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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 1 Mar 2022

Vol. 283 No. 4

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Equipment

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I speak on behalf of concerned and frustrated parents who have contacted me over the last months. They have struggled to access the assistive technology that their occupational therapists have absolutely, unequivocally confirmed was needed for their children. I have no doubt that that is reflected around the country.

Assistive technology is not a luxury. It is a necessity for those who need it. Ireland prides itself on having a world-class education system that is inclusive, free at the point of use, open to everyone and supportive of everyone. As the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education in the Seanad, I am proud that our party introduced free education. Education is still something that our party is passionate about.

I have always been a passionate advocate for inclusive education. I fundamentally believe that all children should be able to receive a high quality education within their own communities and areas. If we truly want an education system that works and caters for all, then we need to ensure that we advocate for all. In the modern world, a child's access to educational supports such as assistive technology is vital. We cannot allow bureaucracy to hinder it.

I have been in contact with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and her office for some time about a child who is local to me. Roadblocks to accessing assistive technology have been put in his way. This child has had two professional assessment reports from an occupational therapist and an educational psychologist, both of which supported and confirmed his need to be supplied with assistive technology. The Department is now, for some reason, requesting a third evaluation. It will take time and more money. The child's parents have already paid for one, with the school paying for the first evaluation. The family and the school have already paid privately for assessments to this point. There is a clear need, based on these reports, for additional supports. This is completely unfair and unacceptable. I requested that the Minister's office intervene, which has not happened.

I spoke to the principal of this child's school, who is most concerned for the child. The principal also feels that it is essential that appropriate supports be put in place well before this child faces into second level. The child is not engaging in classes. He says he feels stupid. He is being bullied by his peers. This is down to a lack of adequate supports, which have been clearly identified in the assessments to date. Something must be done to ensure that every child is supported and afforded the quality education to which they are entitled.

I was contacted by another parent who was given the run-around by the Department when she sought to access assistive technology. She first applied when her daughter was diagnosed with dyspraxia hypermobility in 2018. She was in sixth class then and was told to reapply to have this set up for first year. She was then told to reapply the following year and nothing happened. In the second year, they applied again and were told by the Department that the grant had been posted to the school. No cheque ever arrived. They chased this all last year. Recently, they had to apply again for a third time. Their daughter was approved by the Department but nothing happened. When the parent contacted me, I again tried to advocate on her behalf with the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, but did not get anything. It was only when I got a colleague in the Dáil to table a parliamentary question that the Department finally moved on this.

This is totally unacceptable. Is there an issue with the administration of assistive technology within the Department? Have appropriate resources been assigned to ensure that children who need services can access them? Will the Department conduct a review of the process to ensure that children are not left behind without vital educational supports?

At the outset, I would like to convey the requests from the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who are unavoidably unable to get to this session for reasons beyond their control. They have asked me to cover in their place.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising such an important issue on behalf of her constituents. She has advocated their case quite articulately. Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education is a priority for the Government. This year, the Department will spend in excess of €2 billion, or over 25% of the Department's budget, on providing a wide range of schemes and supports for children with special educational needs.

As part of these supports, the Department operates an assistive technology scheme. This allows schools to buy specialist equipment for pupils in primary and post-primary settings who have a degree of physical or communicative disability and need an individualised technological approach to assist them in accessing the curriculum. The type of equipment provided under the scheme is varied and includes audiological supports for students with hearing impairments, Braille equipment for children with visual impairments and computer equipment with associated modified software for students with physical or severe communicative disabilities.

There has been a significant increase in the demand for assistive technology in 2021 over previous years, which has resulted in the number of applications rising by 32% to nearly 6,500 in a year. All completed applications for 2021 have been fully processed. In line with our increasing investment in special education, the spend for assistive technology has increased by 47% to almost €3 million in 2021.

In regard to the application process, the National Council for Special Education, through its network of local special education needs organisers, SENOs, is responsible for processing applications for schools for special educational needs support, including applications for assistive technologies. SENOs make applications to the Department where assistive technology is required, operating within departmental Circular 10/2013.

The increase in the number of applications received by the Department looks set to continue in 2022, with over 1,200 applications received since January. Of these, all applications for audiology supports for children with hearing impairments and equipment to assist children with visual impairments are fully up to date, while there are about 190 ongoing applications for post-primary laptop supports. The Department is very conscious of the need to process applications in as timely a manner as possible.

