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Official Engagements

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 25 February 2014

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Questions (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

Gerry Adams


9. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he discussed with the US Vice President Joe Biden, during their conversation in Japan, the absence of a US ambassador to Ireland; if the Vice President clarified the situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52591/13]

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Gerry Adams


10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he discussed with the US Vice President Joe Biden during his recent discussions in Japan the continuing plight of the undocumented Irish living in the United States. [52592/13]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden in Japan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52668/13]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if the issue of corporation tax here was raised at his meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden in Japan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52669/13]

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Joe Higgins


13. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the US Vice President; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53718/13]

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Micheál Martin


14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Japanese-Chinese relations were discussed at his bilateral with US Vice President Biden; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53724/13]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 14, inclusive, together.

I visited Japan between 1 and 5 December 2013. While in Tokyo, I was delighted to have an opportunity for a brief informal meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Japan as part of a wider visit to the region. This was not a formal meeting, and we did not have an opportunity to engage in substantive discussion on policy issues. We briefly discussed our respective visits to Japan. I mentioned my meeting with Prime Minister Abe the previous day, at which we had agreed a new bilateral partnership for growth and innovation between Ireland and Japan. I also mentioned the very welcome announcement by the Japanese Government that it is reopening its beef market for Irish exports. The Vice President outlined the broad nature of his visit to Asia, including his trips to Japan, China and Korea.

We also spoke briefly about Ireland’s economic recovery and our impending exit from the EU-IMF programme of assistance. We briefly touched on developments in Northern Ireland, including the process being led by Richard Haass to deal with flags, parades and the past. We also discussed the state of play of the US immigration reform legislation, an issue with which the Vice President is closely engaged. We did not discuss corporation tax issues, or the matter of the appointment of a US ambassador to Ireland.

The recently appointed US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, who is well known to us in Ireland, accompanied the Vice President at our meeting. She spoke of the success of events held in Ireland to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy, and how appreciative she and her family were of the hospitality afforded to them during their visit to Ireland.

Finally, I mentioned my plans to visit Washington for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 2014, and I reiterated what is a standing invitation to the Vice President to visit Ireland during his tenure of office.

I understand the Taoiseach cannot deal with all the issues at these meetings, but the absence of a US ambassador here since December is important. I commend the former US ambassador, Dan Rooney and his wife Patricia, who have deep and commendable connections with this island. For the three years he was here, he represented his country ably and engaged in a very modest but cheerful way with people here. Will the Taoiseach raise this issue when he visits the US next month?

I would also like the Taoiseach to raise the issue of the so-called undocumented Irish. The figures are staggering and beyond my comprehension. Four hundred thousand people, mostly young, have left this State in the past five years. Between April 2010 and March 2013, 20,000 people left for the US, most of them in their 20s. That is a huge vote of no confidence. That is double the figure of the previous three years. We should think of the damage to society, to communities and to families. Many travelled on a student visa or by other means. It is estimated by the Irish emigration lobby that around 50,000 of these Irish citizens are living illegally. I am sure the Taoiseach will meet them when he goes there. They are working on building sites, in pubs and restaurants and wherever they can find employment. They did not go for the craic, as a lifestyle choice or for the experience. They went because they had no long-term employment prospects here. They had little prospect of meaningful work because of the disastrous policies of the previous Government and the austerity policies of this Government. Perhaps it is okay for single people, but many of them now have families and are living in a twilight world. They pay taxes and contribute positively to US society, but when it comes to a bereavement or a more joyous family occasion like a christening or a wedding, they are not able to travel back here because they are afraid they will not be able to return to the US. They live waiting for a rap on the door or for a visit at work from immigration officers.

Leas-Uachtarán Biden has spoken out on this issue. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach did not raise it with him, but that is fair enough. There is a reform Bill going through Congress that has passed the Senate and is now stuck in the House of Representatives.

Will the Taoiseach raise this issue when he travels to the United States? I understand that many of the difficulties arise from resistance among elements of the Republican Party. Will the Taoiseach make arrangements to meet congressional Republican leaders and raise this matter during his visit?

The Constitutional Convention proposed that Irish citizens living abroad have the right to vote in presidential elections. While I presume the Taoiseach did not raise this matter with Vice President Biden, will he raise it with political leaders in the United States when he visits in March? When does the Taoiseach intend to act on this proposal? I may have asked him that question previously.

