Delegation from the National Assembly of Vietnam: Discussion.

We are in public session. I welcome the visiting delegation from the National Assembly of Vietnam. The delegation is led by Madame Ninh, who is very welcome. The delegation is undertaking a study tour in the United Kingdom and Ireland on the topic of ethnic and immigrant-related issues. Our embassy in Hanoi was established last year. This is the first visit to Ireland by such a high level parliamentary delegation from Vietnam. We are very pleased to meet the delegation.

This is the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. I am joined by Deputy Howlin, the Labour Party spokesperson on justice and a former Minister; Deputy Gerard Murphy, Vice Chairman and a Member for Fine Gael, the largest Opposition party; Deputy Hoctor, a Fianna Fáil Member for Tipperary North, the convenor; and Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, the senior Fine Gael spokesperson on justice.

The committee tracks the activities of the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Defence and the agencies and bodies under the auspices of those Departments. This includes the police, the courts, prisons, issues to do with equality, racism, immigration and otherwise. The committee processes all legislation from these Departments. On occasion, it discusses policy initiatives with major stakeholders, including NGOs. Committee members travel abroad to examine best practice models to improve the workings of the justice system. We have not travelled to Vietnam but hope to do so in the not too distant future. The committee examines all EU measures in the area of justice and home affairs. It participates in and undertakes major reviews and public consultation on items such as the review of the criminal justice system, community policing and other matters. Members will be delighted to participate and answer any questions members of the delegation have.

Madame Ton-nu-thi-Ninh

On behalf of the delegation from the Vietnamese National Assembly, I will explain the purpose of our visit. We wanted to gain an understanding of how minority immigrant community issues such as rights and obligations and problems were being handled in several European countries. We chose the United Kingdom and Ireland.

From the broader perspective of interparliamentary relations, Ireland is an upcoming state with which our relations at Executive and Legislature levels are still young. We decided to take this opportunity to establish direct relations with the Irish Parliament. The first Irish Member I met was Senator Lydon in my home town of Hue in April 2004 when Vietnam hosted the third Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership meeting. I recall that he wanted to promote closer ties between our two legislative bodies. We were also attracted to Ireland by its economic success and how in a short time it had risen from being a poorer member of the European Union to one of its economic engines. My colleagues from the economic and budget committee of the Vietnamese National Assembly may come to Ireland in December. Together with the exchange of diplomatic representations, we are pleased that the relationship is beginning to take shape.

Vietnam is a multi-ethnic society with 54 ethnic groups. The majority group is the Viet or Kinh which accounts for 87% of the population. It uses the Vietnamese language, the national language. There are 53 ethnic minorities. Since the founding of modern Vietnam, it was the tradition of the late President, Ho Chi Minh, to implement a policy of solidarity and cohesion among the ethnic groups. There is an economic discrepancy between the ethnic majority and minority as a whole. Both the legislature and the executive are acutely aware that this is one of the challenges facing the country as it grows and integrates internationally.

Vietnam was recently admitted to the WTO. International integration brings with it an added challenge to ensure the gap does not broaden and should be reduced as much as possible. The delegation has been made up in such a way that many of the ethnic minorities are represented. I am accompanied by Mr. Ma Dien Cu, a member of the Cham ethnic minority and vice chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Council. Mr. Dieu Bao is from one of our ethnic minorities and elected in the Binh Thuan province in the south. There is Mrs. Lun who is from the Dao ethnic minority in the north. She represents Tuyen Quang province in the mountains. There are three ethnic minority members in the delegation. The rest of us are from the Viet majority, although Mr. Quang is not an MP but the party secretary of Lai Chau, a northern province with many ethnic minorities.

Later, if members ask how we handle inter-ethnic issues in our own provinces, we will be pleased to answer their questions. We would be interested to hear from members what policies they have developed on immigrant communities, the rights that must be recognised in order that they might be treated as equals, and how the Irish enforce obligations. In Asia we always tackle rights and obligations together. How do the Irish discharge this task? What is the set-up? What policies and mechanisms are in place to encourage immigrants to discharge obligations to the general community? How do the Irish address such issues as the linguistic rights of immigrants and the teaching of their native languages, if any? Does Ireland practise affirmative action regarding ethnic or immigrant minorities? What is the impact of international politics on immigrant communities? How does Ireland handle this aspect?