A review of the assistive technology scheme and circular has begun this year and a working group has been established to progress this. The review will also include a review of the overall assistive technology application process. If the Senator wants to communicate the details of her constituents to me directly, I will ensure they are conveyed directly to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I also agree that she should not have to ask a colleague to ask a parliamentary question to elicit some action in terms of a response.

I acknowledge the significant spending by the Department of Education on special needs, and that is very much to be welcomed. I am still very concerned about the reply the Minister of State has given because while he talked about the rise in applications in 2021, both situations I have spoken about have been going on for years, one since 2018. Every year the pupil is told to reapply. In the first case I spoke about, the child concerned is going through a third examination. At this stage, the assistive technology would have been paid for. The family has already paid for an assessment.

While I welcome the fact that there is a review and that a working group has been established to progress it, the young man I am talking about is one of the 190 ongoing applications and it is vital that he gets the necessary supports.

I accept the Minister of State has said that if I give him the details he will pass them to both the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I hope he has more luck than I did. I have spoken to both of them one to one, sent emails and spoken with their secretaries and I have not had any success with this. I certainly hope the Minister of State fares better.

To conclude, I can only reiterate to the Senator what I said in my opening remarks. The position is far from acceptable. The Senator has said that in the case of at least one of her constituents, the application has been ongoing since 2018, which is entirely unacceptable. A person is entitled to have an application considered in a timely fashion. Seeking a third assessment seems quite excessive and dragging out an application for that length of time, when the person in question needs the support of assistive technology, does not seem right. As I said, I will endeavour to take this up directly with both the Minister and Minister of State if the Senator gives me those details.

Inshore Fisheries

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter. In 2006, the conservation and prohibition on sale of coarse fish bye-law No. 806 of 2006 was signed by the then Minister of State, John Browne. The bye-law states a person shall not take and kill by any means more than four coarse fish on any one day in all waters. It states a person shall not take and kill by any means any coarse fish greater than 25 cm in length measured in a straight line from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail. Bye-law No. 809 of 2006, which is the conservation of pike bye-law, states it is prohibited for a person to take or kill any pike greater than 50 cm in length measured in a straight line from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail.

Both of these bye-laws were signed in 2006 and it is my view and that of many anglers in the west of Ireland and elsewhere that bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 of 2006 are not compatible with the habitats directive and should never have been applied to special area of conservation, SAC, lakes. No appropriate assessment was done for these by-laws to see what effect pike, perch, roach and bream and the protection thereof would have on SACs, particularly with respect to native species of trout and salmon in SAC lakes. Anglers in the west and particularly on the western lakes would like to see the spirit of the habitat directives implemented in full, leading to a return of these waters to as close as reasonably possible to their original state.

The failure to have an appropriate assessment done for these two bye-laws can be compared to the process for bye-law No. 964 of 2018, which I initiated and was signed by the then Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, in October 2018. It was the designated salmonid waters by-law for the waters of Lough Corrib, Lough Mask, Lough Carra, Lough Conn, Lough Cullin, Lough Arrow and Lough Sheelin. The bye-law specified that the waters were designated as wild salmonid waters for the purposes of the regulations and the designated waters shall be managed primarily for the benefits of wild salmonid species. It stated that notwithstanding the prohibitions in the conservation of pike bye-law No. 809, a person shall take by rod and line from the designated waters more than four pike of any size on any day in any year during the period of the year in which fishing is permitted.

That bye-law was challenged and fell because of the lack of appropriate environmental assessments. There is a clear contradiction in how the by-laws were approached and initiated by the Department. The Department failed to defend the challenge to bye-law No. 964 of 2018 yet both bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 of 2006 stand, despite not having an appropriate assessment done on the impact of protecting pike and coarse fish on trout and salmon species in the seven lakes I have mentioned.

