The Minister of State is most welcome. I have pleasure in calling on him to lead the way.
The Diaspora: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the importance the Government places on the diaspora, or global Irish. I have worked in this important area since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development. Those present who know me well will be aware that I have a deep personal commitment to the global Irish. I am passionate about engaging and connecting with them and providing support and assistance for them where required. Since my appointment I have been working for and with our communities abroad. I have met various groups and organisations in Ireland, London, Leeds, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Tanzania and South Africa. I have been struck by the vibrancy and commitment of our communities abroad and the individuals, young and old, who do such incredible work in sustaining and growing those communities.
There is a strong commitment to our global nation which is shared by many, if not all, of my colleagues present. I will include in my remarks updates on several issues to do with the diaspora that Senators have raised previously with me and my predecessors.
These issues include the emigrant support programme, returning emigrants and the barriers to returning, voting rights in presidential elections and our undocumented citizens in the United States.
Through the emigrant support programme, the Department provides almost €12 million to Irish organisations abroad each year, which is a tangible expression of the strong and enduring commitment of the Government and the Irish public to the global Irish. Our priority continues to be supporting the most vulnerable members of our community abroad, with 70% of funding going to organisations which provide front-line welfare services. I have seen the real difference that this funding makes in the lives of our people abroad. Recently in London I met representatives of the very impressive array of organisations across Britain who receive emigrant support programme funding. I would like to take the opportunity once again to commend the contribution of such organisations, their workers and volunteers in sustaining and supporting vibrant Irish communities across the world. Our relationship with the diaspora goes far beyond welfare. We also provide support for the many other aspects of Irish culture that bind us, including music, sport, business and cultural networks and the Irish language.
Our support is not just a question of funding. The emigrant support programme also nurtures a wider sense of connection to home and reaffirms the sense among Irish people abroad that we really value them. In this regard, I was extremely concerned at incorrect suggestions recently that the Government had somehow cut our funding to the Irish abroad in the budget. It is important that I highlight the correct position to confirm that the Department's overall current expenditure budget for Programme A: Our People, which covers the diaspora and the emigrant support programme in general, has actually increased by €2.2 million from €69.6 million in 2017 to €71.8 million in 2018. Not only has the Government not cut funding for our diaspora this year but also we are delivering better, more innovative services that benefit our citizens at home and abroad. For example, since March of this year citizens can renew their passports online. In the case of citizens abroad, this has reduced processing time from a number of weeks to ten days plus postage time to wherever the applicant is located. At the moment the average processing time is four to five days, and more than 100,000 passports and passport cards have been already delivered. This commitment to innovation in the delivery of improved customer service was recognised in last week's customer experience insights, CXI, survey which placed the passport service as the top ranked Irish public sector in terms of customer experience.
In May, the Department hosted the second Global Irish Civic Forum at Dublin Castle, which several Senators also attended. This was an extremely important opportunity for the Government to hear from the global Irish and to get their input to inform future policy development. One key theme to emerge at the civic forum was youth engagement, and this will be a priority area for the emigrant support programme next year.
In Global Irish, Ireland's diaspora policy, the Government committed to work to facilitate the return of Irish people living abroad who wish to return to live in Ireland. The Government continues to deliver to ensure the economic conditions which will allow those who have left Ireland return, should they wish to do so. Separately, significant funding and support is also provided by the Department to support returning citizens. Over the past decade more than €4 million has been allocated to Irish organisations working with returning emigrants. Through chairing the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad, I have been both working to ensure joined-up delivery of the Government's diaspora policy and examining issues affecting the Irish abroad and those wishing to return. Addressing these so-called barriers or any other disproportionate administrative burdens negatively affecting Irish emigrants who wish to return to live in Ireland remains a high priority for me. I have also commissioned an independent socio-economic report outlining what can be done to reduce red tape and overcome other obstacles facing returning emigrants. This report will inform the work of the committee into next year. In addition, since my appointment I have met Crosscare Migrant Project and Safe Home Ireland, both of which are engaged in this area. I took part, with Senator Lawless, in a very useful forum on that issue in Galway, organised by Ciaran Staunton, and I have had several meetings with the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland and Insurance Ireland on making practical improvements regarding mortgage and insurance difficulties being reported by returning emigrants. Earlier today I met again with Insurance Ireland and I am glad to report that car insurance is one priority area on which significant practical progress has been made to facilitate industry recognition of safe driving records abroad for the benefit of those who have lived abroad.
In addition to working to ease difficulties, my Department is always looking for new and innovative ways to assist Irish people abroad and those returning. I recently launched Back for Business, an exciting new initiative to support entrepreneurial activity among recently returned immigrants. A period spent living abroad increases entrepreneurial inclination. However, time spent out of the country can often result in the loss of local knowledge, contacts and networks. Back for Business is designed to bridge that gap. We have had a very strong response from interested applicants. The programme will begin later this month. Importantly for me as a representative of a rural constituency in the west, it will have a very strong regional dimension. Returning immigrant entrepreneurs have a very important contribution to make to make to communities across the country, not just in our main cities.
Voting rights is an issue many Senators are interested in and active on. Together with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, I am strongly committed to extending the right to vote in presidential elections to citizens outside the State. This will be another tangible expression of our commitment to ongoing engagement with the global Irish.
In September, the Taoiseach gave indicative timelines for a number of upcoming referendums, with the referendum on voting rights now likely to take place in the summer of 2019, concurrent with the local and European elections. That gives us a very important timeline to work towards. I am in regular contact with Senator Billy Lawless and others who are very active on this issue. Significant work is ongoing at official level between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, my Department and other Departments, given the complexity of some of the issues involved.
There is general acceptance that even if a referendum was held immediately and passed, it would not be feasible to have comprehensive arrangements in place for an extension of the franchise to have effect for the upcoming presidential election to be held before 11 November 2018. This will require, among other things, modernisation of the voter registration process and the introduction of arrangements to facilitate those eligible to vote to exercise that franchise from outside the State.
In this regard, the Government has agreed that work should commence to effect improvements in the process with the registration of voters. Preliminary work has commenced on the modernisation of the voter registration process, which will examine all aspects of voter registration, including the provision of registration information and practical experience from other countries which already provide voting arrangements for non-resident citizens.
On the issue of undocumented citizens in the US, the Government’s objectives remain constant, namely, to achieve relief for the undocumented and to facilitate greater pathways for legal migration to the United States. We do not, however, underestimate the size of the challenge. This policy area has been a deeply divisive issue within the US political system for decades, with pronounced disagreement, even within the same political parties, on the best way to deal with an issue which directly affects over 11 million undocumented people in the US.
