Minister of State for being here because there are many important issues concerning emigration and the diaspora. Like many others, I was part of that diaspora for many years, so it is personal to us. When one comes from the west of Ireland it is personal to all communities there, given what emigration has done.
I thank the Minister of State for presenting his report which I have read. I am sure that Irish pensioners will put some of the issues to him also. My worry is that while a lot is said about emigration and the diaspora, it belies the Constitution in terms of the actions that have been taken.
I appreciate that the Minister of State has only been in his position for a number of months. I am concerned, however, about the progress that has been made. Perhaps there has been some progress. For that reason, it is important that the Minister of State update the Seanad regularly, particularly on the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad, given the merits in that. As my colleague, Senator Ó Clochartaigh, stated, we need to know how many times the committee has met and we need information from those meetings about the plans and work that have been undertaken across Departments.
I am glad that the Minister of State’s number of followers on Twitter has been increasing daily, but this is not just about communication. It is about truly recognising the inherent rights of Irish citizens no matter where they live. It seems that, when citizens get on the plane, boat or however they travel, their citizenship and what it means to be an Irish citizen seem to be left at the port or airport. That cannot be allowed to happen.
Voting rights for the diaspora constitute a major issue. The Minister of State reports to the Seanad and tells us that the Government is all for voting rights and is working on this, but we cannot see any work being done. It is like the secret service. We need to know what models are being examined and how the situation is playing out. Sinn Féin tabled a responsible motion asking the Minister for a timeline on voting rights for the diaspora, but it was blocked by those who block everything that Sinn Féin proposes, namely, Fianna Fáil and the Government. The Minister of State will forgive me if I am somewhat dubious about claims that work is being done on the models. I accept that this is a complex issue. However, when the removal of the marriage ban was mooted, we were told by Fianna Fáil that it was fine for other countries but it could not be done here because it was too complex for us Irish. It was not complex at all.
I would have been disappointed if the Senator had not blamed us. Sinn Féin blames us for everything else, so why not.
That is part of my job.
Senator Conway-Walsh, without interruption.
Senator Davitt is right because Fianna Fáil needs to take a bow. It has definitely contributed to the diaspora, as it has forced hundreds of thousands of young people, husbands and wives to emigrate when it bankrupted the State. I will give it credit for that.
Would the Senator believe that my grandfather was born in America? We were not in power at the time.
Hundreds of thousands have been added to the diaspora. Sometimes, when we use the term “diaspora”, it is as if we are referring to an indigenous people. These people have had to leave their families and communities to find work abroad. They have been forced to emigrate. As a mother of two teenage boys, I do not want to have to look at them on Skype a couple of times a year. I want to be able to continue my relationship with my children and for them to have a choice to be in Ireland.
The Senator has one minute remaining.
I could talk about this for an hour, but I will ask the Minister of State about one of the issues that my colleague raised. The Government must remove the barriers. We want to see concrete evidence that the habitual residency clause and matters relating to farming, access to motor insurance and so on are being tackled. Will the Minister of State ensure that?
Will the Minister of State also have a chat with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, about rural Ireland?
Would she consider prioritising some of the Irish emigration projects under her creative fund, in particular the projects in Blacksod Bay and Achill in my community? Could she fund those?
I thank the Minister of State for being with us, but we need to see action. We are tired of sentiment. When we see action, we will recognise it. We look forward to having the Minister of State back in the Seanad before too long to tell us what progress has been made.
As there are no further Senators offering, I invite the Minister of State to respond. He has five minutes.
I had a comprehensive reply ready for each point. Given that I only have five minutes, I will try to get through as many as possible.
We are in no hurry. We can wait.
We have time.
I am happy if Members are happy.
The order of the House is five minutes, but I will exercise my discretion when we reach that point.
Out of respect to the Minister of State, it would be right and appropriate to hear what he has to say.
There is enough goodwill in the Chamber to ensure that we figure this out.
I acknowledge Fianna Fáil’s role in ensuring that diaspora policy was recognised in the first instance. Senator Davitt referenced the American presidential election and the fear of the undocumented about executive orders. The Senator’s specific question was on the Taoiseach’s role on St. Patrick’s Day. We have a strategic approach. It did not just happen after the presidential election. A great deal of work was done prior to that. For example, Senator Lawless and I met in New York. Our embassies and consulates, such as in San Francisco and Boston, were constantly trying to figure out a strategic approach because everything would change after the election regardless of who got elected and the US Supreme Court route did not work in the area of immigration reform.