In Vietnam the position is a little different, since we are not immigrants. Our ethnic groups are indigenous. Therefore, we do not have the same problems as Ireland. However, we would be interested to hear about the Irish experience.

I introduce Deputy O'Connor from Dublin South-West. Some Vietnamese nationals are resident in his constituency. I am sure he will mention their integration into society and the benefits they have brought to us. Deputy Howlin hails from County Wexford where several immigrants are to be found. Perhaps he might respond on some of the matters raised.

I would be very happy to do so. I join the Chairman in welcoming the delegation. It is a great pleasure and a distinct honour for us to have representatives — I believe, for the first time — of the Assembly of Vietnam, a tenacious, strong and determined country, not unlike our own. They are very welcome.

Regarding the first point made, Ireland has undergone an economic transformation in the last ten or 15 years. In tandem, we have seen unparalleled social change. We have changed from being a largely homogeneous, uniform ethnic group, with one small minority that we call Travellers. By and large, the overwhelming majority of Irish people were monocultural but the last 15 years, in particular, have seen dramatic change. Non-Irish nationals now constitute almost 10% of the workforce. In essence, Ireland has received the same percentage of migrant workers in ten years that the United Kingdom did in 50. This has presented issues for us.

I will briefly address some of the questions put to us. In legal terms, we have a rights-based Constitution that enshrines the principle of equality, not only for every citizen but also for every resident. Rights can be vindicated through the courts for those here legally. We are also party to the European Convention on Human Rights which is 50 years old and has been transposed into Irish law. It gives judicial rights to anyone legally resident in the Republic of Ireland. Regarding anti-discrimination issues, equality and access to services, there is no discrimination.

More pointedly, Madame Ninh asked whether we engaged in affirmative action. My truthful assessment is that we have a long way to go before we have the most effective integration strategies for new communities. Our concern is to avoid the mistakes of other European countries, particularly France and Germany, which have created ethnic ghettoes in their communities. For example, in the vicinity of Paris, surrounding that wonderful and beautiful city there are ethnic ghettoes and pockets of poverty. Our challenge is to implement an integration policy that ensures there are no pockets of inequality or people not part of or integrated into society. We must do this, while at the same time preserving cultural and linguistic traditions. We have not developed the most effective mechanisms to do so. That is one of the challenges with which we are grappling.

I will ask Deputy O'Connor to say a few brief words. I will return to Deputy O'Keeffe presently.

I hope my Dublin accent can be understood. Like my colleagues, I wish to be associated with the warm welcome extended to the delegation. We have all taken an interest in what is happening in their country and it is good to see them. I always make the point that such visits from parliamentary delegations are very important. The delegates' country is far away.

I am being told that my accent is not the only problem and that I must slow down.

On the contrary, it is excellent. The Deputy is no problem.

It is important that we meet people from other jurisdictions far across the world from us and discover that in many ways we are alike.

The Chairman has referred to my role. I represent an urban Dublin constituency approximately 8 miles from here. He makes the point that there are several Vietnamese people living there. It is important to state they have integrated well into the local community. In my town which is called Tallaght there is one estate with several Vietnamese families trading and working through the community and involving themselves in it. That is good. Although when one talks of all the countries whose nationals have come to Ireland, Vietnam is not the most important, there are communities such as mine where that is the case. It is important that we recognise this. Some of the families come to me with normal problems that are of concern to them.

I have a long-time interest in development aid and what Ireland is doing in that respect. The Minister of State with responsibility for development aid is a greatly respected colleague in my constituency. Let the record show that. In recent times, the Department of Foreign Affairs has decided to extend its development aid programme to cover Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I would be interested to see the reaction that is getting.