The Government has consistently engaged with both parties in a bipartisan way to address our longstanding concerns and this continues to be our approach. During our visit to New York for the UN General Assembly in September, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I met representatives of the four Irish immigration centres in the region and a representative of the US-wide Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, CIIC. It gave me the opportunity to hear from those working at the coalface with the undocumented Irish as to the current situation and the problems they are encountering.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, further emphasised the Government’s commitment to this issue when he travelled to Washington DC from 3 to 5 October and met senior members of the US Administration and members of Congress, including the Congressional Friends of Ireland group. It was also useful that Deputy John Deasy, the Government’s special envoy to the US Congress on the undocumented, who was appointed by the Taoiseach to that position last June, was able to accompany the Minister to those meetings. His appointment was another important statement of our intent and seriousness regarding this issue.
Our ambassador in Washington DC, Dan Mulhall, hosted a round table discussion on the issue on 25 October with key stakeholders, including the CIIC, which brought together Irish immigration centres from across the US. Our embassy in Washington DC and our six consulates across the US continue to work continuously with Irish immigration centres in order to provide vital services to the undocumented in the United States.
The Government remains wholly committed to working with the US authorities to resolve the plight of the undocumented Irish. The Government will continue to articulate to the US authorities our keen interest in this area while respecting the right of the United States to set its own immigration policies. I can assure the House of the Government’s continued commitment to pursuing these matters on behalf of those Irish citizens in the US who are affected, and our continued openness to routes and policies which will provide relief for the undocumented.
In addition, through the emigrant support programme, we continue to support welfare and advice services that are uniquely tailored to the needs of the undocumented.
The Government's strong commitment to engage with and provide support for our communities abroad remains. I will continue to advocate and deliver for our diaspora across this wide range of areas and issues. I am particularly committed to increasing our communication with the global Irish. We recently introduced a more dynamic Global Irish newsletter, and I ask for Members' assistance and support in publicising the Global Irish Twitter handle and the Global Irish hub website. These are all important modern resources that help us to keep our diaspora informed on current issues of interest, and encourage them to keep us informed. Significant global digital networks are being established among our diaspora and it is vital that we in the Oireachtas are able to communicate with them in that particular sphere and to do so in a meaningful way that allows them to engage with us and feel supported no matter where in the world they reside. Social media has a vital role to play more broadly in keeping the Irish abroad culturally connected with home. That is an area we must focus on and exploit in the future. A recent survey of the Irish diaspora in the United States, based on a representative sample of some 3,500 people, indicated conclusively that the main method of communication for that cohort is through social media. That is how Irish people in the US and elsewhere interact with each other and it is vital that we are capable of and proactive in finding new ways to engage them on that platform.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for outlining some of the Government's policies in respect of the Irish overseas. Given that the first policy paper in this area by any political party was published as recently as 2012, we can see where the issue was positioned in terms of political priorities. The fundamental reason for this lack of prioritisation is that the Irish abroad do not have a vote. People who have votes are listened to, while those who do not tend to be ignored. I thank the Minister of State for his comments on the forgotten Irish in Britain. The organisations that provide those people with a degree of support do receive some funding, but a lot more needs to be done for the generation who left in the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom did not get married, are now unemployed or retired and find themselves isolated in areas where communities of Irish no longer live and socialise.
The Minister of State also outlined the issues in regard to the undocumented Irish in the United States. I note he did not refer to the figure of 50,000 of which we hear so much. There is some dispute as to the exact numbers of undocumented Irish and there are difficulties in arriving at an accurate figure. However, the organisations working with undocumented Irish in the US are adamant the number is approximately 50,000. Senator Lawless and I would be delighted to share information on these matters with Deputy John Deasy, the Government's special envoy to the US Congress. Deputy Deasy has a great knowledge of Capitol Hill from his time working there and knows how the legislative process in Washington works. We all hope the undocumented Irish will be accommodated when some type of emigration Bill eventually goes through both Houses of Congress. Ciaran Staunton and the Irish Lobby for Emigration Reform worked hard to ensure Irish interests were reflected in the McCain-Kennedy Bill which nearly got through Congress. The subsequent legislation which went through the Senate but not the House of Representatives did allow for visas specifically for the Irish. A great deal of work remains to be done on that issue.
I am concerned that the Minister of State did not refer in his opening statement to the various initiatives that were put in place during the crisis and which now seem to have gone by the wayside. These include the Global Irish Parliamentarians Forum, which encouraged parliamentarians of Irish descent across the world, members of both national and regional parliaments, to come to Dublin. Senator Ó Clochartaigh and others attended the discussion that took place with those international parliamentarians in the Dáil Chamber. It was a great initiative, developed by the then Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, to connect Irish-affiliated decision makers around the world, but it has not been developed further. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, consider reviving that forum, as an annual or at least biennial event?
Another useful initiative was Ireland Reaching Out, based in the Minister of State's part of the world, which encouraged people, including those living in non-traditional tourist areas, to research their past, locate descendants of relatives who had left Ireland many years ago and invite those descendants back to see the home place. That type of initiative can be done relatively inexpensively but, again, it is not getting the Government support to allow it to flourish. ConnectIreland is another initiative that has not been adequately developed. The conclusion of the contract underpinning the programme was debated hotly in these Houses, with an acknowledgment by many that this was a worthwhile initiative which engaged members of the Irish diaspora and provided an outlet to allow them to contribute to economic development in this State. The programme was put in place during the crisis but IDA Ireland does not seem to want it and the Government seems unable to hold onto it. It continues, nevertheless, to provide jobs in areas where IDA Ireland does not traditionally look to secure employment opportunities. The Global Irish Economic Forum and the Global Irish Civic Forum are still there but, again, are no longer considered a priority because, now the crisis is over, we no longer need the diaspora. Of course, what we should be doing is engaging consistently with the Irish abroad, not just calling on them in our times of need. It comes back to the fundamental question of why the Irish overseas were ignored for so long. When I was appointed spokesperson for the diaspora for my party in 2012, it was the first such appointment in the history of party politics in Ireland. The lack of engagement by the political system with the Irish abroad is, as I said, because they do not have a vote.
I thank the Minister of State for outlining the issues in regard to the forthcoming presidential election. Next year we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of women securing the right to vote in this State, and this year is the 188th anniversary of Catholics obtaining that right. Forty-nine years ago, meanwhile, people marched in Derry for the right to vote. We are now talking about extending the franchise to citizens of this Republic living abroad.
The most fundamental right of citizens of any state is the right to participate in the democratic process. There are some 1.7 million Irish citizens living overseas who do not have the right to vote in elections here, not including the nearly 1.8 million living in the North who, under the Good Friday Agreement, are entitled to Irish citizenship and are, therefore, eligible to vote in elections here. We have the equivalent of the populations of the cities of Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Cork who, although citizens of this State, are not entitled to vote because they do not live within the boundaries of the State.
Nothing more clearly points to the fundamental unfairness of the current system than the fact that if one happens to be a degree holder from Trinity College or the National University of Ireland and living in Australia, one has the right to vote in a parliamentary election in Ireland, while another Irish person - a plumber, say - living in Australia or anywhere else abroad who did not attend one of those institutions does not have the same right. A true republic does not treat citizens unequally.
