Diaspora Affairs: Statements

I am happy to have the opportunity to be here to today address this House on diaspora affairs and to give an update on my work as the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development, particularly as that work applies to the diaspora worldwide. My work is guided by the Government's diaspora policy, Global Irish: Ireland's Diaspora Policy. Published in 2015, this was the first clear Government policy on the diaspora that recognises that Ireland has a unique and important relationship with its diaspora that should be nurtured and developed. With the publication of Global Ireland – Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025 last year, the Government committed to the development of a new diaspora policy in 2019, to be published in the first quarter of 2020. This will require a new strategic approach to supporting our citizens overseas and to developing diaspora networks internationally, including our traditional, affinity and return diasporas. In the coming months, we will engage in a consultation process on the development of this policy. Stakeholders will include people at home, the Government and, in particular, diaspora groups and representatives of Irish communities around the world. Consultation meetings will be held around Ireland and by our missions abroad.

The vision of Ireland's diaspora policy is "a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other." To work towards this, the main aims of Ireland's diaspora policy have been to support Irish communities wherever they are, to help Irish people and Irish communities to be more connected to Ireland and to each other, and to help Irish people maintain and develop their sense of Irish heritage and connection to Ireland. This is a vision that I wholeheartedly subscribe to. During my time as Minister of State responsible for the diaspora, it has been a vision that I have seen lived in Irish communities across the globe, whether they are the oldest and most established, in America, or the newest and fastest growing, in places such as the Gulf states.

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

In recent years, the emigrant support programme has also facilitated a wider geographic engagement with Irish communities. In addition to the traditional areas of emigration such as Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, funding in recent years has been granted to Irish community organisations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Gulf states. Since its establishment, more than €170 million has been disbursed through the programme to Irish communities worldwide. This year alone, there are applications on hand for a total amount in excess of €21 million, involving more than 470 projects from 300 organisations. Requests for funding far outstrip our budget. I have witnessed at first hand the significant impact the emigrant support programme can have on Irish communities and organisations around the world. Funding made available to these organisations unlocks a whole new world of engagement and supports the continued flourishing of Irish culture, heritage, sport and identity far beyond these shores. This is why I am particularly pleased to announce today an increase of €1 million in the allocation for the programme in 2019, increasing to €12.59 million from €11.59 million last year. The programme is the most tangible expression of Ireland's care for its emigrants and its diaspora and the value in which it holds them. This increased budget is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to our diaspora. It is welcome, and I hope this investment will be built on in the coming years.

With a programme such as this we are able to articulate the Government's position that our diaspora is a group that we cherish and seek to support as part of a continuing relationship, rather than a resource which can be "harnessed". Only in this way can we truly develop two-way engagement and live up to our constitutional ideal whereby "the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage". This special affinity has grown and evolved as we have developed our diaspora engagement in recent years. The diaspora policy itself sets out a role for evolving engagement and commits the Government "to meet changing needs in changing times".

One of the ways in which we are evolving is in exploring new ways to increase practical engagement with and to meet the expectations of our diaspora. In recent times, this has taken the form of examining the potential to extend voting rights in presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State. I am pleased that we have been able to make progress on this issue, and the Government has now decided that the question that will be put to the people in a referendum is whether to extend voting rights in presidential elections to citizens outside the state, including in Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach further announced in the Dáil that this referendum will be held at the end of October this year. The proposal to extend voting rights to citizens outside the State is one I have long been in favour of. The extension of voting rights in presidential elections to citizens outside the State is an important recognition that the President of Ireland is a representative not just of our country, but of all Irish people. It is also an important statement to our citizens abroad and in Northern Ireland that we value them and their connection to Ireland. It will be an important statement of the value we place on our diaspora. The referendum also demonstrates that at a time of much change, Ireland is, and will continue to be, an open, progressive and outward-facing country that values its citizens all over the world. Ideally, we will have a campaign on this issue which will provide an opportunity to bring together Irish communities at home and abroad. I hope my colleagues in Seanad Éireann will become actively involved in that campaign. I will campaign and advocate strongly for a "Yes" vote as an expression of the value we place on our citizens overseas and as a recognition that they continue to represent a part of our nation, notwithstanding that they reside outside our State.