There are hundreds of lakes in this country but the seven western lakes have a specific role as strong salmon and trout lakes. They deserve protection. As I have said, I did my best to provide that protection through a bye-law, which was challenged. I now want the Department to look at bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 again to see whether they should now stand in the absence of an appropriate assessment or any assessment of the impact the protection of pike and coarse fish is having on other species, particularly native species of salmon and trout, in the western lakes.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which emanates from a commitment in the programme for Government to designate certain lakes the Senator has named as Corrib, Mask, Arrow, Carra, Conn, Cullin and Sheelin, as salmonoid waters. The initial approach to delivering on this was to put in place a bye-law to address the designation. The inland fisheries division of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications progressed a comprehensive draft bye-law within the established legislative processes during the first half of 2021. Later in 2021, during the public consultation process on the draft designated salmonid waters bye-law covering the seven distinct lakes, a very broad range of diverse, and often significantly divergent, views were submitted to the Department.

The Minister is acutely aware of the threat to these waters from a range of factors such as infrastructural developments, intensive agricultural practices, water quality, climate change, invasive organisms, and degraded habitats due to arterial drainage. Established programmes, managed by Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, and its predecessors, have been in place on these State-owned waters since the 1950s. I emphasise that the lakes in question have long been designated for management primarily for the benefit of wild brown trout as a matter of policy and that this policy designation remains. However, the Minister is conscious of the need to address the full range of issues facing fish and aquatic animals and their habitat.

On foot of feedback from the consultation, it was clear that reaching broad stakeholder consensus on a bye-law would be extremely challenging. Based on this feedback and on the advice of IFI, the proposed bye-law is not being pursued. Instead, following detailed discussions between departmental officials and senior management of IFI, the Minister formally asked IFI to develop a comprehensive, evidence-based management plan for these waters to be known as the western lakes management plan. The Senator was briefed extensively on these developments and the strategy to discontinue the proposed bye-law in favour of pursuing the policy goal via a comprehensive management plan. He will no doubt be aware of the Minister's intention to have IFI develop that plan.

IFI submitted its first iteration of the plan to the inland fisheries division in mid-October 2020 and, following detailed joint consideration, a second refined version was delivered last week. It is expected that the draft plan will be submitted to the Minister for his consideration shortly in response to his formal request for the plan. It is also intended that the draft plan will be provided to the Angling Consultative Council of Ireland, which is the group, open to all national angling representation organisations, established by the Minister for consultation on angling matters. In addition, broad stakeholder consultation will be undertaken across all disciplines of angling and with environmental and biodiversity stakeholders and other affected and interested parties.

In the context of these developments, certain stakeholders have raised, mainly by means of requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, the matter of the two bye-laws cited by the Senator in this matter. In the interests of clarity, those making freedom of information requests were advised by the Department that, following a search of available files from 2006, no records within the scope of the requests were located. This may indicate that the Department concluded that the bye-laws did not come within the scope of the directive and that, as such, an appropriate assessment or even an appropriate assessment screening was not necessary. It should be noted that the bye-laws in question have been in force for 16 years and, while fisheries legislation provides for an appeal of any bye-law to the High Court within 30 days of its enactment, no such contemporaneous appeal was entered in either case.

It is also important to note that the carrying out of appropriate assessments or screening assessments or the initiation of assessment processes on more recent regulations or bye-laws does not imply that the Department considers bye-laws Nos. 809 or 806 of 2006 to be non-compliant with the habitats directive.

These issues would have to be considered as regards the specific bye-laws and the matter of compliance with the EU habitats directive within the perspective of relevant EU case law. In addition, it may not be feasible to review bye-laws from 16 years ago without reviewing all bye-laws currently in force.

Legislative change required, if any, can be considered in the context of the Inland Fisheries Ireland western lakes management plan. The future application of bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 of 2006 to the western lakes will, therefore, also be informed by the implementation of Inland Fisheries Ireland's forthcoming western lakes management plan.

I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive reply from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. In fairness, there is a lot of information in that. The crux of it is in the last line of the second last paragraph "the initiation of assessment processes on more recent regulations or bye-laws does not imply that the Department considers bye-laws Nos. 809 or 806 of 2006 to be non-compliant with the habitats directive". Of course, they are not saying they are compliant with the habitats directive in that case either. In my view they are not. I believe we cannot have a situation where a bye-law is challenged and thrown out because it tries to protect salmon and trout while the same bye-laws operational in those great western lakes that are designed to protect pike and coarse fish are not the subject of an appropriate assessment. We cannot have one rule being applied to salmon and trout and another rule being applied to pike and coarse fish. It is quite clear the two bye-laws in question need to be reviewed, rescinded and started again with appropriate assessment to see what impact they are having on salmon and trout in the great western lakes.