I wish the visitors well. It is a normal day in Dublin and the weather is cloudy and a bit cold, but I hope they enjoy themselves.

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe is the principal spokesperson for the Fine Gael Party and Deputy Howlin is the spokesperson for the Labour Party. I would like the Deputies to be brief as the Order of Business in the Chamber begins at 10.30 a.m.

I am particularly glad to be here to welcome the delegation this morning. The principal spokesperson made a mention of the first person from this Parliament being in Vietnam a few years ago. I spent a holiday there four years ago when my wife and I went to visit our daughter who was working in Hanoi. I went in a private capacity, but I took the opportunity of seeing much of northern Vietnam. I went on the Orient Express carriage on the special train to Sapa and visited the Hmong tribe. I saw a school in that area with a plaque showing that it had been supported by the Irish development co-operation programme. I went down to Da Nang and Hoyan and so on. I was impressed with the progress made by Vietnam and as my daughter was working there, I was able to meet many people and talk to them. I got a very good insight into developments there since the establishment of a united Vietnam.

I approached the Department of Foreign Affairs and tabled questions in Parliament with a view to establishing a development co-operation programme between our two countries. I am glad that there has been progress in that respect and that we now have a permanent embassy in Hanoi. With 80 million people, Vietnam is a very industrious country. I have never seen people so industrious in going about their business. Vietnam has a great future and I am delighted that the relationships between our two countries have developed. I hope they will continue to develop in a major way.

I welcome each member of the delegation to Leinster House and to Ireland. This committee visited China about a year ago, but that was the nearest we got to Vietnam. It was an enjoyable trip. We see that Vietnam continues to develop its relations with China.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Science and because of the large number of people coming from abroad to live and work in Ireland, there has been a transformation in our schools, with multi-ethnic groups now present in our classrooms. There are approximately 800 primary school teachers who are completely dedicated to teaching English as a foreign language to the immigrant community in primary schools. That is a big transformation, as we were only familiar with Irish children in Irish classrooms for so many years.

I join in the words of welcome of my colleagues. Like Ireland, Vietnam is a relatively new, independent country. Its history mirrors our own to some extent, as it was colonised on different occasions. It is good to have the delegation here and to see the progress develop in the ties between our two countries. I hope we have more exchanges like these because it helps us all in the democratic world to witness best practices elsewhere and we can learn from each other. I am glad to welcome the members of the delegation and I wish them well during their visit. When they return, I wish them well in their elections as we are having elections here as well.

I would like to be associated with the welcome given to the members of the National Assembly of Vietnam. They asked a question about immigration and ethnic policy, which is a relatively new situation in Ireland. Up until recently, we had the opposite problem, which was trying to get Irish people to integrate into society in the US and England. Due to a changing economic situation and our membership of the EU, we are now faced with an entirely new scenario. While Deputy Howlin pointed out that our Constitution and our laws protect everybody equally, there are certain problems due to language difficulties and different standards in our education system and we must overcome these. Highly qualified young people are arriving here, especially from eastern Europe, but because of language difficulties and a lack of recognition of their third level qualifications, they are working in jobs for which they are over-qualified.

It was interesting to note that the delegation went to England to examine immigration and education policies. We are hoping to avoid the type of situation that has occurred there and we hope to learn from their mistakes. We are at an early stage in this, but if we examine carefully what has happened in other countries, we will be able to avoid some of their more serious mistakes.

As a country with a growing economy and with an embassy in Hanoi, we will continue to have many financial, cultural and social contacts in the future.

As the witnesses can see, Irish people like to talk. If they wish to make comments or ask questions, they may do so.

Madame Ninh

I will ask questions and my colleagues may then comment further. Does Ireland have problems of illegal immigration as in the UK? Ireland and Vietnam have signed an agreement on child adoption. Is the committee aware of this? If an agreement has been signed, it means there is a need here, as well as candidates to adopt Vietnamese children. Will the members comment?

Will Madame Ninh explain the attitude in Vietnam to people from Ireland and the West adopting Vietnamese children?