We had hoped there would be a right to vote in the upcoming presidential election for all Irish citizens regardless of where they live. We must ensure that change is implemented before the following election. I accept that bringing it about will necessitate a complicated process in terms of ensuring it is cost effective and also that it is a referendum which can be won. I was at the meeting of the civic forum where the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government outlined the complexities of the situation. We accept there are legal and technical issues, but many people in this country who have loved ones living in Australia, Britain and the United States would argue that those relatives should have the right to vote, at least to elect the first citizen of the State but also to have representation within this Parliament.
What does the Government hope to do with initiatives such as ConnectIreland, Ireland Reaching Out, the Global Irish Civic Forum and the Global Irish Parliamentarians Forum? They appear to have been put on the shelf now that the crisis is deemed to be over and the Irish overseas are no longer required. That is not the way we should treat Irish citizens overseas.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, to the Seanad and the opportunity to speak about the diaspora. We do not yet know whether there will be an electoral contest to decide who the next President will be, but it is certain that if an election were to be held, tens of thousands of Irish men and women would have no say in the outcome. Recent estimates suggest there are approximately 130 nations and territories that allow their citizens to vote, regardless of where they live in the world. In Ireland, however, the electoral register is judged not by the Irish nation but by the residential location of the voter. In respect of inward investment and even, most recently, our courageous attempts to attract the Rugby World Cup to Ireland, we speak of Ireland as a global community with a global diaspora, yet for many in that diaspora community, this is a one-way conversation - ask not what Ireland will do for the diaspora but what the diaspora can do for Ireland.
I again commend the work and engagement to date of the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and his predecessor. My comments seek not to devalue the importance of the engagement of the Minister of State and other Ministers but to emphasise just how important the referendum to allow members of the diaspora to vote in presidential elections is to those whom I represent. True connection with the diaspora is about more than Ministers attending St. Patrick’s Day parades or lobbying on behalf of the undocumented. It should be a two-way conversation in which the diaspora we exploit for their economic and social reach have a voice in the affairs of the State. It is clear that the authors of the Constitution believed deeply in the importance of the Irish abroad, codifying that recognition in Article 2 which recognises that the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage. I acknowledge that there may be some in the country who fear that those who may wish to vote in presidential elections do not fully appreciate or understand the Ireland from which they departed or from which they derive citizenship. I hope to be part of a national conversation in which those fears can be firmly put to rest. For that reason, I welcome this valuable opportunity for Members of the House to speak about the diaspora.
Emigration has changed vastly. Emigrants come and go, with multiple departures and returns. They are permanently tuned into what is happening in Ireland on a daily basis through social media and instant communication methods. We live in a globalised world, yet our democratic system, even for the largely symbolic office of the President, does not reflect this modern reality. All of the modern mechanisms for organising elections and encouraging voter participation which other EU nations and western democracies have been using for years remain untapped in Ireland. They include absentee ballots, postal voting, automatic voter registration - for example, registering to vote when one obtains a driver’s licence - and the elimination of time restrictions for citizens living abroad.
France has 12 constituencies worldwide. For example, French citizens living in Ireland are in a constituency that includes the United Kingdom, the Baltic states, Norway and Sweden. In the case of Italy, there are four external electorates, comprising Europe, South America, North and Central America and and a large electorate combining Australia, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Antarctica. In Italy 12 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and six in the Senate of the Republic are reserved for citizens living abroad. They are distributed among the four overseas electoral zones in proportion to the number of Italian citizens resident in each zone. The European electorate which includes Italians resident in Ireland has six seats in the Chamber of Deputies and two in the Senate of the Republic.
On the eve of the Easter Rising in 1916 only one in six Irishmen with enough wealth was qualified to vote, a total of 15%. The rebels rejected this limited vision of representation and made universal suffrage for all men and women a core principle of the rebellion. By 1923, all citizens over 21 years of age living in Ireland, numbering nearly 1.8 million men and women, could vote. Even in the midst of a bloody civil war, the founders of the nation made sure suffrage was expanded to meet the ideals of the Easter Proclamation.
Ireland is undergoing great changes in economics and demographics. In the years ahead we will have to come to terms with Brexit, a changing European Union and the possibility of a new constitutional relationship with Northern Ireland. These challenges and many more will demand much from our democracy. In the coming decade the people will be asked to vote on issues that will define Ireland for the rest of the century. This will only be accomplished fairly if we have a modern democratic electoral system that will be inclusive, encouraging and grounded in the principle of equality that is universal suffrage. We must be willing to embrace a more expansive Irish electoral register for presidential elections and recognise that the Irish nation extends beyond the Irish Sea.
Ireland has a choice - either to expand and modernise the franchise to meet the European Union's standards for voting and citizenship or accept the status quo that over time will continue to make us less democratic, less equal and a more insular nation. The Taoiseach is a young man with energy, who has urged the people to think about the long term and prepare for the future. I sincerely hope that when those eligible to vote in the referendum are given a chance to vote, they will do so with a mind that is open to creating an Ireland that will have a President with a mandate from not just the State but from the nation.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I am speaking on behalf of Fine Gael as its spokesperson on foreign affairs cannot be present. He is leading the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and asked me to convey his apologies. He also gave me a few ideas for my contribution.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for the zeal with which he has taken to his new office. I have followed him extensively and he leaves a favourable impression everywhere he goes both of himself and, most importantly, the country. This demonstrates the vital importance of his office since it was established by the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, in the last Government.
I also thank Senator Billy Lawless for his work. His appointment as spokesperson for the diaspora has been immensely valuable not only in the debate we are having but also in dealing with the many issues the world is experiencing, be it the election of Donald Trump in America, the Brexit vote or how Ireland as a small island nation is seeking to reposition itself on the global stage. I had the good fortune to visit Chicago just over a year ago for a certain rugby match and saw the work Senator Billy Lawless was doing, both formally and informally, in the Irish community in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States. It is a credit to him and the previous Taoiseach that he is in the House to contribute to this important debate.
There is much to discuss. To a large extent, Senators Billy Lawless and Mark Daly focused on the importance of the forthcoming referendum. While I appreciate its importance and agree with many of the comments made, given that the issues involved have been covered in such depth, I will focus on some other issues. The Minister of State has also commented on the matter in detail and probably will do so again in his reply. It is not that I take the issue lightly, but there is much else to discuss. Much of this feeds into overall Government policy on foreign affairs and our place in the world. It is exciting and timely that the Taoiseach has said his ambition for the Government and the country - it is not a party political matter - is to make Ireland an island at the centre of the world. That is vital when so much of the world is turning its back on other countries, populations abroad and new populations coming into their countries and embracing what are disgusting policies of rabid nationalism and protectionism. Ireland should be bold and brave enough to state it sees itself playing a much more important role in the world, not just for our own selfish interests and those of the Irish abroad but also for the nations of the world and the nations with which we seek to work across Europe and beyond. The Minister of State raised a number of issues which feed into this and on which I will ask him to elaborate further.