The House has a number of reports from the Constitutional Convention to debate. I commend Tom Arnold and all of those who participated in the convention, including public representatives and, in particular, the 66 citizens who attended its meetings and contributed to its various debates in the past 12 months or thereabouts. The Government must respond to each of the different reports from the Constitutional Convention within six months, indicating what will be its response, for example, in terms of the possibility of holding referendums and so forth. We have already commented on a number of the convention's proposals.

The appointment of a new ambassador to Ireland is strictly a matter for the US President. No one can influence his decision, which depends on who he wishes to appoint. I spoke to one person who was approached to become the US ambassador but had to decline for health and family reasons. While I am not privy to the discussions that have taken place on any other appointment, the American side is well aware that we are anxious about this issue. I hope to have an opportunity to raise the matter with President Obama if the appointment has not been made before we meet.

Deputy Adams is well aware of what is happening in terms of immigration reform legislation in the United States. He is correct that some concerns have been expressed by members of the Republican Party. The nomination of Republican Party candidates in different districts and states for forthcoming elections may have a bearing on this issue. I hope to have direct discussions with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Boehner, during my visit. If so, I will raise this matter.

I commend the Irish ambassador to the United States, Anne Anderson, who has been very energetic on the Hill, as it is known, meeting leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress and the Senate. She also regularly updates the Government on progress being made in that regard. I also receive regular correspondence from the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform on its contacts and connections with Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington. I understand the group will hold an Irish day in Washington in the coming week or thereabouts and I hope to meet its representatives when I visit Washington. I am not sure if Deputy Adams is travelling to the United States for St. Patrick's Day. If so, we may have an opportunity to speak to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister if they are in the United States.

I hope we will achieve a breakthrough on immigration reform legislation. I do not believe the solution for Ireland is to have a separate, bilateral scenario, as with the E3 visa. If there is to be comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, it must be on a larger scale, which requires the co-operation of both the main parties. From a political point of view, I am sure this issue is of interest to both the Republicans and Democrats given the large number of people of other nationalities and from other countries involved and their potential impact on the electorate for forthcoming elections in the United States.

As we move into the latter phase of President Obama's second presidency, minds will begin to focus on these issues. This is, therefore, an important year for consideration of immigration reform. I hope the members of the Republican Party who have been expressing some concerns about reform proceeding will focus on the issue. I also hope there will be collaboration to make reform happen. For our part, we will do everything we can diplomatically and politically. If that means sending out further cross-party groups to engage in discussions with individuals, we will be prepared to do that.

I am well aware of contacts I receive, particularly from young people who are undocumented and not fully legal in the United States. It is always a source of concern to them that something may happen outside their control in respect of them being detained or whatever. That is not a good position and it is one that we and many American politicians would like to resolve. There is a bit of a blockage and I hope we can assist our US colleagues in dealing with it effectively in the interests of millions of undocumented persons who are in the United States.

When will the Taoiseach next meet the Vice President and President of the United States? Will he outline his full schedule of public appearances on his visit to the United States during the St. Patrick's Day period?

I gather from the Taoiseach's comments that the Government, in trying to secure a future for our undocumented friends and fellow citizens in the United States, believes that their circumstances need to be addressed at the same time as the plight of the estimated 11 million other undocumented persons living in the United States, many of whom are from Latino backgrounds. Is that correct? Unfortunately, many undocumented persons, including undocumented Irish people, are seriously exploited and open to exploitation and experience other human problems such as separation from family, fear and so forth, about which we know too well. Does the Taoiseach agree that the best approach would be for the tens of thousands of undocumented Irish and Irish communities generally in the United States to build powerful links and solidarity with Latinos and other people and nationalities who are fighting to secure recognition and obtain security of tenure in the United States? Does he agree that, rather than approaching the issue from a narrow national perspective with individual governments trying to make separate arrangements, the solution lies in all 11 million people, including Irish people, being given security of tenure in the United States? Is that not how the difficulties faced by Irish people and people of every other nationality would be resolved?

What do we want here? What we strive to achieve is a path to citizenship for those who wish to live in America legally. Two options are available. While we could seek to reach a bilateral arrangement, the process of achieving this is not as simple as it sounds. The second option is to have comprehensive legislation to deal with all nationalities, as the Deputy correctly noted. This was the objective as long ago as the presidency of George W. Bush but the relevant legislation did not pass because of objections from some of the southern states.

On 6 February last, the Speaker of the House, Mr. Boehner, gave a press conference at which he expressed doubts that the House would pass immigration legislation this year. He reasserted the view that immigration reform was required and indicated he would continue to consult members of his party.