Madame Ninh

I discovered just before I arrived here that we had signed an agreement with Ireland. The most prominent adopters of Vietnamese children are US and French citizens, as well as citizens of a few other European countries. Frankly, nobody has paid attention to Ireland yet. If there is an agreement I presume it must be the initiative of the Irish side. I would be surprised if it was our initiative. I am simply flagging the issue as perhaps the committee is not aware of it.

It is an item for the Department of Health and Children rather than the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Defence.

There is a situation with regard to illegal immigrants, although it was a more serious problem seven or eight years ago than today. We did not have the resources in place to deal with the problem so it built up. The resources are now in place whereby people seeking asylum are dealt with in a short timeframe. Those who claim asylum and who have no income are provided with accommodation, meals and a small amount of money on a weekly basis. That is not attractive to asylum seekers. There is free travel between the UK and Ireland. There is a tendency for asylum seekers, whether legal or illegal, to try to find the best location in which to live and rear their children. Both Ireland and the UK are seen as countries where one would be happy to live. It depends on which country provides the better income in the short and longer term.

I would be interested in hearing Madame Ninh's response to the Chairman's question on adoption. What is the attitude in Vietnam to foreign adoption in general?

Madame Ninh

The sad reality is that there are still abandoned children. The public system lacks the resources to take care of them all properly. We are realistic in the sense that if all the interests of the child are taken care of, and there are candidate parents who qualify, we do not mind if those parents are foreign or Vietnamese.

There are not many prospective adoptive Vietnamese parents. People try to have children of their own or they adopt nephews and so on. Adopting unknown children is rare in Vietnam so most adoptive parents come from abroad. Recently, cases have appeared in the press where intermediaries have tried to make money on the backs of the parents. The Ministry of Justice, which is the focal point in this regard, has tried to enter into bilateral agreements precisely to try to prevent this. Vietnam is on the verge of joining the Hague convention on foreign international adoption — this should happen in the coming months or next year. When we have done so, we will have a better legal reference framework to work with all prospective international partner countries.

The attitude is very realistic. There is no whipping up of nationalistic feelings on this issue. However, attention has been given to the fact we must prevent intermediaries who make money from adoption. That problem has been raised in the press and the Commission on Social Affairs in our National Assembly would monitor this kind of issue.

Are there further questions?

Madame Ninh

Does Ireland have a deliberate policyvis-à-vis its diaspora? There were many Irish emigrants to the US and elsewhere in past centuries and the recent past. What form does the policy take?

When our former President, Mary Robinson, was elected, she lit a candle in the President's residence for the diaspora. There is a problem at present in regard to Irish illegals in the US. Much work is being done in this regard.

There is a move to try to regularise the position. Nobody knows the exact figure but it is thought that perhaps 30,000 people who went to the US in the 1980s and early 1990s are involved. There is hope that with the Democratic Party having achieved a majority in the House of Representatives and Senate, they may, with President Bush, who seems anxious to do so, regularise the position.

There is a second issue which we have not addressed as fully as we need to. Many Irish people emigrated to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. Many working class people now live there at very low income levels and many are homeless. A debate is continuing here as to whether we should be more proactive in assisting these people. At the time, particularly during the Troubles, there would have been a certain amount of anti-Irish prejudice, which meant such people were marginalised even further. The Department of Foreign Affairs provides funding to some NGOs in Britain to try to assist the process. It is one area where we have responsibilities that we need to measure up to more fully.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has stated its particular concern for those immigrants in Britain who are at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

We look forward to meeting the delegates for lunch at 1 p.m., at which we will be able to engage in further dialogue. We hope they enjoy their visit to the Dáil and that they find any other meetings they may have beneficial.

Madame Ninh

I present the Chairman with a token of our visit. It is a sample of Vietnamese craft work — a hand embroidered landscape of the Vietnamese countryside.

I appreciate it very much; it is beautiful. The clerk may display it in her room for the future enjoyment of committee members and staff.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.20 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 November 2006.