The first one is the Back For Business campaign. Now that we have come out of the depths of the recession and austerity years we are not where we need to be as an island. The way Ireland and our economy will continue to grow is as a small trading nation open to global markets, prepared to utilise our diaspora, but also to make the most of our diaspora, to be welcoming and open and to make this a warm place for our diaspora to return to do business but also to use our diaspora as key links to developing existing markets be they the US or Australia. I know an extensive trade mission accompanied the presidential visit to Australia and New Zealand last month but we must also look into new markets. The Minister mentioned the Irish diaspora in South Africa. It is a small, recent but powerful diaspora. There are also growing levels of Irish diaspora in countries where Europe and the EU have identified potential trading agreements. Ireland plays a vital role in those markets in South-East Asia with Japan, Malaysia or Vietnam or indeed into the Mercosur regions where there is a little bit of controversy but it is worth noting that the largest Irish diaspora of a non-English speaking country is of course Argentina. There is much to look into there and there is much that we can find common traits with to make sure that any future trading agreements between the Mercosur region, looking at Argentina and Brazil, and the EU is done so that it does not damage Ireland's indigenous producers but that we use those ties to the best advantage.
When it comes to the returning emigrants programme, I would like the Minister to go into a bit more depth about some of the important things he mentioned such as car insurance, and indeed some social needs but also the economic tools that are available for that entrepreneurial spirit, the real graft. How are we bringing together the various Government agencies, including the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, but also the local enterprise offices and those on a more local level? It might not necessarily be people looking to bring 200 or 2,000 jobs to parts of this country but maybe two jobs or one job or they themselves seeking to do business in their home place.
One country that maybe did not get the necessary attention, even though I did mention it when we had this debate with the Minister of State's predecessor, Deputy McHugh, is the Irish community in the United Kingdom. We must put together a really meaty strategy on the Irish community, be they recent emigrants who went over in the last couple of years for economic reasons, those who went over in the 1980s or indeed my uncles and aunts who went over in the 1950s and 1960s and moved into very different communities across the UK. The Minister of State rightly mentioned the centre in Leeds that he visited. I believe London was the first place the Minister of State visited in his new role. That is really heartening because post-Brexit Ireland is now going to have to develop new and different relationships with the UK.
Where we are at a distinct advantage to the other 26 remaining EU member states is that we have formal and informal ties with the UK. It is vitally important that we maintain those ties that have developed and changed in the last 20 years, all the economic and social ties that we have at the moment and the really distinct relationships. We cannot let Brexit jeopardise that. I was part of an Oireachtas delegation to Westminster last Monday organised by my colleague, Senator Feighan, where we met quite a number of the Irish community predominantly in London but uniquely the Irish community within Westminster. A third of the Conservative Party at Westminster, be they Lords or MPs, have an element of Irish heritage and 50% of the Labour Party. I had a great conversation with Conor McGinn MP, born in south Armagh, the son of a Sinn Fein councillor. It does not get much more Irish than that.
When one looks to the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, my own uncle was a Liberal Democrat councillor for 20 years in Surrey. We need to use those informal political ties to our advantage to make sure that Brexit is not too big a challenge for the new developing Irish-UK relations. I believe that our diaspora should be embraced. In return we must look at new systems to make sure that the British diaspora on this island, the 100,000 British citizens living in the Twenty-six Counties who do not qualify for an Irish passport, can retain and remain in Ireland with their families. Maybe that is part of a wider discussion.
I would like to conclude because I know there are other speakers to come in. I want to underline the importance of this debate in every possible angle and every Department, whether in education or health. I encourage the Government to continue its work. I look forward to the upcoming debates and to the debate over the referendum. I commend all the work that the Government is doing.
I call on Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá mé an-sásta go bhfuil muid ag plé ceist na saoránach Éireannach thar lear. Is ceist fíor-thábhachtach í. Tá sé thar am go mbeadh muid á plé arís. I would like to take a different tack to my colleague, Senator Daly, whom I often agree with on issues on the diaspora. He spoke about a lack of political engagement with the diaspora. I would not say that about our own party. Sinn Féin has a long and proud history of engaging with our diaspora for scores of years and we will continue to do so. It has been a really important part of the work that we do and I have been the spokesperson for the diaspora for the last number of years. I have engaged, as have others from across the House, and I think it is really important that people from across the Houses do engage on a regular basis with our diaspora wherever they may be.
I might ask about the budgetary issue first. The Minister of State's statement refers to the overall current expenditure budget for programme A, "Our People", increasing by €2.2 million from €69.6 million in 2017 to €71.8 million in 2018. I am raising this because there is a €5.5 million differential between that figure and the figure published by Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe on budget day. I refer to page 191 of the Budget Expenditure Report, which is the report of the Minister's Department, under subhead 1, "To serve our people at home and abroad and promote reconciliation and cooperation". The Vote for 2017 for that was €79.044 million and in 2018 it was €77 million. Now I was not the smartest kid in our school but the difference between €79 million and €77 million in the calculation that I have is €1.7 million less.
Looking at the capital expenditure on page 221, there is an almost €4 million differential from €9,443,000 down to €5,500,000. There is a huge disparity between the figures the Minister of State is putting to the House today and the figures that were put to us on budget day. Either the budget has decreased or the Minister of State's figures are wrong. Could he clarify the situation? If the Minister of State is saying that figure is correct, there seems to be about a €5.497 million differential between the figures Deputy Donohoe gave us on budget day and the figures the Minister of State is now giving us for expenditure under that Vote. Clarity on that would be welcome.
I also want to commend the presentation we had in the Houses recently from the organisation Votes For Irish Citizens Abroad. It put its position paper to these Houses in a very good presentation and Senator Black hosted that meeting. It was very good. There is huge frustration with the lack of urgency around voting rights for the diaspora. From the conversations I have with them, they feel that in many cases presidential voting rights are a first step in this process but that even at that it may be seven or eight years before they get the chance to vindicate their right to vote. They are frustrated about that.
Our country has such a significant history of emigration yet compare the rights of our diaspora to other countries across the globe who give voting rights to their citizens in national elections. Those concerns are shared by the OECD and the European Commission. The European Commission has expressed concern that Ireland's disenfranchising of its citizens living abroad runs contrary to the principle of freedom of movement within the European Union. On one hand we cannot be arguing for freedom of movement for all of our citizens when we are not allowing our own Irish citizens to enjoy that principle as well when it comes to voting rights.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs has called on the Government to accept the principle that Irish citizens living abroad should have the right to vote in elections. The Constitutional Convention has recommended that right since 2013 but we are still waiting for that to be brought to fruition. I would like to push the boat a little and ask the Minister for his opinion. We have the possibility in the future of Irish citizens voting in a Dáil election. What is the Department's position on that? A strong case can be put forward that that should at some stage in future be put forward. Even closer to home is the issue of referenda. We saw the Home to Vote movement demonstrated a huge level of interest recently in referenda in this country and in emigrants retaining a voice and a vote. We are told there are going to be a number of referenda coming up next year. I am sure many emigrants would like to vote.