As Minister of Stale with special responsibility for the diaspora, my work and the work of my Department to engage with the diaspora is hugely varied. I have not touched on other areas of it, such as the support we give to the GAA, which does extraordinary work in developing our games and in community building abroad; the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, recognising those who have made an extraordinary contribution to Irish communities worldwide; the centenarian bounty; and a range of other projects and pilots we undertake to improve and increase our engagement with our diaspora. The breadth of this engagement is ongoing and is something that I had not fully realised before assuming this role. Only by working closely with my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and by visiting and meeting Irish diaspora communities and groups around the world have I come to see the array of activity, innovation, communication and connectedness that is out there. As Minister of State with special responsibility for the diaspora, it is my goal to be a voice for the Irish diaspora in government and here at home. As we prepare to travel for the St. Patrick's Day period, when the Taoiseach and Ministers will engage extensively with Irish emigrants, Irish communities and our affinity diaspora across the world, I look forward to meeting more of our global Irish family and ensuring that their concerns are given a platform.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend him on his activities on behalf of the diaspora. He will have the fullest co-operation from my party in this regard. People often ask what the diaspora stands for. I will show off a little of my classical scholarship; I studied ancient Greek. The Greek word "" effectively means the scattering abroad. The ancient Greeks set up colonies throughout the Adriatic and the Aegean coasts. They regarded these colonies as part of Greece itself, far-flung though they were, and maintained tight relationships with them and funded them. This is one of the reasons most of our modern culture today is founded on Greek as well as Roman civilisation. This is a leaf we should take from their book. I am glad that the Minister of State is doing so and that he cherishes our diaspora, as does everyone in both Houses.

Seventy million people living overseas claim Irish ancestry, which is a huge scale and a huge reach for us as a small island nation. My party, Fianna Fáil, has long recognised the significance and potential of this. We were the first party to appoint a designated spokesman on the diaspora and were one of the very first in with a policy document on the diaspora. We are committed to supporting our diaspora through continued funding of the emigrant support programme, and I welcome the Minister of State's announcement this morning of increased funding in the coming year for the programme. It is very important.

I could dwell on a number of questions but I will pick just a couple in the time allocated. The extension of voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad in presidential elections has been talked about for a while. It is one meaningful and concrete way in which we can show our appreciation for our diaspora. There is a caveat in this, which I will come to later. It will not be so simple. However, it is important we pursue the matter and have results on it.

We in Fianna Fáil also strongly advocate on behalf of the undocumented Irish in the US, focusing especially on the removal of barriers for those who wish to travel home and who live constantly in the shadows, having to miss important events such as parents' funerals. With modern technology, the Minister of State will know that engagement is now much easier with the diaspora. There is a dividend in this engagement for members of the diaspora, who cherish the Irish connection and regard it as an important part of their lives. There is also a significant dividend for us as a small nation, economically, socially and culturally. What diplomatic corps in the world has the advantages that ours has, with Irish people and people claiming Irish descent all over the world?

In March 2017, the Government announced that a referendum would be held to amend Article 12 of the Constitution to allow Irish citizens outside the State, including in Northern Ireland, to vote in presidential elections. This decision is in line with the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. The convention conducted a number of polls, which showed decisive support among Irish people for the extension of these voting rights. As I said, however, the relatively fractious support as to the precise eligibility of Irish citizens abroad demonstrates that this is a complex issue that will warrant, as the Minister of State will well know, careful consideration. The convention also published an options paper, which explored allowing Irish citizens outside the State and in the North to vote in presidential elections in particular. The options paper noted that in deciding on the question, a number of legal, policy and logistical considerations had to be borne in mind.

Decisions need to be made with regard to which residents outside of the State have the right to vote. Specific consideration must be given to the Good Friday Agreement. The unique situation of Irish citizens in the North, and the fact that almost all of those born in Northern Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship, make it essential that any options considered in relation to the extension of the franchise include this cohort. We are aware that extending voting rights to all citizens also gives rise to logistical and administrative challenges as well as cost implications.

Regarding the undocumented Irish, it has not been possible for many of those people to return to Ireland for any reason, as they would not be granted re-entry into the United States. Living without documentation means living in fear. It is almost impossible. I heard a story recently about a young man who emigrated from the west many years ago. He is undocumented but succeeded in building up a nice business where he is employing upwards of 50 or 60 people, many of them themselves of Irish origin. He has a wife and family but if at any time that unfortunate individual were to come onto the radar by virtue of something as innocuous as a speeding offence, he would be put into limbo while he was checked for all sorts of criminal activity and finding none, presumably, he would then be on the next aeroplane back to Ireland with the entire structure of his life and family left behind. That is an awful way for people to live.