Our approach has consistently been to follow up and follow through. If it is me in Philadelphia or New York in March, the Taoiseach in the White House, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, in America at the end of January and start of February or Senator Lawless at the meeting on 12 January, there is a thread, and it is focused strongly on the issue of the undocumented. I spoke to a young man yesterday. Undocumented, he has been there for 17 years. There is anxiety and a serious sense of concern, so it is up to us to put the proper information out there if, for example, there are unrealistic executive orders in terms of employment or requiring funding from Congress. I do not know what matters the Taoiseach will discuss but, from my conversation with him, I am convinced that the issue of the undocumented will be the top priority.
Senator Lawless discussed the importance of the emigrant support programme, ESP, funding and how €2.3 million of the €11.5 million went to the US last year. That programme funds many immigration centres, which give advice. I have visited them and met great people from the east coast to the west coast, including Mr. Ronnie Miller. They are working proactively to ensure that people are given the right advice and are protected. There are lawyers there.
Senator Lawless mentioned the US Senate’s 2013 immigration reform Bill and the 10,000 visas in perpetuity. That was a major opportunity and the Senator discusses it often. He also mentioned the business interactions and the fact that Irish companies in America employed more people there than American companies did here. That is a rich connection and fluid movement of people. I met a young woman from Cork who had a company in Limerick and did a great deal of her work in San Francisco with a larger company. This movement of people happens on a daily basis.
There are education issues, which another Senator mentioned. There are significant opportunities, and not just in the US - I am getting phone calls from Texas, including one in the past week - but also from Singapore and Jakarta, where Irish people are classified as EU citizens living outside the Union. They see the opportunity in sending their children back home. It is something that we need to consider.
I am an open Minister of State. I got a great deal of help in my previous portfolio, including from Senator Ó Clochartaigh when I was ag streachailt le mo chuid Gaeilge.
That is how I figure things out. We can work together. We can take the education information from today’s debate and put it on the table of the Higher Education Authority and the Minister for Education and Skills, given the education deficit issue in the third level sector. I do not mean to be crude about it, but it is also an opportunity for funding. Let us consider that space. I would be willing to take up the matter.
A number of Senators mentioned barriers for returning emigrants. The interdepartmental group, which I chair, is not a group of politicians, but of officials from various Departments. We have met twice and are due to meet again in a number of weeks’ time. I have tasked my officials with examining the effectiveness of the interdepartmental group.
Ultimately, it is the man with his head above the parapet who will get his wings clipped. I am chairperson of that. Ultimately, it is the individual Departments that have responsibility, whether for driver licences or issues such as farming, which the Senator mentioned. My job is to keep the pressure on each Department to try to help them make the change. I am open to suggestions and ideas about making it more effective. I have also written to each of the Ministers in the various Departments to ask that when they send their officials to these meetings, they address these issues. Let us look at a roadmap for each of the issues and see how we can follow through and keep it on the agenda. Senators are aware, through their own offices, that there are many issues facing the diaspora such as homelessness, which will be the responsibility of the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. If Senators have ideas about making the interdepartmental connection more effective, I am open to them.
I had a conversation recently with a couple who returned from Australia after 16 years. One of the things they mentioned was expectations. It was one word. Emigrants have expectations but having spent so much time away, when they come back home things have changed. Their world, community and family have changed and people have moved on and are in a different space. Their biggest barrier was dealing with their expectation of the type of Ireland they thought was there. There are issues such as that.
The biggest barrier for returning emigrants in the past six to seven years was jobs. The biggest barrier was that there were no jobs. Our specific commitment in 2012, under Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, was that before the end of 2016 we would have 100,000 extra jobs. That has been eclipsed. Senators will have heard the figures because it was talked about in this Chamber. It is gone to 200,000. There are jobs but there are also barriers and I want to work with Senators on that issue. I will not bluff and say we will eliminate all the barriers but we can work towards a mechanism to keep them live on the agenda. We can look at this House as a watchdog, for want of a better word, for the progress being made. I am happy to do that.