What is the Government's position on referenda? Is there any cognisance whatsoever that the right in this regard should be vindicated?
Another very interesting point raised by Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad in its presentation was that, until now, Europeans living in the United Kingdom could vote for British MEPs but that, after Brexit, Irish people in the United Kingdom will become unrepresented EU citizens. Other countries will facilitate their emigrants in voting for their MEPs. For example, German citizens living in the United Kingdom will vote for German MEPs after Brexit. What plans has the Irish Government? What discussions are being held at EU level in regard to Brexit to vindicate the rights of Irish citizens living in Britain who would like to vote in EU elections?
I attended the very good seminar in Galway run by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. Mr. Ciarán Staunton and Ms Karen McHugh were in attendance, as was the Minister of State. A very interesting A to Z of issues comprised part of the lobby's presentation. Although the Minister of State raised one or two of the issues raised at the seminar, a considerable number have been left unmentioned or are unresolved. The organisation talked about the administrative difficulties and delays across various Departments and official agencies. It talked about issues related to banks and challenges that arise when trying to open a bank account abroad. It stated that although circumstances are improving, they are still very difficult. Facilities where an existing non-resident account is set up while holidaying in Ireland can make the process of converting to a resident account when one moves much easier. The organisation states that in order to obtain a loan, a recent credit history is required. A US credit history, for example, is not acceptable, however. This is an issue faced by people on a very practical level.
The organisation also raised the issue of uncertainty over access to health care under EU regulations among people based in Britain after Brexit. It talked about access to secondary social protection entitlements, such as household benefits, pension, travel rights, passport controls and border issues. These are also related to Brexit. The Minister of State might address them.
I welcome the fact that the Government is in discussions with the car insurance companies but we really need action from them rather than just discussion. This is because, in many cases, they do not recognise a no claims bonus earned abroad. They really are screwing Irish citizens with absolutely extortionate premiums when they try to come home. Issues arise over child care, as for many Irish citizens living here.
There are issues associated with driving licences. In particular, a driving licence from the United States is not recognised or allowed to be exchanged for an Irish one. Therefore, people must re-sit the test and take the required number of lessons. This was a point of considerable discussion at the seminar we attended. The Minister of State might update us on what is happening in this regard. I am told the expiry of an Irish driving licence after ten years and the fact that one must attend in person to renew one comprise an issue. I appreciate steps are being taken to address this. The Minister of State might elaborate on this.
International fees for children of Irish-born parents, unless they have been in Ireland for over three years, presents a significant difficulty. The universities seem to have been quite inflexible to date on this. What can be done in this regard?
Farming entitlements are not available to returning emigrants under the national reserve. Issues were raised over family and social support systems in that they comprise one of the main reasons people come home. This is important.
The organisation addressed many other issues, as the Minister of State is quite well aware. These include housing, obtaining a mortgage on coming home, nursing care, difficulties registering with a general practitioner, etc. There was a sense at the seminar that there is a considerable number of issues to be addressed. I acknowledge that a group has been tasked with examining this. When does the Minister of State expect the report to be issued? How quickly will it be acted upon? Which Departments have been brought together to address the issues? In fairness, we have been raising these for the past four or five years and we have seen very few of them being addressed. I would welcome a comment on this and another soon after Christmas, if possible.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and welcome the opportunity to debate Ireland's relationship with the diaspora. The Minister of State said this is definitely something he has been working on and that circumstances have improved. There is no doubt about that. It is great to see a shift in State policy towards greater engagement with our citizens abroad. This effort has been symbolic, as with Mary Robinson's candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, in addition to more concrete steps such as the creation of a dedicated Irish abroad unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2004. The staff in the unit and in the embassies do great work. Through the emigrant support programme, we fund over 200 community organisations in over 20 countries. We should be proud of this, particularly when it comes to vital services for older citizens abroad.
The elephant in the room, however, is the lack of voting rights for Irish citizens abroad. This is going to be the central feature of this debate. As my colleagues said, I arranged a briefing for Deputies and Senators on this topic just last week. Emigrant organisations outline just how important voting rights are to them and emigrants' deep disappointment over being disenfranchised. It has been said time and again by emigrant groups and politicians on every side of this House that we are violating a basic democratic norm in this regard. The reality is that Ireland is totally out of step with the vast majority of democracies worldwide. Over 120, and counting, have put workable systems in place to represent their citizens while abroad. Ireland is one of only three new member states to completely cut off its emigrants politically, and we have been repeatedly criticised by the European Commission for this. As the Commission reminded us in 2013, the right to vote is one of the fundamental political rights of citizenship. It is part of the very fabric of democracy. Depriving citizens abroad of their right to vote risks making them second-class citizens. This EU context is important. Denied the right to vote at home and often unable to vote in their country of residence, Irish emigrants are members of the tiny group of EU citizens who have no vote and no democratic representation anywhere in the world. They are completely denied access to the democratic process. This is unacceptable and we cannot stand over it.
As in the 1980s, this issue came to the fore as emigration peaked during the recession. In the context of considerable cuts to social services and rising unemployment, thousands of people left, including my own two brothers. This was especially true for young people in the years after 2008. Over 250,000 Irish citizens emigrated, and the vast majority were in their 20s. Over this period, we saw a 25% drop in the number of people in their 20s living in Ireland. This is emigration on an industrial scale but it is not a new phenomenon. Emigration has existed as a safety valve for this country in times of crisis. The sad reality, however, is that one cannot count towards the live register if one is in Sydney or London.
Despite years of debate and workable templates that exist all over the world, we have put no system in place to deal properly with migration and citizenship. Many people left on one- or two-year visas but were afforded no say in any votes that took place while away. No concern is shown for plans to return, for family back home and for their clear stake in what happens here. The attitude has been one of "out of sight, out of mind". It is simply not good enough. Nothing made this more clear than that the 2015 vote for marriage equality and the incredible #HomeToVote campaign. Former Taoiseach Deputy Enda Kenny warmly congratulated the thousands of people who had, in his words, "travelled from wherever to wherever", to put a single mark on the paper. Without a postal voting facility and with significant ambiguity as to who could stay on the register, many flew from London, New York, Sydney and further afield at huge expense. They did this just to vote and to stand up for their fellow citizens. If we had proper systems in place, they would not have had to travel. Ultimately, the fact that so many travelled so far is a testament to our citizens' desire to remain connected and their clear stake in the direction of our country. That they had to do so in the first place, however, shows just how outdated our democratic system is.