This issue affects not only the undocumented themselves but their families in Ireland, that is, parents, siblings and friends. It is important that the Government would use all its influence to try to settle the matter. Thousands of families are torn apart due to lack of reform in this area. We in Fianna Fáil call on the Minister to engage and continue to support Irish-American organisations throughout the US, such as the Aisling Irish community centre in New York and the Irish pastoral centres in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. We acknowledge that the Government has appointed Deputy Deasy as its special envoy to Congress on the undocumented. I have no hesitation in saying that he is doing excellent work. It was most disappointing for him and for our colleague, Senator Lawless, our former spokesman on this issue, Senator Mark Daly, and many others, that at the very last second everything fell apart due to the opposition of one Senator, for reasons of his own. We are downhearted as a result of that but we are not totally discouraged. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, will keep the work going.

We in Fianna Fáil are also committed to funding the emigrant support programme. I have already welcomed the Minister of State's announcement this afternoon regarding that. The programme is more vital than ever, in particular in the light of Brexit. It is imperative that when the UK leaves the Union we continue to maintain and build relationships between Ireland and the Irish community in Britain. The decision of the UK to leave the EU will change our relationship with the UK significantly. Both Ireland and the UK joined the EU in 1973 and our shared membership allowed us to forge common bonds at EU level and to build strong working relationships. No doubt our joint membership of the EU helped to facilitate the vitally important Good Friday Agreement.

Do I have much time left, a Leas-Chathaoirligh?

The Senator is just running into injury time.

There is no better refereeing than to give me-----

I will give the Senator a small bit of grace.

I would do the same for you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh.

Senator O'Sullivan had better not be too long about it.

Returning emigrants face significant challenges as well. We need a cross-Department response plan to facilitate Irish people returning to the country. Much has been put in place already. I acknowledge the contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, who launched the back-to-business programme. That was a very welcome step, but it is apparent that much more needs to be done to support returning Irish emigrants.

We are all wearing the green jersey on this matter. We all have people abroad, whether it is in America, England, South Africa or eastern Europe, it does not matter where they are, they are proud to be Irish and we are proud of them and we will work with the Minister of State to do the very best for them.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House again for a debate on a key issue. I am fortunate to speak here this afternoon but, unfortunately, our foreign affairs spokesperson, Senator Joe O'Reilly, is overseas in his very important role as Vice President of the Council of Europe.

We are coming up to the annual St. Patrick's Day, or perhaps more correctly it is the St. Patrick's week or month of celebrations. I believe the first parades have already taken place in certain parts of America. I saw a picture of Chuck Schumer leading a parade just last week. It is a fabulous time of year. I was very fortunate last year to spend St. Patrick’s Day in London and this year I will travel abroad in a personal capacity. It is only when one has an opportunity to go abroad that one sees how vitally important that day and the days around it are to so many abroad. Needless to say, we will have the same cynics, as we do every year, bemoaning the travel by the Government, and all political parties, because to be fair, people from all parties go abroad to engage with the diaspora on this most important day. The usual rhetoric we hear is about the price of flights or that people should be doing this or that, but this year of all, when we face so many uncertain challenges such as Brexit or the rise of certain regimes in the US or across Europe, it underscores how important the St. Patrick’s Day trade missions and outreach by the Government are not just to the diaspora, the 70 million odd abroad, but also to Ireland because, to be frank, there is a monetary return on every single trade mission to the United States or elsewhere. I believe the Cathaoirleach is off to Russia this year. There are great opportunities for trade and investment partnerships, which will be vitally important to the State as we face into so many challenges.

That does beg the question of how we reach out to the diaspora beyond 17 March or the weeks either side of it. I welcome the announcement of additional funds. I sense there is probably a significant amount of agreement across the House on how we approach the diaspora, regardless of the party on behalf of whom we speak. That is welcome because this issue goes so much further than party politics. There used to be a tradition of a certificate of heritage for those among the diaspora who are gone for too many generations and who are not eligible to apply for a passport. That is something we could look at bringing back and perhaps formalising.

I welcome the fact that we will have a referendum at the back end of October. To be frank, this is an issue I had a bit of difficulty with personally. I had concerns about whether it was opening the gate essentially to allow for representation without taxation and if the diaspora would be voting in other elections or referendums. It is something that I am not too comfortable with, but the Presidency does not simply represent the people in the Twenty-six Counties, it goes so much further and beyond that. For that reason, I welcome the referendum. Not alone will I vote in favour of it, but I look forward to campaigning across the constituency.

I am fortunate to be convener of the French-Irish friendship group under the Ceann Comhairle’s initiative, and I do a lot of work with the French Senators who represent the French abroad. Within the context of Seanad reform, I would welcome a formal seat, or a couple of them, in this House for the diaspora. We have seen the excellent contributions from Senator Lawless as the voice of the diaspora but, equally, from Senators Marshall and Ó Donnghaile who are giving a voice in this House to Irish citizens across the Border.

