That Seanad Éireann, mindful of the need to maintain Ireland's standing in the international community, calls on the Government to introduce legislation to outlaw the issue of Irish passports as a quid pro quo for investment in Irish enterprises.
I move the motion against the background of two events. I feel strongly about this matter and my view on it is different from that which I would have expressed five years ago. Those two events were partially responsible for my change of view and I would like to convince the Government to change its view also.
The first event is our imminent acceptance as a founding member of Economic and Monetary Union. That should remind us very forcefully we are now playing in the big league. From now on, our behaviour must reflect our new status and we must accept our responsibilities as a nation.
There was a time when we could use our economic condition as an excuse to do anything we liked. We used to beg funds from Europe and get derogations from any European regulations which did not suit us. We used our condition to set up a tax regime for inward investment which gave us a competitive edge over our EU partners. Our mindset has been that nothing should stand in the way of the creation of even one job. That was an appropriate attitude ten years ago but I want to convince the Minister and the Government that is no longer the case.
We have the fastest growing economy in the world. We create 50,000 jobs every year and we are already having problems filling some of them. We can no longer justify bending any rules or engaging in any dubious or devious practices to create jobs. We must continue to create jobs, of course, but we must also live up to our responsibilities as a prosperous member of the European Union and EMU. We should make the selling of Irish nationality illegal because the time has passed when we could behave as a cowboy state, like some Latin American banana republics.
The second aspect is the recent controversy concerning Irish registered non resident companies. The public was shocked recently to find these vehicles are being used by money launderers and drug barons from around the world. Similar to the sale of Irish passports, these non-resident companies are a threat to our international standing. Selling passports is one side of the coin and allowing letter box companies to use our good name is another. The widespread public concern about the recent revelations concerning non-resident companies extends also to the sale of passports. The same issues are at stake in both areas.
The motion calls specifically for legislation to ban the sale of passports. I wish to explain why we must take the extreme step of making this practice illegal, with no exceptions whatsoever.
We have had a passports for investment scheme since 1988. It was a very different world then. Our economic recovery was just beginning and it may have seemed reasonable to look for any way to bring in outside investment and create jobs. In addition, there were many rich people in Hong Kong who knew its days as a British colony were coming to a close and were beginning to look for another base. It may have seemed reasonable at that time to try to attract some of that wealth.
However, as I said, the world has changed in the past ten years. Our recovery took off and we soon passed the point of needing last ditch measures, such as the sale of passports. The rich Chinese chose, for the most part, to go elsewhere.
However, two other things also happened. The international drugs trade continued to grow but had to work harder and harder to launder its money, as governments worldwide started to make life tough for it. At the same time the collapse of the Soviet Union created a tidal wave of crime and corruption that soon spilled over into the rest of the world. The result was that there was a whole new class of customers for schemes like selling passports and offering facilities for dummy companies. Some of those came to Ireland. I do not suggest that everybody who got an Irish passport in return for a promise of investment was a dubious character. I am sure some of them are quite genuine and have become upstanding Irish citizens.
One of the problems, however, is that the vetting system — such as it was — was apparently unable to distinguish between the desirable and the undesirable. The upshot is the horror stories we have all seen from time to time in the papers and, more importantly, which the rest of the world has seen as well. We should all be worried about this fact. The exploits of a few highly colourful characters have created a widespread impression abroad that Irish passports are easy to come by if you have enough cash to put up front. The damage that this does to our international reputation is incalculable.
This bad publicity happens despite some efforts by successive Irish Governments to keep the scheme as quiet as possible. Nobody was very happy with it from the start, especially the Civil Service. But still it continued, giving rise on the way to one or two highly publicised scandals that no doubt we will hear more about in the course of this debate. Eventually, in September 1996, the scheme was suspended pending a review of all the ramifications of the scheme. The review seems to be still going on. The general expectation is that there will be proposals for a more tightly regulated scheme that will be enshrined in legislation.
However, despite the fact that the scheme was meant to be suspended, some passports continue to be issued in return for the promise of investment. The circumstances appear to be that, in the run up to the last general election, some passports were issued because they carried the promise of job creation or job retention in some key constituencies. Whether this is true or not, the Cabinet of the time did overturn the suspension of the scheme and allowed a number of passports to be issued.
I want to be realistic about this, particularly as there are local elections coming up. Elections put tremendous pressures on politicians and they tend to reach for whatever means are available to them. Giving Ministers and Governments the power to issue Irish passports in this way is putting too strong a temptation in their way. In the short life of this scheme there have been questionable incidents involving two Taoisigh and a Tánaiste. That clearly shows this is a temptation that can go right to the top. Any legislation that regulated the sale of passports, however tightly, while still leaving it open as a last resort for decisions to be made at the discretion of individual Ministers or even the Government as a whole should be unacceptable. We can cast the net even wider than that, bypassing the political problem altogether.
The key issue here is Ireland's international standing. A reputation is something you either have or you have not. It is a question of absolutes. The outside world will perceive us as either selling passports or not. The outside world has no time to spare for a complicated concept like "Ireland does sell passports but it controls the sale very carefully." Even if true, it is not a believable stance. Therefore, we should legislate and legislate promptly to outlaw the sale of Irish nationality altogether.
I conclude by considering a possible objection to this forthright approach. Over the past number of years the IDA has done a wonderful job in attracting business to Ireland and I congratulate them for it. But the IDA will object to such a ban and say it may inhibit inward investment into Ireland. They are already saying that about the non-resident companies, even though they do not have a leg to stand on. We have to be able to say to the IDA in a forceful manner that we are not prepared to buy inward investment at any price.
Just as we are not prepared to compromise our environment in order to attract undesirable investment, we should be prepared to tell them that we are not prepared to compromise our nationality either. In any case, the number of jobs that could be created by selling passports is tiny in the context of the overall flow of inward investment.
The time has come for us to stop compromising our principles. In Ireland, of all places, we should be more proud of our nationality than this scheme suggests. We should reserve the privilege of Irish citizenship strictly for those who pursue the traditional naturalisation route. We should award citizenship solely on a proven record of commitment to this country, as demonstrated by a history of residence here.
In turning our backs definitively against this cowboy practice we will be making a choice. Do we want to be seen as a full mature member of the European Community, ready to live up to all the responsibilities that implies; or do we want to be seen as a fly-by-night State that is prepared to sell even the symbols of its sovereignty to anyone who turns up on its doorstep with a big cheque? I believe we have no choice in this debate and commend this motion to the House.