The Minister is happy that the Inland Fisheries Ireland western lakes management plan will draw on the latest developments in scientific data, survey work and research to create a strategy for these waters that will protect, conserve and preserve their unique status and importance in the long term. The plan will be subject to rigorous environmental governance, including the requirements of EU directives and, critically, will take ecological, biodiversity and socioeconomic impacts into account. If legislative change is required in the pursuit of this strategy, it will be considered in the context of the aims of the plan and will encompass consideration of the wider legislation and not confine itself to a very narrow range of species, as suggested.

It is envisaged that stakeholder engagement between the State bodies, public representatives, the angling community and conservation groups will be a key component to the formulation of the management plan. It is anticipated a broad range of diverse views will again emerge from this engagement. Department officials continue to work closely with Inland Fisheries Ireland on the matter. The issues around the habitats directive must consider the salmonid species included in annexe 2 of the directive on wild Atlantic salmon and the need to protect it from threats, including human exploitation. Salmon in all waters in Ireland are afforded specific protections via established fisheries policy and annual conservation legislation. Ireland's protection of salmon is considered best in class internationally and aligns fully with the EU habitats directive and the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization principles.

Management is based on annual scientific management assessments for salmon stocks, ensuring the harvest of salmon is only from waters with sustainable reproductive capacity, closing waters of salmon that are below sustainable reproductive capacity, opening waters to catch and release, licensing, tagging of harvested salmon, and annual legislation defining the status of each river. There is also annual legislation to regulate salmon angling and, separately, to regulate commercial fisheries. The salmon management regime also applies to sea trout more than 40 cm in length, and the potential to extend similar protections to other salmonid species will be considered to afford particular protections to salmonids in general.

Wildlife Protection

I am delighted the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is here to take this question. I raised it last week and still have a number of questions arising from the response I got from the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke.

The background to this matter is that works carried out in Emo Court appear to have been done without the necessary derogation licence and inevitably led to the disturbance of a significant long-eared brown bat roost. In regard to the timeline, the works were detected in November 2019 and an inspection by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, followed in December 2019. That found there was very little evidence of bats at that stage other than swept-up bat droppings and a dead bat. In response to that inspection a letter was sent to the Office of Public Works, OPW, at Emo Court to say the works as proposed and already carried out may be contrary to the legislation and inadequate protection was put in place. An ecological report that stated the mitigation was inappropriate and could not prevent disturbance to the bats was ignored and on that basis no further works were to be done pending the outcome of the investigation report.

The question today arises from the fact that last week we heard they were emergency works. We know that is not the case because a scoping exercise was carried out with the ecologists and the basement was clearly listed as planned works. They were not emergency works. I have been working on this for a number of months, trying to get to the bottom of what exactly took place. It appears that one arm of the State was very concerned about the actions that were taking place at Emo Court and the fact that they were done without a derogation licence. However, another arm of the State, the OPW, is saying that is not the case and that they were emergency works. The first parliamentary question response I had was a complete denial that the works took place at all or that any bats were disturbed.

Will the Minister of State release the report that was carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in January 2020 with the full list of recommendations? Can he confirm that on that investigation there was a recommendation for prosecution, given the fact that the OPW had carried out works that were not licensed and that led to the disturbance of the bat roost? They are the questions at the nub of this issue. Is it the case that the National Parks and Wildlife Service recommended a prosecution and somebody, at some point, has intervened to make sure that did not happen? In that case, there would be a very serious situation where we would have senior civil servants deciding on who should or should not be prosecuted. That is the simple question. Will the Minister of State release that report, with its recommendations unredacted? Can he confirm or deny if the recommendation for prosecution was made?

I will respond to the question on the Commencement and these are additional, if that is okay. My Department has a very strong relationship with our colleagues in the OPW, with the OPW holding statutory responsibility for the day-to-day maintenance of a large number of monuments and buildings in the ownership of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. These sites can of course be complex, spanning both our built and natural heritage and equally spanning protections and controls under various pieces of legislation including the National Monuments Acts, the planning Acts and the Wildlife Acts. The National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department maintains an ongoing contact with the OPW in regard to its obligations under the wildlife Acts.