That is very important and we need to recognise it as we face changing times. The Seanad provides a unique opportunity. Now that we have decided to retain the Seanad it is something we should invest time in developing and embrace it.

Senator O’Sullivan referred to the diaspora in the United Kingdom, the estimated 2 million Irish citizens who reside in the island of Great Britain, and what role they can play post 29 March or whatever day Brexit happens, if it ever does happen. That community will play an important role in maintaining UK-Irish relations post Brexit. As one of the only remaining 27 member states, we are very fortunate to maintain bilateral relations through the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, but we will also be able to maintain solid relations through the diaspora in the UK and, equally, through the 300,000 or so British citizens living in this jurisdiction.

One of the key issues, which has come up again, is passports. There was a surge of applications for Irish passports in the UK. I read, angrily, the article in The Irish Times yesterday of the very cynical approach by a Mr. Fleming of Manchester who voted to leave but made sure he got his passport because he wants to be able to get through customs in Spain quicker. Those anomalies will always crop up.

The fact that Mr. Ian Paisley Jnr. hands out Irish passport forms in his constituency clinic does not exactly sit comfortably with me but if it means certain people in the North can get their Irish passport more quickly, it is fair play and I embrace it. We must embrace every one of our diaspora, even if at times we might question their motives and fundamentally disagree with their outlook. Using our diaspora in the UK will be important so we must double down on those efforts. I welcome the reopening of the consulate in Cardiff to complement the consulate in Edinburgh and embassy in London. There is a great opportunity to go even further and strengthen our team in Great Britain. We could perhaps consider additional consulates, whether it is one to look after the northern powerhouse region based in Manchester or the unique and colourful Irish community around Coventry and Birmingham, which has contributed so much to the UK, particularly its post-war reconstruction. We should think about how much they can offer us and what we can offer them.

I wish to share time with Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State is welcome to this timely discussion on the diaspora. As other colleagues have rightly acknowledged, we are heading into a crucial period where we will redouble our efforts to engage with our diaspora around the world. I commend Deputy Cannon on his personal commitment to his role as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and the work he has carried out to bolster and energise that engagement. He understands and appreciates the important role that our diaspora plays. It is important that he acknowledges and understands the responsibility that we have to our diaspora, and that mutually beneficial relationship is very important.

I will briefly touch on a number of topics before my colleague contributes. It has been a great privilege to take on the role of spokesperson for the diaspora for the Sinn Féin team in the Seanad, and other Members might also feel the same. It has been a privilege to go overseas and engage the diaspora to see the fantastic work that members of the Irish community abroad are involved with, particularly the benefit they bring to the life in their home places. We have the privilege of seeing and hearing those success stories but I must also reinforce the point made by Senator Ned O'Sullivan that countless numbers of our diaspora are suffering or are under pressure. They need support from home, whether it is through a family structure, friends, colleagues or fellow club members, etc. It is positive that funding for the emigrant support programme has been increased under the watch of the Minister of State and I hope it will be directed in a way that can make practical and tangible differences to those people who need it most.

The announcement by the Government relates to something I have raised numerous times since coming to the Seanad. The Minister of State and I have engaged extensively on the issue of a referendum on extending votes for presidential elections to the diaspora. As we saw in a number of recent significant referenda at home, the diaspora has a crucial part to play and it wants to be invested in such a campaign. In this case it would give those people a tangible benefit in that it would give them a say in who holds the office of President, the first citizen. It is a symbolic office that represents not a land mass but the Irish people, no matter where on the globe they reside. That is why it is so important. A vote in such a referendum would be a vote for a fellow Irish citizen, which is positive.

The issue was not the responsibility of the Minister of State but as we enter into the debate, colleagues may commit to campaigning on the referendum as vigorously as they have said they will. I made the point here previously. The Minister of State stated, "It is an important statement to our citizens abroad and in Northern Ireland that we value them and their connection to Ireland". I live in Baile Mhic Gearóid, i mBéal Feirste. I do not have a connection to Ireland; I am in Ireland and I am Irish so I would just err on the side of caution when we make these statements on the diaspora so that we understand there is a difference between the diaspora and the Irish community and Irish citizens in the North of our country. It is important to make that important distinction.

I commend the Minister of State and wish him well in his work. Go n-éirí an bóthar leis. I wish him good luck as he travels to re-engage with the diaspora around the world. I am confident he will take the message of the importance of this referendum in October and lobby our diaspora to be just as active in it. Those with the ability to come home to vote should do so and invest in their fellow diaspora.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I wish a happy St. Patrick's Day to all our diaspora, as well as our citizens in the North.