This might be impacted upon by the nomination process for representation in different areas. Given the height to which expectations were raised six months ago, this is a disappointment. We must remain engaged with the process and with those who impact on it. As I said, Ambassador Anderson is doing a great deal of work on this in Washington. It is important that people who have connections with the Republican Party in the United States engage with it and continue to press for address of the concerns of our undocumented and to provide, therefore, for a future, legal flow for Irish emigrants into the United States.

I am happy to publish the itinerary of my engagements while in Washington, Boston and New York. I expect that the itineraries of every Minister or Minister of State travelling abroad will be also published. This is not only about attending the St. Patrick's Day festivities in whatever country but about engagement with Irish business interests, trade interests, cultural interests and so on. We are attempting to build an itinerary of value around each visit. This is not about travelling long distances to appear at St. Patrick's Day festivities but about a meaningful process around that. I am happy to have all the itineraries published.

It is important a US ambassador to Ireland is appointed. Former ambassador Dan Rooney did fantastic work on behalf of both countries. While he was US ambassador to Ireland he considered himself to be an Irish man and was an outstanding representative. It is a pity the new ambassador has not been appointed to date. I would have thought that we would have news of that appointment in advance of the Taoiseach's visit to the US for St. Patrick's Day.

There have been many false dawns in relation to the emigration story. Unfortunately, the key issue in terms of whether this will happen is domestic American politics. Notwithstanding what others have said in the House, I put it to the Taoiseach that it is important we keep an eye out for potential bilateral frameworks that would enable people to travel legally between our two countries. We have an historic relationship with the US, dating back many hundreds of years. Many of our countrymen were centrally involved in the American War of Independence and so on. For example, I negotiated the first working holiday agreement between our two countries with then Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte. I think Ireland was the first country to negotiate such an agreement. However, there were restrictive clauses in that agreement. It is not as liberal as the working holiday agreement we have with Japan or Australia. During the past decade up to 17,000 young people per annum were going to Australia on a one or two year work visa. Since the signing of the agreement with the United States fewer than 1,000 people have travelled, with only 500 having travelled in the first year. We can open up opportunities through the development of bilateral frameworks such as the E3 visa between Australia and the United States. I understand that the Hispanics are very clear on the need for a comprehensive agreement.

I dislike being pessimistic but, unfortunately, the complexities of the domestic political scene in America have frustrated attempts at a pan migration deal. This is a huge problem that has been ongoing into successive presidencies. I am not casting blame. I am a realist and understand realpolitik but I believe we need to open up two strands, all the time working with all of the other parties to see if a pan deal can be done while endeavouring to find out if a bilateral framework can be developed in some niche areas.

As I said, this is an important issue. While there was heightened expectation that this might happen, on 6 February Speaker Boehner expressed doubt in that regard. It is clear from the outcome of the discussions that the upcoming district level primary contests and the November congressional elections are proving to be the dominant factors in Republican Party thinking. This was confirmed by Congressman Gowdy in a discussion with Ambassador Anderson on 12 February when he said that electoral considerations were the dominant part of those discussions.

The Tánaiste visited Washington on 11 and 12 July last and attended a series of meetings in Capitol Hill. He met with the US Administration, five Republican members of the House, three of them members of the judiciary committee and Minority Leader Pelosi. The Tánaiste also wrote to Speaker Boehner. An all-party delegation from the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, led by the Chairman, Deputy Pat Breen and including Deputies Nash, Crowe and Senator Mark Daly visited Washington last October. They had 15 separate meetings with members of the US Congress during which they highlighted the position of the 50,000 currently undocumented. The delegation identified from their exchanges a will among Republican members to enact a set of piecemeal immigration reform measures, to which Deputy Martin referred. I do not rule out that but it might face serious challenges in the face of looming deadlines in terms of consideration of other matters such as debt ceilings and so on.

For the Deputy's information, I will outline the latest position. Following passage of the Senate Bill on 27 June last the issue has been under consideration by the Republican controlled House of Representatives. Early last month, further public comments from Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor and Chief Whip McCarthy again raised hopes that the Republican leadership in the House saw the need to proceed with immigration reform. To that end, they prepared a set of draft principles that would guide their action on immigration in the House and they presented them to members of their caucus for consideration at a meeting on 30 January 2014. Informed by this, Speaker Boehner gave his press conference on 5 February. These things are disappointing when expectations are raised. For our part, we will engage as comprehensively as we can with American representation in the hope of bringing this matter to a successful conclusion. It is in their interests as much as ours.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.