Departmental officials are happy to work with the OPW and with local authorities and any other public authorities, in order to assist them in meeting these obligations. For example, to assist public authorities in meeting their obligation with respect to strict protection given by EU law to bats and their roosts, the NPWS will shortly publish a series of guidance documents dealing with the practical aspects of bat conservation.

A guidance document for public authorities entitled Strict Protection of Animal Species is also available on the NPWS website. This guidance is intended to assist in the application of Article 12 and Article 16 of the habitats directive to ensure that works are compliant with these articles.

To cite one recent example, a member of the NPWS visited and reviewed works at a castle site, advised on the works then being undertaken and future proposed works, and was satisfied that the works at the time were unlikely to cause disturbance to bats. He further advised on the requirement for oversight in works and the potential requirement to apply for a derogation licence for future works. We are aware that the OPW has subsequently appointed specialists who are now monitoring works on site. The Department remains in regular contact with the OPW and is satisfied that a derogation licence will be sought for future works given the potential impacts.

On concerns specifically regarding a bat roost at Emo Court, the NPWS is in ongoing contact with the OPW regarding its obligations under the wildlife and birds and habitats legislation on the important hibernation and breeding roosts at Emo Court for brown long-eared bats, soprano pipistrelles and Leisler's bats, which are the main species that have been identified there. I am informed by the OPW that Bat Conservation Ireland undertook three surveys at Emo Court in 2021 and the surveying records indicate a stable population of bats in line with levels recorded in the 2012-20 period. In 2022, Bat Conservation Ireland will carry out three further systematic counts to monitor the continued health of the roost in Emo Court.

To conclude, it is my strong view that this ongoing good working relationship provides the best and most efficient means of protecting wildlife and our built heritage sites in the care of the OPW.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It goes back again to the point that it is clear that the works were carried out without a licence. I contacted the NPWS, requesting all of the derogation licences that were granted to Emo Court for the works. There is no licence for the works that were carried out in November and December of 2019. Therefore, that is an offence. If it was not for the colleges flagging this and reporting and reporting it to the NPWS, the later bat conservation surveys probably would not be as optimistic. This is just one example where there were plastic bags shoved into the passageways, trying to prevent the bats re-entering the building. That was on the basis of the report that was made by the NPWS. We are in a biodiversity crisis, and if a State body such as the OPW is stuffing plastic bags into holes to prevent bats entering a building or carrying out works without licences, we do not stand much of a chance when it comes to the private sector living up to its obligations under the law. Again, I ask the Minister of State to release the report on the investigation of the works that were carried out in November and December of 2019.

I will make inquiries on that report. I go back to my point about the good working relationship that we have with the OPW in relation to built heritage sites in its care. We are also working on a proposal for a voluntary continuous professional development scheme to equip private and public contractors with practical skills, knowledge and awareness of ecology and environmental law, as well as best practice in terms of risk management. This is something that is ongoing in our Department and we are working specifically on that. As the Senator rightly said, we are in the depths of a biodiversity crisis and it is something we need to work collectively and collaboratively on. I will get back to her on that.

Undocumented Irish in the USA

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. The plight of undocumented Irish people living in America has been ongoing for many years. Many of them feel isolated and, indeed, forgotten.

Many of them have been unable to come home for years. They have missed out on significant family events and milestones such as births, deaths and weddings. Their main fear is not about returning to Ireland but of not being allowed back into the USA, where many have worked for decades. The pandemic has added another barrier for parents wishing to travel to America to see their children. Many undocumented Irish people turned to immigration centres and NGOs in order to survive. Online communication through social media is no replacement for physical contact, especially with one's nearest and dearest. Fears of deportation limit the use of social services, access to the legal system and full integration into local communities.

It is important to note the contribution that undocumented Irish emigrants have made to the US economy. In many instances they pay their taxes and contribute to local organisations. They are builders, carpenters, manual labourers and they work in many different areas. They have helped to build America and continue to do so. In 1990 the Donnelly programme allowed over 10,000 people to avail of a visa to live and work in the USA in the first year after the Bill was enacted. From 1992 to 1994, 16,000 of 50,000 Morrison visas were set aside for Irish people each year. These programmes are evidence of what can be achieved. Unfortunately, however, those programmes were more than 30 years ago.