With several referenda scheduled over the next two years, this will happen again, and we need to be prepared for it. The economic context is also very important when we examine our relationship with the diaspora. It has been made clear in several policy documents that successive Governments have sought to harness our citizens abroad to attract jobs and investment and create a better export market. It was a key theme at the first Global Irish Economic Form in 2009 and it has been repeated at every edition since. There are still IDA posters in Dublin Airport of Saoirse Ronan and other celebrities asking those passing through the departures lounge to play their part and seek to send investment home. If, however, the global profile of Ireland is essential for investment and development, it is underpinned by the links created by those abroad. For too long we have seen this is a one-way street. In 2009, the Government's strategic review of Ireland–US relations stated:
Our single greatest asset in the US is our diaspora.
Irish America has helped Ireland's development and it remains a resource of incomparable benefit. This perfectly captures both the potential and mishandling of our relationship with the diaspora. Irish citizens abroad are a population with rights, not just an economic resource. An outlook that constantly emphasises their economic value but overlooks their citizenship and the rights that come with it does not befit a modern democratic nation.
We are always keen to harness the diaspora but we are less keen on vindicating their rights as citizens. This has to change.
The referendum in 2019 on a presidential vote is the obvious next step, and that is rightly the focus at the moment. It has been a long time coming, after 78% of the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of the change in 2013. This tallies almost exactly with research from the UCC Emigre project, which showed 79% support from resident citizens. This is not surprising given the number of Irish families affected by emigration and the number of emigrants away on short-term visas and contracts.
Successive Irish Presidents have consistently spoken about being a representative for Irish people all over the world. In this regard I am delighted the Government has committed to a referendum on this issue. However, we must show courage and look to longer-term solutions to this very Irish problem as well. One fitting example is that several Members have been elected by votes from abroad from graduates of the University of Dublin or the National University of Ireland. These graduates can easily register and have their ballot sent abroad. Under the current system, a ridiculous situation has emerged where a person can vote from abroad, but only if she has the right degree. This is something we have discussed as part of the Seanad Bill and we need to fix it. Irish citizens abroad have a right to representation, regardless of their degree.
The key is to look towards the 2019 referendum on a presidential vote. We need to show courage and put a proper overall system in place for the longer term. Historically, we have excluded our citizens abroad due to worries about the size of the overseas vote. This ignores the many models throughout the world that control for this, such as the reserved constituencies used by France and Italy or time limits in Australia and the United Kingdom. The recent options paper from the Department goes into more detail here. I urge the Minister of State to be brave in grasping this nettle and to put such a system in place. We have been debating this democratic deficit for decades. It is time now finally to do something about it.
I wish to take the opportunity to commend our Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora matters, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. He is doing great work in this area. It follows from the great work of the former Ministers of State, Jimmy Deenihan and Deputy Joe McHugh. Each had a unique style. Jimmy Deenihan has five All-Ireland medals. Anywhere he went in the world, it was currency. I wish it was currency I could use but I do not even have a county medal. It is something I could use. The same applies to Deputy Joe McHugh, who is from Donegal. He embraced the Irish language, went around and did a great job. I know from the contacts I hear from in London, Leeds and New York that the Minister of State is bringing his musical style, which is very good. I gather those in Milwaukee were delighted with the presence of the Minister of State and his rendition on stage.
The diaspora are part of us all. I remember I travelled around the world in the early 1980s and I ended up working in Australia. I remember going into a bar full of people who never came home. Only then I realised how fortunate I was in the 1980s to be the first person in my town ever to go to Australia and come back home. I imagine many would have preferred to send me back again, but it shows how things have changed. I was so excited to meet friends of my father in New York and some of those he grew up with in Tubbercurry. I remember reading the Roscommon Herald in Australia. It used to come out six weeks later. I recall reading every part of that newspaper six weeks later.
That is what our diaspora have done: they have kept in touch. They probably understand more about politics and life in our country than we do because they never forgot where they came from. They did everything they could in their new lives to remember the island of Ireland.
We talk about diaspora and the Fenian brotherhood. My father worked in London most of his life. I imagine Senator Lawless would agree that in the United States we mobilise well. We certainly did as much as we could for those back home. However, one place where we did not mobilise well was the United Kingdom. Was it lack of confidence? Alcohol certainly was an issue. Maybe we did not embrace it as a political system. What has happened in recent years is incredible. It was a missed opportunity. Perhaps we should have done it 70, 80 or 90 years ago when we had a vast diaspora who were available to us. There were some missed opportunities. This is where we are now and it is wonderful to see the work being done.
There is a match on tonight. The Republic of Ireland will play Hungary.
We are playing Denmark.
Sorry, it is Denmark. I am going to the match, so I hope I am going to the right one.
Yes, I hope Senator Feighan goes to the right one.
Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of football now. I remember in the early 1980s when football was not that important. I remember at one stage in Lansdowne Road there were approximately 15,000 or 17,000 at the match. I had to meet a group from London. This brought home to me that most of the group were second-generation Irish. At least 3,000 came by boat from Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and London. They were the nucleus of the Republic of Ireland supporters' clubs. I remember we were in a pub. I think it was The Shakespeare on Parnell Street. That was the Republic of Ireland supporters' clubs. They never forgot. It was a simple thing. They had the resources to organise as supporters' clubs before Twitter and so on. I believe that is an aspect we need to carry on.
The 50,000 undocumented Irish need to have their status recognised in the United States. Again, there is far more we can do with the diaspora. There is far more we should do. Senator Black is absolutely right about voting rights. Senator Lawless is doing great work with the diaspora and I wish him every success.
I am speaking as a returned emigrant. This is a subject I am passionate about. I welcome the work the Minister of State is doing but I wish to point out that the work will be judged on the things the Minister of State puts in place. The Minister of State can only get away with talking about the subject for so long. We really need to see things put in place. It is not only me, my colleagues or those who are saying it on a cross-party basis. The OECD and the European Commission have said it too. We are the laughing stock of the world because our emigrants, Irish citizens abroad, do not have voting rights. This cannot continue. The excuse that people hide behind and use is the fear that our diaspora will all rush out and vote for Gerry Adams. People need to get over it and get over themselves. That is what is said. If this is not put in place soon, then that is what people may rightfully think.
The minute I left Ireland I felt as if I was somehow a diluted citizen. That was offensive and it continues to offend me. There are no more excuses. The mechanisms are available. I commend the work of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad group. The group made a presentation to us last week. I am familiar with it from London. It has kept at it for years working for people's right to vote. I was delighted to meet the representatives. I am grateful to Senator Frances Black for inviting the group to speak to us.
It can only be talked about for so long. It needs to be done. We cannot hide behind things anymore. We need action for the thousands of people who have left. We should remember that emigration is a reality. It has been a reality in the constituency of the Minister of State and in my constituency of Mayo. However, just because it is a reality does not make it normal, and it is not normal. Then people return. It is a question of the way Irish citizens are treated abroad. They are no longer accepted into the golden circle. God knows there are enough golden circles here. There needs to be an emigrant circle where the rights of emigrants are protected.
They are not making them up and a lot of them are very simple.