We could never forget them.

It is just more than a year since we had statements on the diaspora in the Dáil so it seems like the perfect time to measure the achievements of the Government based on the commitments made then. Last year, the Government welcomed the publication of the Indecon economic survey of problems associated with returning emigrants. Is the Minister of State satisfied with his Department's actions so far on the 30 targeted recommendations? I may not have seen it but has the Department provided a dashboard indicating progress on each of the recommendations, as the other working groups have done? Those recommendations included, among others, concerns about barriers to housing for returning people, both in accessing mortgages and for people who need to access social housing and joining the housing waiting list.

There were related matters, including concerns relating to employment, health and childcare, welfare, education and entrepreneurship. Of course, we should also include the voting rights issue. We can send a big and strong message to our diaspora stating that they matter to us if we have the referendum on voting rights and campaign vigorously on it. I encourage everybody to get involved in that. I particularly encourage families that have members living abroad to get involved. I certainly intend playing an active role in that. I commend my colleague, Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile, on all the work he has done in leading the Sinn Féin team in the Seanad in that respect.

The undocumented Irish were mentioned earlier. We must keep the collective pressure on. Everybody, including the Minister of State, has to deal with cases where Irish citizens have been picked up abroad and incarcerated. They live in fear because they are undocumented. There has been multi-generational emigration so even if we go back to the 1960s, there are people whose parents were born abroad but the people themselves might have been born here. If those people have children who require an Irish passport, they have to go through the naturalisation process, which is expensive. I know people with three, four or five children and it costs thousands of euro to get passports for them. Will the Minister of State examine the naturalisation process? It is the policy of successive Governments in the main that have driven people away through no fault of their own.

I also mention returning emigrants seeking to access the young farmers' scheme, in particular, along with the national reserve scheme. It was cited in the Indecon report and the same rules must apply to everybody. However, there should be some flexibility on this, particularly with respect to qualifications and income thresholds. Much more can be done in that respect. Car insurance has been identified by all parties as a major barrier as well. The working group on the cost of insurance in its latest report indicates that the issue of high insurance costs associated with returning emigrants is outstanding. We must again keep the pressure on the motor industry to sort out those matter. I acknowledge the work that has been done but ministerial orders could be implemented in many areas, which could lead to tangible results for the diaspora.

I am delighted to contribute to this debate. I welcome the Minister of State and compliment him on the work that he is doing. I urge him to keep connecting with our diaspora abroad just like his predecessors, Deputy McHugh, and before him the former Minister of State, Jimmy Deenihan.

As other speakers have said, it is important that the Government places great emphasis on connecting with our diaspora abroad. Being an island nation, emigration has been a feature of this country for hundreds of years. Often in the past there was forced emigration because there was no way to make a livelihood here, a lack of job opportunities and the economy was in a poor state. Thankfully, in recent times, emigration has been more of a lifestyle choice. Young people, students and graduates, etc., wish to travel and broaden their horizons before, hopefully, returning home, or many of them returning, at some stage. I agree with previous Senators who mentioned that there is a need to provide a smooth passage when emigrants wish to return. Sometimes there are obstacles that prevent their return. Whatever must be done or needs to be done should be done because returning emigrants are a great resource and make a great contribution to this country. The Minister of State has spoken about the matter. I very much welcome the announcement that there will be an increase in funding for the emigrant support programme. I also very much welcome the prospect of a referendum and votes for our diaspora in the presidential election.

The undocumented Irish has been an ongoing issue, which appears at times to be on the threshold of being solved but all of a sudden there is a setback. It is important to progress the issue at every level. I was glad to see that Deputy Deasy was appointed to try and work on the project. It is important that whatever can be done is done by our Government and for people to come up with a better solution for all of the undocumented Irish.

Many of my trips abroad have been in a sporting or GAA context so I have seen at first hand the connection that Irish people have with culture, music, language and games. Such connection becomes so important. What amazes me sometimes is that one would never realise that people had such interests when one met them here before they went abroad. The discussion that one has with emigrants when they are abroad contrasts greatly with what one had at home. Their interest in culture, for example, might have been latent here but it very much moves to the top of their agenda when they go abroad. Therefore, it is crucial that we connect with our emigrants and support them.