Senator Joe O'Reilly spoke about an all-out diplomatic assault regarding the undocumented. That is happening and it will continue to happen. The Senator also talked about the reasons for going. It promotes business and tourism. The Senator also mentioned the overseas missions. The role our missions play internationally is evolving. I spent two days in London with Dan Mulhall and his team. The ambassador's role does not conform to my specific stereotype of an ambassador's role. Dan Mulhall has made presentations on Brexit to the House of Lords. He is meeting with the construction federation and civic society and community groups. He and his team are out there with their sleeves rolled up. There are people like that in missions all over the world. There are people like Philip Grant in the consulate in San Francisco. We all know the way he dealt with the Berkeley tragedy because it was such a public issue. Their human investment in all these different consulates around the world has to be acknowledged.
The Senator spoke about organising a second Gathering. I will certainly pass on those sentiments and suggestions. The Senator talked about skills shortages. There are a lot of skill shortages in the labour sector in this city. That is something we can do a bit better and use our embassies. In my local hospital in Letterkenny there are advertised positions that cannot be filled. It is the same in Galway and Dublin. Can we do things differently and focus more on sectors, for example science and agriculture, and let people know there are jobs back home?
I raised the interdepartmental issue. Tá a fhios agam faoi na deacrachtaí atá ag daoine teacht abhaile agus teacht ar ais. Táim cinnte fá dtaobh de sin. Tá mé anseo agus tá mo cheann oscailte go dtí aon bhealach gur féidir linn a bheith ag obair le chéile. Tá an caidreamh idir an Seanad agus an Dáil thar a bheith tábhachtach agus tá sé ar idir na hoifigigh agus na hAirí sinsearacha a bheith freagrach as na míbhuntáistí atá ann do na daoine atá ag teacht ar ais abhaile. Gabhaim buíochas le na daoine a oibríonn ar son na ndaoine atá ag iarraidh teacht abhaile. Tá dreamanna ag obair le chéile ar son na ndaoine atá ag teacht abhaile nó atá ag smaoineamh ar theacht abhaile. Níl an bhealach socraithe faoi láthair fá dtaobh den dream idir-Ranna. Tá mé thar a bheith oscailte d'aon bhealach ar a smaoiníonn Seanadóirí fá dtaobh de sin. Tá mé anseo le haghaidh sin.
The Senator also mentioned the issue of driver licences which has been raised by Deputy Noel Grealish and my colleague, Deputy Tony McLoughlin. They raised it at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. Driver licences are an issue that has been identified as seriously important for the undocumented. They need to come back home to renew their licence because it is their only form of identification. I spoke to Deputy Grealish last night and he is going to formally ask the committee to come and meet with me and my officials. We will try to do something on that and we will keep the Seanad posted.
Canadian issues with driver licences was raised. The Senator said there are no plans to address these strategies and I take exception to that. While we do not have a magic formula for each of these individual issues, we have to look at the type of mechanism that is not working. The Senator has identified there are weaknesses so if there are weaknesses we have to try to do it differently. I have raised these issues with officials at meetings. We had representations and a presentation from organisations such as Crosscare and Safe Home and they have identified the issues. They are groups we can work closely with.
Voting rights were mentioned. When I came into this job last May, I went straight out and said I was supportive of voting rights. I did that with the backing of the Taoiseach. It is not just because of his imprimatur; it is something I genuinely feel strongly about. My Department is not responsible for putting this report together. It is the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Is that report being looked at? It is not just being looked at; it is being put together. I have asked for an options paper to be ready for Government as soon as possible. That is going ahead. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, is very supportive of this idea so there is the political will from Deputy Coveney and the Taoiseach on the issue.
I have given the Minister of State 13 minutes so far and he has addressed four of the ten speakers. Perhaps he could be more brief. We are supposed to conclude by 3.30 p.m. at the latest. Perhaps the Minister of State will go as quickly as he can.
I covered Senator Ruane's point about the education potential and I am willing to work with the Seanad on that.
Senator Higgins raised a very important point on the fears about the executive orders in America. She also talked about Brexit, our history and moral authority and obligation. I agree entirely with the Senator. I also go to countries wearing my other hat, that of Minister of State with responsibility for international development. I go to places like Kenya and Uganda and see the contribution that Irish missionaries have made. The people working in NGOs arrive out there on a voluntary basis. There is appreciation of the role the Irish have played and for what we have contributed down the centuries. We have an understanding of what migration is about because Irish people left our shores and went to places like New Brunswick in Canada where something like 51% of the population is of Irish descent.