I welcome the initiatives taken by the Minister of State. It is also welcome that licences can be renewed online for the following year. That must be the case. However, I take issue with the fact that people then have to sit a driving test. Anyone who has driven through spaghetti junction or on the M25 or the M1 will not need a driving licence to drive on the roads here. It is just ludicrous. I passed my driving test in London. If one can meet the challenges posed by London traffic, one can certainly meet the challenges here. That must be taken into account.
The quotes given for motor insurance are generally disgraceful but especially those given to the diaspora. In the main, they are people with vast experience in business and everything else who are coming back here and have a huge amount to contribute to the economy. The Minister for Finance should bring in the insurance companies in the same way as the banks were brought in kicking and screaming after we had debated the issue for months at the finance committee. He should make the insurance companies answerable for why they see fit to have huge hikes in motor insurance premiums. Again, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating in the offers being made and the quotes given.
The banks can and must be held accountable. People are made to jump through hoops to identify who they are. They have a passport and other forms of identification. They do need to be X-rayed or have an MRI to prove they are who they say they are. They also have people to vouch for them.
I come from an agricultural community where the barriers in receiving entitlements and accessing the national reserve must be addressed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. That could be done very simply. Officials within Departments must have an understanding of what it is like to be forced to leave one's country and then to come back again.
Another issue I wish to raise with the Minister of State relates to naturalisation and people who want passports. My brothers and other family members were forced to emigrate to England. Their children consider themselves to be Irish and want to apply for passports, but they are told that they cannot because it will cost €950 to obtain a naturalisation certificate. That is totally wrong and something I ask the Minister of State to address, but there are many more issues and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We really want to see action on these matters. I hope the next time the Minister of State comes to the House there will be measurements of the actions taken and that they will have a real impact in order that we will welcome back our emigrants and embrace everything they have to return to us.
I thank each and every Member for his or her impassioned contribution. It is more than apparent that each and every Member has a significant interest in this issue and that he or she shares our common objective to be as supportive as we possibly can be of the diaspora, the global Irish.
I will quickly go through the contributions made in which a couple of recurring themes were apparent. If I refer to only one speaker, it does not mean that I was not listening respectfully to the contributions made by others on the same matter.
I congratulate Senator Mark Daly on being a very vocal advocate for the diaspora for many years. He is correct to point to the ongoing need to support in particular the forgotten and isolated Irish, especially in the United Kingdom. From my experience of working with the Irish abroad unit and allocating the budget within the €12 million emigrant support programme, it is a very significant objective of the officials in the unit and the embassy in London, in particular, to ensure they are not forgotten but very much nurtured and supported. Whenever we support an Irish community organisation, no matter in what city it is located in the United Kingdom, a very significant part of the programme is supporting isolated and, in particular, elderly Irish emigrants who left this country many years ago and made a significant contribution through the moneys they remitted to this country. They must not be forgotten. I assure Senator Mark Daly that it is very much at the heart of the work done by the Department.
To be frank, I do not really care whether the diaspora number 11,000, 15,000 or 50,000, as the numbers do not really matter; what matters is the ongoing engagement through Senator Billy Lawless who has done extraordinary work in that regard. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney; Deputy John Deasy and I use every opportunity to continue to make the case for some solution that will allow the issues to be resolved for the undocumented. They form a small minority within an overall figure of 11 million people across the United States and it is difficult to see how we can extract a solution that will pertain to them alone, but we are doing everything we can. I assure the Senator that that engagement will continue for as long as it takes.
Senator Mark Daly also mentioned Ireland Reaching Out as an initiative we should support. We do support and have supported it for the past six years and will continue to do so. I very much appreciate the work done by its founder, Mr. Mike Feerick, and others on the board. The model they are adopting is very interesting. One or two speakers referred to the fact that engaging with the diaspora worldwide was about much more than attending St. Patrick's Day parades and giving a congratulatory pat on the back to Irish emigrant organisations. It is also about engaging with the diaspora at an individual level, one by one. That is what the Ireland Reaching Out programme is especially successful at doing.
It is interesting to note that in a recent survey carried out on behalf of the Department and administered through the IrishCentral news site we surveyed about 3,500 members of the diaspora across the United States, of whom a total of 69% said they considered themselves to be Irish but did not engage in any shape or manner with any Irish organisation in their local community, town or city. There are thousands, if not millions, of people, in particular in the United States, who do not feel any real affinity with a local community organisation, yet they feel Irish. We need to find some mechanism to connect with them in a more meaningful manner.
Senator Mark Daly referred to the fact that it had been said that as the crisis was over, we did not need the diaspora any more. That is very much not the case and it has never been the case. Deputy Enda Kenny was the first Taoiseach ever to appoint a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora in Jimmy Deenihan and it continued under the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. The new Taoiseach has appointed me to that role. He has repeatedly used the phrase "global Irish nation" and referred to the fact that we need to develop a very strong sense of the community that extends far beyond this island on the edge of Europe.
Senator Billy Lawless mentioned the referendum on a right to vote in presidential elections and how important it was to build a sense of the global Irish community. The referendum will be held in the shortest possible timeframe. It is important to point out that it would be physically impossible to provide for an opportunity to vote in a presidential election any sooner than the election of 2025 because of the intricacies of the mechanics involved. It would be impossible to do so within a shorter timeframe.
Senator Billy Lawless also mentioned that it was important to continue to engage with the diaspora beyond the intergovernmental and corporate engagement we have had in the past and to somehow drill down to engage with each member of the diaspora on an individual basis. I commend the Senator for the very important work he has done. The very fact that he was appointed by the Taoiseach to the role of spokesperson for the diaspora in the national Parliament is indicative of how precious this engagement remains to the Government.
Senator Neale Richmond pointed out that the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, had appointed the first Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. He also asked for more details of the Back for Business initiative. It is a very exciting one in that it acknowledges that a large majority of the people who are returning to Ireland are doing so on the basis that they have a good business idea which they wish to develop in this country. We are taking 48 returned emigrants or people who will be returning in the coming months and partnering them with very successful entrepreneurs who have founded and developed very successful businesses here, all of whom are involved on a voluntary basis. It is taking the seed of an idea emanating from an entrepreneurial returning emigrant and nurturing and supporting them to develop the idea in an Irish context.
Senator Billy Lawless referred to the challenges posed by Brexit, in particular in respect of the common travel area agreement which was in place long before the European Union ever existed. The retention of the common travel area between the United Kingdom and Ireland is very much at the heart of our Brexit negotiations and will remain so.
To be frank, as he might understand, when Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh issued his press statement in which he said there had been a reduction in the budget for initiatives for the diaspora, I was somewhat taken aback and concerned. If it was the case that we were setting out to reduce the budget for the emigrant support programme, that discussion would have taken place, but I assure the Senator that it did not.
I will clarify this with my officials tomorrow and send the Senator an email. Those are the figures I have and they indicate a significant increase in the programme aid which covers our emigrant support programme. I do not know how that anomaly has arisen. There is no way a discussion would have taken place to deliberately reduce our emigrant support programme when the needs of our emigrants internationally are increasing all the time and we have the resources to support them in a much more effective way. Again, I will check those figures for the Senator.