Last May I attended the Connacht GAA senior football championship game between Leitrim and New York in New York. On the Monday evening I decided to go for a walk in a forest. Along the way I heard games being played and wondered whether baseball or whatever was being played. My curiosity got to me and I discovered a group of adults coaching 40 young children in Gaelic football. I chatted to the people and participated in some of the events. I was amazed that such a thing was happening in a park near Yonkers in New York. The adults were Irish emigrants who had done well. Their kids were being coached in Gaelic football and they wore various club and county jerseys from Ireland. I understand there are 400 GAA clubs all over the world and the GAA is very supportive of the initiative. Only in the last few weeks I connected the GAA with a group in Sarajevo who are having an Irish festival on St. Patrick's weekend. The GAA will organise a coaching session on the day for the children of the diaspora. The GAA has a unit that supports such promotion, which is tremendous to hear.

I do not know where we are with the diaspora abroad in terms of other countries. From my experience of travelling abroad I have realised that this is such a small world and there are many Irish connections everywhere. Long may it continue that the Government, through the Minister of State and various Departments, continues to reach out, embrace and support our diaspora abroad.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to speak about the diaspora today, which is a timely date in the lead up to the St. Patrick's weekend. I very much welcome the announcements made by the Minister of State. In particular, I welcome his announcement that there will be an increase of €1 million in the allocation for the emigrant support programme in 2019. That is really good to see. I agree with him when he said that the emigrant support programme is the most tangible expression of Ireland's care for and value of our diaspora. I also very much welcome the new diaspora policy and the engagement, which he has described, that will be carried on this year in terms of developing the new diaspora policy.

As other Senators have done, I commend our colleague, Senator Lawless, for all the work that he has done to highlight the importance of the Irish diaspora. I also commend him for working, in a practical sense, to ensure that recognition is given to the undocumented Irish in the US. He is continuing that work.

I shall speak on three aspects of diaspora relations. I speak as somebody who is one of six Members of the Oireachtas elected, in part, by members of the diaspora. I refer to the university Senators, both Dublin University and the National University of Ireland. We are unique among the other Members of the Oireachtas because our electorate includes Irish citizens living abroad and people who are resident in countries outside Ireland. I have looked at the Seanad register for Trinity and I saw that among the 50,000 voters there are voters from as far away as the Pacific islands and lots in Australia, New Zealand and so on, all of whom are entitled to vote. That is a really important part of our electorate. It is important that any of us who are university Senators acknowledge that role and the fact that it is not unknown to our political system to have diaspora votes.

I shall talk as somebody who represents members of the diaspora and as somebody who has lived abroad. I spent three years living abroad in London where I was very active in different groups, including the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group. For many years, the group provided practical help and assistance to the thousands of Irish women who had to leave Ireland, for so many years, to access reproductive health services abroad. Thankfully, now that we have changed our own law through the repeal of the eighth amendment last year, that route is no longer necessary for most women. The IWAS Group that I was part of in London, along with my colleague, Senator Kelleher, played a really important role over many years. Many of the members of our group were themselves second generation Irish. Senator Conway-Walsh talked about generational emigration. That second generation has grown up Irish in London and has a dual identity of being from London but also from Ireland. They were very active in other Irish emigrant groups abroad as well, including the Irish centres, Irish music and Irish cultural groups. Therefore, I have a particular interest in the diaspora.

I shall first talk about votes for the diaspora, which the Minister of State has addressed a little. I shall also talk about the changing relationship that we have with our diaspora. Finally, I shall say just a word about Irish Aid, which is the other side of the diaspora issue where we talk about Ireland reaching out, our contribution to overseas development aid and the launch last week of a policy entitled A Better World, which I welcomed in this House. I could not get to the launch but I was in this House welcoming the policy on the same morning.

I very much welcome the announcement that there will be a referendum. I had thought that it was to be held in May but the Taoiseach has stated that it will now take place in October. It is good that the question of extending voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens outside the State is being put to the people. I welcome this and will be happy to campaign in support of the proposal. I hope it will pass. In 2013, I was proud to lead the Labour Party delegation at the Constitutional Convention, which recommended by 78% majority, that we would extend voter rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens resident abroad. All of us who participated in the convention found it an extremely moving experience to hear from members of the diaspora who gave testimony, broadcast to the convention at the Grand Hotel in Malahide. Some had got up in the middle of the night to do so. They spoke very powerfully, eloquently and movingly about why they would seek the right to vote in presidential elections and how connected they felt to their country of origin. Some had only left Ireland a few years previously, others had been away a long time and some were Irish citizens who might have had very little physical connection to the country but who had a very strong emotional and mental connection and one of identity. I am glad that the referendum will be held in October and I hope it will pass so that Irish citizens resident abroad will be able to vote in the next presidential election in six years' time.