We can learn from our movement. Sometimes figures can be a distraction from the real human problem. There are 65 million people displaced; 20 million people have refugee status of whom 10 million are children. There are 10 million children with refugee status so these are the bigger issues. I join with the Senator and Senator Ó Ríordáin when they say we have to look at all the other moving parts. The new Administration in America and Brexit are moving parts but there are other moving parts that are part of this overall solution. I met 2,000 women and children in a transfer station in Adjumani in northern Uganda. When I looked into their eyes they still had hope even though they were in a transfer station. They had hope because they left a terrible situation in South Sudan. We have a duty and obligation to help them. I will connect that point to the diaspora. My two portfolios, diaspora and international development, are not separate.
They are intrinsically linked. When I was in Nairobi, I met nuns who were working as diaspora missionaries. For example, on one project, Sr. Mary Owens from the Loreto order was caring for 124 children who are HIV carriers. She was working on a project with a whole laboratory set up. This is the type of interconnectivity we have. Diaspora and international development are interlinked. People use phrases such as "harness the diaspora" and we could debate what that means but where the Irish diaspora is already playing a role internationally, perhaps we can work out a way to figure out a lot of the problems. I agree 100% with the Senator on the definition and our history of migration and what is our contribution.
On the resources for births, deaths and marriages, the Senator mentioned PRSI and pensions. The Senator also mentioned the J1 visa programme. I welcome the announcement two weeks ago of an additional 2,700 J1 places in the United States. The Senator also mentioned the Fulbright programme. On visiting the United States as Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs, I got to know young Irish people in universities such as Notre Dame who were teaching Irish to American students. While many of them had Irish ancestry, some did not have an Irish connection but had an Irish affinity and it is crucial that we hold on to those programmes.
Senator Richmond referred to Argentina and on the diaspora closer to home, spoke of the importance of London. I visited the House of Commons and met a number of people, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire. While there I articulated the concerns of the Government and the citizens around potential issues for the Border and Brexit.
Senator Boyhan also mentioned the interdepartmental committee and I covered that. I agree with the Senator that it was a brave decision to appoint Senator Billy Lawless and it was also a good decision. Senator Boyhan talked about the difficulty for the emigrants in London who cannot come home. I saw that yesterday morning in Kilburn when I met emigrants from Clare, Galway, Laois and Kerry. Although I was searching around for a Donegal person yesterday morning, I did not come across anyone.
They are there.
I could see it in some of their eyes. Some of them have not been home in 25 years for different reasons. There are people looking after them in some instances and we have to ensure that the welfare agencies in London and throughout greater Britain look after them. We need to look after them because they are with us. They are still Irish citizens. I certainly will ensure that we continue to support the 100 groups that we funded last year in Britain.
The Senator also mentioned we are not defined by geography or time, and I agree. An Irish citizen is an Irish citizen and one does not become more or less Irish just by getting on a boat or a plane. The Irish nation cherishes affinity. The Senator mentioned the Constitution. Tá dualgas orainn uilig. The Senator also mentioned aspects of the Genealogy and Heraldry Bill 2006. I will get my officials to dig it out and I will certainly look at that.
Then the last Senator, Senator Rose-----
Senator Rose Conway-Walsh
I am very disappointed that the Minister of State does not know my name.
The Senator has two surnames. I apologise.
The Senator referred to the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad. I accept it takes in the returning emigrants but we must be clear too that it is an interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad. It takes in everything. I am prepared to work with the Senator on the challenges therein.
The Senator spoke of the inherent rights of Irish citizens, what it means to be an Irish citizen, voting rights and the options paper. It is an options paper which will be prepared. In terms of a timeframe, and this puts on the pressure, it is my intention that we will have that options paper to consult with the wider diaspora for 4 and 5 May. They are coming home, they will be with us and it is only right that we consult them on that. Before that, a paper will be prepared by the Department. I can assure Senator Conway-Walsh we are working closely with them.
The Senator mentioned something pertaining to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. If she has specific details on that, I will raise it directly with the Minister.
I thank the Minister of State.
That was almost 20 minutes of a response. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. I thank all Senators for their contributions this afternoon. That item is now concluded.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.