I look forward to that.
The Senator spoke about our people in the UK who are concerned about their opportunities to continue having a vote in the EU elections following Brexit. I agree with Brian Hayes MEP, who spoke in London recently and outlined his opinion that we need to find a mechanism for Irish citizens resident in the UK to continue to have a say in EU elections and to be able to elect an Irish MEP or MEPs.
On the difficulties around returning emigrants, there is an interdepartmental committee which meets again tomorrow, and Senator Lawless and I will attend that meeting. The committee is seeking to address all of the administrative and bureaucratic issues which the Senator rightly points out have been an issue in the past. One by one, they are being resolved. For example, the issue around driving licences was raised by Senator Conway. We have a licence exchange agreement with the whole of the EU, so if one did one's test in London, that licence can very easily be swapped for an Irish licence. It is for jurisdictions like the US and Australia that this is particularly difficult because there are significant differences, particularly in terms of driving standards across the US, and there are also very convoluted licence exchange agreements within the US states. For example, if one was to make a concession to the state of Illinois tomorrow morning that we would have a formal licence exchange agreement on the basis that its driving standards are as good as ours, we would then have to consider what other states it has an interstate licence agreement exchange with, and whether they share the same standards as this country. It is very complex but we are working to address that as best we can.
The whole issue of international fees for our students is an area about which I am very concerned. So far, no solution is apparent to us, and I will explain why. If we, tomorrow morning, as I think we should, were to extend the right to the child of every Irish citizen across the world to study at third level in Ireland at the same cost as a child based here in Ireland, we would have to extend that same right to the children of every single EU citizen across the world. That is the law as it applies at this point in time. I am meeting with the Department of Education and Skills the day after tomorrow to discuss this further and to see if there is any way within EU law to allow for some sort of support structure to be put in place. It would be exceptionally important to have the children of our citizens abroad coming to Ireland and bringing with them their experience of living in another country and all of the positives associated with that, studying in Ireland and then becoming very powerful and effective ambassadors for us worldwide. The benefit to Ireland as a whole would be significant if we could find a way to do that.
On the area around the national reserve, it is my understanding that the criteria applying for entry into and support from the national reserve are applied equitably across the whole country, be it to a person resident here or a person coming in from abroad, and there is no significant requirement or burden placed upon returning emigrants. They simply have to comply with the same criteria as would be necessary for somebody resident in Ireland.
Senator Black was right to point out that our Irish Abroad unit has been very effective in supporting our people internationally, particularly in partnership with our embassies. I am seeing repeated evidence of that as I visit our embassies around the world. They are exceptionally competent at building a strong sense of community across the cities and countries in which they are located. Something the Senator may be interested to hear about, because of her exceptional talent and track record in music, is Ireland's Other Voices, Philip King's extraordinary initiative, which is now essentially going on tour, which I am delighted to see. We have had Other Voices Austin, Other Voices Belfast and Other Voices Berlin. The Irish ambassador in Berlin remarked recently that at an Other Voices event in Berlin targeting the Irish community, 300 Irish people turned up who the ambassador simply did not know existed. We need to acknowledge that there is a whole new cohort of our diaspora for whom that cultural engagement is exceptionally important, and it might not be in the traditional areas of cultural engagement that we had in the past. The contemporary, cutting edge music that is supported by Other Voices can call out to, engage with and be the glue that allows us to communicate with a whole other generation of our diaspora abroad.
The Senator spoke eloquently and passionately about the whole issue of voting rights. She is correct that the obvious next step is a referendum on presidential voting rights. Senator Ó Clochartaigh asked me how I feel at a personal level about the subsequent actions. I hope the Irish people who are resident on this island will extend the hand of community and of friendship to our people internationally and allow them that very precious opportunity to elect our first citizen. At a personal level, I think that should be the platform for further extension of voting rights to our people in terms of who represents them in these Houses.
Senator Feighan again referred to the issue of using our particular talents to engage with the diaspora as best we can. I congratulate him on the wonderful work he does in building strong interparliamentary links between Ireland and the UK. These links are serving to protect the very precious and hard won peace that we now have. It also allows for the Irish in the UK to feel very much part of a sense of a greater Irish community.
Senator Conway is right that it is about results and I am a person who has always been driven by achieving results. I do not see the point in producing reports without action. We have asked Indecon to undertake an in-depth and forensic analysis of why these returning emigrant issues are arising. Once I have that report, which I hope to have in late December or early January, I will begin to act on every recommendation contained within it. Some of them will apply within the structures of the State, which I hope can be easily resolved. Others apply to organs outside the State like the insurance companies and the banking federation. I met today Insurance Ireland, which is the umbrella group representing Irish companies here. Change is happening and, thankfully, it told us it has discussed this issue with eight major insurers who supply most of the market here in Ireland. If persons returning now can provide evidence of having had a no-claims bonus or a claims-free and safe driving record abroad, that will be taken into consideration in terms of an insurance quote here. We will be producing some documentation on that in the coming weeks to explain to people how they go about doing it.
I would engage a lot with some of the people who run an excellent Facebook page, Irish Expats Returning to Ireland, which has about 15,000 people. The key issue is to prepare. If one simply turns up on the shores of Ireland having been in Australia for five years and expects all of these issues to somehow disappear, they will not. The key issue is to prepare, prepare, prepare. Insurance Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are going to produce a document that outlines to people exactly what they need to do in terms of preparing for getting insurance quotes in particular, so they have all the documentation and necessary records in place to ensure they get the most competitive quotation.
I have already addressed the issue of the national reserve and farming. On naturalisation, any barrier that is in place needs to be addressed, and €900 is a significant barrier to most families. I hope this issue is addressed within the Indecon report and a solution is suggested, which I hope we can pursue in order to resolve that issue.
What of the Irish parliamentary forum?
I understand the Irish parliamentary forum was a body convened by the first Minister of State for the diaspora, Mr. Deenihan, and it has not sat since. I would like to talk further with the Senator about that. I will be frank. Whether or not we should be spending additional resources on facilitating interparliamentary engagement with the Irish parliamentary diaspora worldwide, and while it may have merit, I think the resources we need to expend now and in the immediate future are on engaging with our diaspora at a much more granular level, getting down into communities, particularly in the UK, Australia, Canada and the US, and finding out, for example, why 70% of Irish-Americans do not engage with any Irish community organisation and why they do not feel that sense of a community and of a greater thing outside of themselves. That is where we need to focus our attention, although I would like to talk to Senator Daly about that and see if there is any mechanism we can put in place to ensure those meetings continue.
I thank all Senators for their excellent contributions. This is an area I am very much focused on and very passionate about. All Senators should feel free to contact me if they have any issues or suggestions to make on how we can provide even better or more meaningful engagement to our diaspora. My door is always open.