I also wish to mention the changing relationship. It is now some years since Mary Robinson, on her election as President - the first woman to hold the position - in 1990, placed major emphasis on the connection with the diaspora and famously lit a candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin which was a powerful symbolic expression of the cherishing of the diaspora. She spoke of the truest way of cherishing the diaspora but she also spoke of the changing relationship. She stated:

Diaspora, in its meaning of dispersal or scattering, includes the many ways, not always chosen, that people have left this island. To cherish is to value and to nurture and support. If we are honest we will acknowledge that those who leave do not always feel cherished.

That moment in 1990 marked a really important shift in our relationship with the diaspora and a recognition that the relationship must remain dynamic, that it must evolve to meet changing circumstances and that there are very different groups and needs within the diaspora. Since then, we have sought to reach out and show a greater level of cherishing. I refer, for example, to the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, which was first awarded in 2012. Last year, it was presented to Edna O'Brien who has written so powerfully from exile, if you like, about the experience of growing up in Ireland in the 1950s. Just this year, we saw the brilliant exhibition curated by Dr. Angela Byrne in conjunction with EPIC and Melanie Lynch of her story, along with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This exhibition is being shown at Irish embassies around the world this year and will feature remarkable Irish women who have blazed a trail internationally as members of our diaspora. They include Eileen Gray, the designer and architect, Eva Gore-Booth and others, including Margaret O'Shaughnessy Heckler, the first woman to hold the post of US ambassador to Ireland and other women of whom I had not heard prior to the exhibition. This is really good to see.

I again welcome the new policy on overseas development aid, A Better World, published last week. It shows us how important a role a small country such as Ireland, which has a big diaspora, can play on the world stage in making a contribution back to countries which are still developing and to whom we need to reach out in support. I am glad to see that in that new policy there is a clear commitment to placing the sustainable development goals at the heard of development policy and a reaffirmation of our commitment to the UN target of achieving 0.7% of GNI* in our overseas development aid contribution by 2030. I also welcome the announcement of new initiatives on sexual and reproductive health and rights contained in the document. This is something for which I have pressed at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, as have my colleagues on that committee. It is very welcome. I know that criticisms of that commitment have been expressed in this House but it is really important that we see this so clearly expressed and such a strong emphasis on particular priority issues around climate justice but also around women's equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights for women.

I wish to end by commending the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Irish Aid on this initiative. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence will continue to support Irish Aid initiatives and our diaspora because we see them as two sides of the same coin in the context of Ireland reaching out and taking its place on the world stage.

I thank the Senators for their excellent contributions. It was obvious to me that they share my values in how we engage with and support our diaspora communities world wide. I will respond to each individual contribution in turn and respond as best I can.

I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Ned O'Sullivan who described the opportunity to extend the presidential vote to our people worldwide as a meaningful and concrete way of showing our support for our diaspora. It is more than fitting that the person who best embodies who we are as a people, our first citizen, our President, should be chosen by all members of citizenship around the world. I was particularly heartened to hear every single Senator committing to be actively involved in the referendum campaign that will take place at the end of October. The Senator also suggested that we need to adopt a cross-departmental approach in respect of our returning emigrants and tackling the challenges they face. That process has been under way for two years through the work of an interdepartmental committee which has representation from every Department and which seeks to minimise, to the greatest extent possible, the obstacles being faced by our returning emigrants.

Senator Ned O'Sullivan and many others referred to the undocumented. Our objectives in this regard remain constant. In that context, we aim to achieve relief for the undocumented and facilitate greater pathways for legal migration to the United States. However, none of us underestimates the size of that challenge. We know it is a policy area that has been very divisive in the US political system for decades, with pronounced disagreements, sometimes in the same political party, on the best way to deal with an issue that affects not only the Irish undocumented but also over 11 million people across the US. The Government, our special envoy, Deputy John Deasy, and our ambassador in Washington, Dan Mulhall, have consistently engaged with both parties in a bipartisan way to address our long-standing concerns. This continues to be our best approach and will remain our approach. Our embassy in Washington and six consulates across the US work continuously and tirelessly with Irish emigration centres in order to provide vital services to the undocumented. Last month, I visited the Irish Pastoral Centre in Boston to hear directly from those who work on a daily basis supporting our undocumented. The Government remains wholly committed to working with the US authorities to resolve the plight of the undocumented, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Senator Richmond pointed out the great benefits of St. Patrick's Day as a celebration of Irish identity and culture across the world. It presents a huge opportunity for Ireland to connect with our people worldwide and allows Ireland to significantly expand its sphere of influence, whether in business, culture or other facets of society worldwide.

