Adjournment Debate. - Walsh Visa Programme.

I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this issue. I know you have a personal interest in it following a parliamentary visit to the United States over the past few weeks when this issue was raised.

I wish to raise this disturbing issue because a number of my parliamentary colleagues who were in the US a few weeks ago were informed by the Irish community of the major crisis being experienced by young Irish emigrants who had applied for Walsh visas. My party colleague, Deputy Creed, was told that a number of young Irish people who were recipients of a Walsh visa found themselves in a pitiful position after a few short weeks in the US. A number of articles have appeared in theIrish Voice outlining the problems experienced by people on a Walsh visa and it is clear from those articles that a number of Irish people have been exploited by US companies which have paid poor wages and provided appalling accommodation.

This situation is made even more serious when one takes into account that Walsh visa recipients, who come from the Border region in the South and Northern Ireland, are also the unemployed, weaker and more vulnerable in our society. It is outrageous that we continue to highlight the major labour shortages here while allowing our people to participate in a scheme that sends some of them and their families to another jurisdiction to be exploited or paid slave wages.

An article in theIrish Voice, written by Garry O'Sullivan, stated

An official at the Emerald Isle Immigration Center (EIIC) in New York has claimed that the number of people leaving the Walsh visa program is now of "crisis proportions".

Ann Marie Scanlon, Director of Development for the EIIC, said that the center is taking the unprecedented step of setting up a fund for the "refugees" from the program and that it would be asking for donations from the public to help those in need.

Her comments came in a week when two Walsh Visas recipients slept rough in Central Park after a 40 hour trip from Colorado where they claim they were unfairly fired from the program.

A third Walsh visa recipient also in Colorado alleges police were called to arrest him by his employers after a dispute over a pay check. His story has been backed up by a local journalist. All three men were employed by a five star hotel in Colorado Springs.

The EIIC has been a critic of the implementation of Walsh Visa scheme since a Virginia company, Logicon, was appointed earlier this year by the State Department as the program co-ordinator . . .

Currently, Colorado is the second hub after Washington for Walsh Visa applicants. The Walsh Visa program is part of the Irish Peace Process Cultural Training Program. The program, sanctioned by the federal government in 1998, hopes to bring 12,000 visiting Irish workers to the United States over the next three years.

The jobs they participate in are intended to "help participants develop a business and cultural skill base which can attract international and private investments to their local economies and help promote the economic regeneration of Northern Ireland and the Border counties of the Republic of Ireland".

HOWEVER, there have been many problems, those in Colorado just the latest. Declan Keenan from Newry and Gerard Toland from Derry fled Colorado after their employment was terminated and were told that they would be flown home to Ireland. They hired a car to Denver and then took a 40-hour bus ride to New York. When their meager funds ran out, they took to sleeping in Central Park before seeking help from the Irish community.

They are just some of the problems that the people who are participating in this scheme have experienced. The scheme was set up to help people who are vulnerable in our society go to the United States to gain experience which will enable them to return home and help progress the economies in their own areas, but that is not happening.

I want to put three questions to the Government. I hope that an immediate investigation into these claims will be established. The Government should provide funding to all those participating in the visa programme who have and are encountering major difficulties in the US. Will the Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs investigate the reason this scheme allows a company called Logicon, which receives $3 million a year for the administration of the scheme—

The Deputy must conclude.

That seems extremely excessive. That $3 million would be better spent giving proper salaries and accommodation to young Irish people who have to migrate to the US under this programme.

I thank Deputy Reynolds for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I will make some brief comments on the background to it.

President Clinton signed into effect the Irish Peace Process Cultural and Training Programme Act of 1998 in October of that year. The key provisions of the measure, popularly known as the Walsh Visas Act because it was conceived and progressed by Congressman Walsh, can be summarised as follows.

The Walsh visa programme is intended to contribute to the economic regeneration of Northern Ireland and the six Border counties of the Republic and, thereby, help to support peace and reconciliation. The programme targets mainly the long-term – at least three months – unemployed from both traditions as well as those who have been made redundant or received termination notices. Participants are directed towards career opportunities in industries that have been identified as having growth potential. The idea is that participants will return home having acquired skills which enable them to contribute towards economic regeneration and the peace process. The programme also entails assistance to participants in finding jobs on their return.

The Act provides for admission to the US for a period of up to 36 months of a maximum of 4,000 persons per annum under the age of 35, inclusive of designated family members, from "designated counties"– these are, for this jurisdiction, Donegal, Sligo, Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Louth – for the purpose of receiving practical training, employment and the experience of co-existence and conflict resolution. The operating premise has been that the 4,000 might be divided in a ratio of 3:1 as between the North and the South. As already stated, the programme is directed towards disadvantaged persons who are at a remove from the labour market. Three consecutive programme years are provided for.

Arrangements in relation to the operation of the programme have been the subject of discussions between the US State Department and officials in Northern Ireland and this jurisdiction. It was agreed to commence in early 2000 with a pilot phase, which would test the feasibility and workability of the programme. In order to assess this, it was decided that there should be a review process at the end of the pilot phase.

FÁS was designated to administer the programme in the Southern Border counties, while for the Northern counties the Training and Employment Agency of Northern Ireland discharges a similar role. FÁS involvement entails imparting some six weeks pre-departure training and assistance in relation to transit to the US and initial settling in costs for eligible participants. Incidentally, for those who are in normal employment separate arrangements, not involving FÁS or its Northern Ireland equivalents, apply.

The US authorities have funded and put in place an administrator for the programme which, along with the State Department, has the remit of identifying job opportunities in the US, providing for linkage between participants and prospective employers, giving orientation and training pre-departure and on arrival in the US, and providing mentoring of participants in the US.

Under the pilot phase, FÁS has imparted pre-departure training to 115 participants while the Training and Education Authority in Northern Ireland is understood to have given similar training to some 400 of its participants. The first group of participants arrived in the US at the end of March 2000. It comprised of 310 persons of whom 95 were from the Southern Border counties. Slightly more than half of the participants are located in the Washington DC area, while the rest are based in Colorado Springs. It is intended that the balance of those participants who have been given pre-departure training will leave for the US over the coming months.

Theraison d'être for having a pilot programme is to test the water as to the workability of a fully fledged programme. Teething difficulties can always be expected where an undertaking involves training, relocation to a new social-cultural environment, with logistical and other difficulties. There are initial indications that such may be the case in this instance and obviously, from what Deputy Gerry Reynolds has said, that is the case.

FÁS, the Northern Ireland agencies and the US State Department will embark, over the coming days, on an extensive review of the operation of the pilot phase of the Walsh visa programme as has been agreed at the outset. This will cover all aspects of the pilot phase and will also take account of the experience of participants in the US. Only when this has been completed will it be possible to make a thorough and reasoned assessment of the programme.

It will be seen from the foregoing that the US State Department is centrally involved in the process of reviewing the pilot phase of the Walsh visa programme. In light of what the Deputy said, I will ask my officials to investigate the details of the case he made and I will communicate with him.