The issue of Irish emigration to the USA, particularly the status of undocumented Irish, has been a priority for successive Irish Governments. Emigration issues have been raised on an ongoing basis with the US Administration. Most recently in October 2021, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, said that the situation of undocumented Irish immigrants in the USA and working to secure legal pathways for Irish people wishing to live and work in the USA had been priority issues for successive Governments and continued to be key priorities for the current Government. I have spoken to many who ask what people can expect to see done differently on this issue. We now find ourselves with a unique opportunity because the current US Administration has a strong Irish-American influence and has control over the White House, Congress and the Senate. This presents a unique opportunity for Irish political representatives to develop a strategy to exert whatever influence they can on the US Administration to get this issue over the line once and for all.

It should be noted that Irish heritage is strong in America, with more than 31.5 million residents claiming Irish ancestry, which is almost one in ten people. The same talking points come up year after year but nothing seems to happen. There are no exact figures for the number of illegal Irish in the USA but estimates range from 10,000 to 15,000, although many would claim the number is much greater. As I said, with President Biden in the White House, who is very proud of his Irish ancestry and refers to it at every opportunity, we now have a unique opportunity to put this issue to bed for once and for all. I ask the Government to redouble its efforts and to avail of this unique opportunity so that those people who have been hiding while trying to find a solution to this issue for years will finally find one.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. Addressing the situation of undocumented Irish immigrants in the USA and working to secure legal pathways for those wishing to regularise their status has been, as the Senator rightly pointed out, a priority issue for successive Governments and continues to be a priority for the current Government. Emigration matters continue to be raised by senior members of the Government at every opportunity and will be a key issue raised during the upcoming series of St. Patrick's Day engagements, not least by the Taoiseach with President Biden. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has also raised the matter of the Irish undocumented on a number of occasions, including in high-level meetings during his most recent visit to Washington DC.

The Government continues to seek opportunities to deepen and strengthen Ireland's bilateral relationship with the US Administration under President Biden and members of Congress, particularly on a bipartisan basis. The promotion of solutions to the undocumented Irish in the US is a key part of that relationship. The Department of Foreign Affairs, through our embassy in Washington DC, continues to prioritise immigration issues and to develop immigration pathways for our citizens through active engagement with the US Administration and political leaders at all levels. We seek opportunities to deepen and strengthen our bilateral relations with President Biden's Administration.

We are pleased to see that immigration issues, including possible pathways to citizenship, are a priority for President Biden as demonstrated by his proposal in the US Citizenship Act of 2021. The Government looks forward to working with his Administration, as well as with the US Congress, on a bipartisan basis as they pursue comprehensive immigration reform in the US.

Through our embassy in Washington, as well as our seven consulates general across the US, the Government works closely with Irish immigration centres that provide support and information to our citizens, including the undocumented. Many of these groups, including the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, receive significant annual funding through the Government's emigrant support programme.

In response to the pandemic, a dedicated Covid-19 response fund was also set up for Irish communities to help these organisations meet the needs of those who are particularly vulnerable, including the undocumented Irish in the US. In 2021, over €4.22 million was paid to diaspora organisations in the US from the emigrant support programme and Covid-related projects and support thereof.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. As I outlined, it is heartbreaking to hear the stories, as I am sure he has, of the undocumented people living in the US. Someone who went to the US 30 years ago at the age of 20 will be 50 today yet there is still no sign of progress on this issue. I reiterate that this is a unique opportunity for the Irish Government to make inroads on this issue and to put it to bed once and for all. We have a friend in the White House in the form of President Biden and we cannot let this opportunity slip. I ask that the Government redouble its efforts to ensure we find a solution to this long-running problem while he is in office.

I share the Senator's view that there is an opportunity. As I said, we are absolutely committed to working on this issue at every single level. It is an issue that I have worked on, as has the Minister and the Taoiseach. It is a very important issue and we will use the opportunity of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day events to continue that engagement. Thankfully, there is a willingness in the current Congress and President Biden's Administration to look at immigration reform. There is an absolute determination in the Government to use every opportunity to see what can be achieved for the undocumented from that willingness. I thank the Senator again for raising the matter.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.18 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.30 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.18 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.