Senator Ó Donnghaile observed that we need to look out for the welfare of our diaspora in Britain, particularly in the context of Brexit. Last week, when I spoke in the Dáil on the issue of Brexit during the debate on the legislation going through the Houses, I made the point that we remain absolutely supportive of our Irish community in Britain and will continue to support them after Brexit. Britain has been one of the most important destinations for Irish emigration for centuries which is reflected in our emigrant support programme expenditure in Britain in 2018, when over €5.9 million was awarded to 108 organisations across Britain, 88% of which - almost €5 million - was devoted to welfare support. As many established Irish communities in Britain are ageing, the welfare provided under the emigrant support programme is becoming more important. The community organisations do extraordinary work and offer a vital lifeline to disadvantaged emigrants, facilitating their access to local services and combating what is increasingly a problem of social isolation and alienation.

Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke very eloquently and passionately about the need to ensure we succeed in winning that referendum in October. Senator Conway-Walsh also referred to the Indecon report and asked whether there is an ongoing dashboard of results. The answer to her question is yes. Of the 30 recommendations in that report, 19 have been fully addressed, six are under consideration and we are bringing a report to Government on progress on that in the coming weeks. That report will be available to Senators in the House.

The main issues addressed in the Indecon report were around driving licences and thankfully we have been working with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on the cases of individuals now returning to Ireland from a country that does not have a driving licence exchange agreement with Ireland. Previously one needed to begin the whole process of having to do 12 driving lessons before one could get a licence. In conjunction with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, we have now reduced that to six lessons. On the issue of car insurance, we have been actively engaging through the Department of Finance with car insurance companies and a protocol has been put in place where if one returns to Ireland from a far flung destination with documentary evidence of a safe driving record and of a no claims relationship with the insurance company in that country, the vast majority of Irish car insurance companies are now accepting that documentation as evidence of a safe driving record and the list of companies that are accepting that are available on the Department's website.

Senator Conway-Walsh also raised the question of young farmers' access to the national reserve. There is no discrimination whatsoever applying to returning emigrants in that context. All applicants, be they returning emigrants or people who have been living in the country, are treated equally. I am informed by colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that a number of returning emigrants have gained access to these supports.

Senator O'Mahony spoke about the undocumented and he also spoke quite rightly about the extraordinary contribution of the GAA to community building across all Irish communities in the world. I officially opened the Asian Games in Bangkok and 1,000 players, supporters and mentors, representative of the 400 GAA clubs, gathered from all over Asia in Bangkok to celebrate our national games and partake in a whole series of championships during that weekend. We also have a very strong relationship between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the GAA in terms of funding capital investment in GAA facilities worldwide and we recently announced a very significant investment in McGovern Park in Ruislip in London in collaboration with Croke Park to see that facility being finished to a very high standard.

Senator Bacik quite rightly commended the role of Senator Billy Lawless, who has been a powerful advocate in the Seanad for our diaspora community worldwide. She cited the importance of the referendum in terms of that sense of community building, making the point that it is more than appropriate that all of our citizens worldwide would have the opportunity to chose our first citizen, quite rightly pointing out that we already have members of our diaspora who have a role in deciding the members of this House. Senator Bacik also mentioned an exhibition that is currently touring some of our embassies and missions worldwide, originating in EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum, and outlining the extraordinary contribution made by women members of our diaspora. That exhibition and research work arose as a result of the global Irish unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade funding an in-house historian in EPIC, who has researched all of that and will continue to research the contribution of members of our diaspora in other contexts as well. I hope we will have similarly powerful exhibitions in the future.

I thank every Member for their excellent contributions. There is no question but that there is an absolute consensus in this House as to how we continue: we should continue to work with our diaspora communities worldwide, we should continue to invest significantly in them and we should work collectively to ensure the success of the referendum in October.

Senator O'Sullivan spoke about the power of technology in connecting people worldwide. There is no question but that in the next two or three decades as that technology becomes evermore ubiquitous and ever more powerful, the opportunity for communities of shared interest across the world to congregate and convene online, support one another, engage and nurture one another, the opportunity to connect our 70 million Irish people all over the world will become every more powerful. We need to work hard collectively to support that community and to continue investing in that community because it is an extraordinary opportunity to build something really effective and powerful that will be as meaningful for a member of our diaspora living on a Pacific island, in London or Los Angeles who will feel part of something greater than themselves and something that is of immense benefit to them, their family and to their community.

I call the Acting Leader to move the suspension of the House until 2.15 p.m.

I propose the suspension of the House until 2.15 p.m.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 1.45 p.m. and resumed at 2.15 p.m.