I am pleased to address Members of the Seanad this evening and to update them on the recent launch of Global Irish: Ireland's Diaspora Policy and my plans for its implementation over the next two years.
The policy was launched this day last week and, as a commentator in The Irish Times said, it is a "historic development for the Irish abroad". Global Irish: Ireland's Diaspora Policy is our first comprehensive statement of Government policy on the diaspora. When one considers the scale and depth of the Irish overseas, and our long history of repeated ebbing and flowing of emigration from our borders, we can all agree that having a comprehensive Government policy in place is timely and welcome. I am grateful for the opportunity to update Members on the process we used to develop the policy, to present the key elements of the policy and to highlight some of the actions I will implement. Throughout the policy we reiterate our desire for feedback and comment. I look forward to the Senators' feedback during the debate, but I especially hope that they will remain interested and involved throughout the implementation process in a meaningful way.
In October 2013, the Government announced that a review of our diaspora policy would be undertaken. In the course of a public consultation over 130 submissions were received, including submissions from Members of this House for which I thank the Members. Two key themes emerged from the consultation, namely, representation and communication. Under representation, there were clear demands for the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for the diaspora, and in July 2014 this was responded to with my appointment. There were also demands for voting rights for the Irish overseas. Some sought a vote in presidential elections and others sought designated Senators for the Irish abroad.
On the former, the Constitutional Convention, in its fifth report, recommended extending voting rights in presidential elections to citizens outside the State, including those in Northern Ireland. This would certainly be welcomed by the Irish overseas. Since my appointment, I have travelled extensively and the message from our citizens overseas is the same the world over. They want to deepen their engagement with, and connection to, Ireland and play a more active role in Irish society. They feel that voting would give expression to that desired connection. However, we cannot ignore the fact that this is not straightforward and there are a number of policy, legal and practical issues that must be thoroughly considered. The Government has asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, in co-operation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and myself to analyse these issues and report back to it. That is what we will do.
Regarding the suggestion of having Senators directly elected by the diaspora, Members will be aware that a working group on Seanad reform, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning, was established by the Taoiseach in December 2014.
This group is exploring ways of reforming Seanad Éireann and the manner in which it carries out its business and has been asked to report back to the Government not later than the end of March 2015. I look forward to its report and any proposals it may produce in this regard.
The other key theme which emerged from the consultation process was communication. There were calls for the Government to communicate more, and more effectively, with those who have left Ireland, and to facilitate communication between Irish communities around the world. With modern technology, it is more important and more possible than ever to engage with Irish communities globally. People want to feel connected and they want the Government to play an active role in achieving this. The communication technology advances in the last ten years have given us the tools. It is up to us to use them.
Since my appointment I have made a deliberate effort to reach out to the main technology players based in Dublin. I have met with some of the tech and social media companies including Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter to discuss how they can support us to better connect with our people overseas. We have also started developing a range of communication tools designed to reach different people in different places, with different interests and needs. For example we have just launched an online global Irish portal which is an easy-access source of information on how to remain connected to Ireland through sport, heritage, culture and media. It also provides information to help emigrants settle in their new homes, and, indeed, how to come home for those who are considering that. The portal will continue to evolve in response to users' demands. We are also going to issue a global Irish newsletter directly to those who wish to receive it. People can sign up on the global Irish website. We will increase our social media presence - initially on Twitter - allowing our Irish abroad to interact with us in a direct and immediate way. We are also finalising the details of the new global Irish media fund to support media coverage of diaspora and emigration-related experience.
We took the submissions seriously and included many of the recommendations in the policy. We intend to deliver on the actions we have committed to. The policy is also wider than those two broad themes. We want to support, connect with and recognise the diaspora, facilitate diaspora engagement and continue to evolve the policy to meet changing diaspora needs. I will now highlight some of the actions under those themes.
When we talk of supporting the diaspora we have to consider the needs of those departing and returning emigrants but also the second, third and subsequent generation Irish around the world. In 2014 we provided almost €12 million in financial support to 210 organisations working with emigrants and the diaspora in over 20 countries spread over five continents. Funding is delivered through the Emigrant Support Programme, ESP, which has provided €125 million in grant assistance since its inception in 2004. The new policy confirms that welfare will remain at the heart of the ESP. We will also pay particular attention to specific vulnerable groups such as aging communities, Travellers, prisoners, the undocumented and those with mental health needs. In budget 2015 funding for the ESP was maintained at €11.5 million with an additional €1 million for new diaspora projects and initiatives.
I have already outlined some our communication strategy, which falls under "connecting with the diaspora". Our links are also strengthened by our language, music, dance, sport, literature and so on. As we are all aware, more than any other aspect of our island, our culture reaches all corners of the world. It is one of the most effective ways of connecting with the global diaspora, strengthening links to home and maintaining expression of Irish identity through generations. St. Patrick's Day is one focal point, but throughout the year Irish sports and cultural organisations maintain that connection. The Government will continue to support them and the necessary infrastructure to facilitate their work. This year, we will also support our diaspora to commemorate the creation of the Irish State. Many of the 1916 leaders were part of the diaspora at different times in their lives, some having been born abroad and others having lived overseas. We want to remember the role the diaspora played in those events and in the founding of our State.
To facilitate diaspora engagement, we will work in partnership with organisations of varying sizes and roles which share our common goal of making lives better for Irish people at home and abroad. These organisations can reach people in ways the Government simply cannot. Organisations with which we work closely include the Emigrant Services Advisory Committee, Irish in Britain, the GAA worldwide, the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers in the United States, and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann which is represented here by Senator Ó Murchú.
In 2015, we will convene our first global Irish civic forum to bring these and other organisations together to discuss the challenges facing the Irish abroad and to capture the voice of ordinary Irish emigrants. This will take place in June. The year 2015 will also see the fourth global Irish economic forum, which will bring together members of the global Irish network. The network has played a significant role in contributing to Ireland's economic recovery and in rebuilding our economic representation. We will continue to work with the network to ensure it has a continued involvement in our ongoing recovery. In 2015, the forum will have better gender balance and greater participation from younger people.
The Government will also continue to support Irish business networks around the world. These networks vary in reach and composition, but they all help Irish businesspeople and professionals to connect with each other, seek out new opportunities and ultimately to advance themselves and their businesses. We will continue to facilitate that success. For example, we support the Irish international business network to deliver the Irish executive mentoring programme, an online tool which fosters new executive and entrepreneur talent amongst the diaspora.
There are already some initiatives in place that recognise the diaspora. The Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad was initiated by the Government in 2012. It provides recognition by the President of persons living abroad who have given sustained and distinguished services to Ireland or to Irish communities abroad. So far, 30 remarkable individuals have been honoured but it is very important that the awards continue to attract high quality nominees. There are so many Irish people doing great things all over the world and these awards offer an opportunity to recognise them.
We also have the certificate of Irish heritage scheme, which is an acknowledgement of the importance the Government attaches to recognising people of Irish descent. Uptake of the certificate has been disappointing with fewer than 3,000 certificates produced to date. In 2015 we will undertake an evaluation of the operation of the certificate scheme.
I wish to stress that the policy will continue to evolve. We need to listen and be responsive to real need. I remain open to new ideas so that the policy can evolve to meet changing needs and times. For example, we are open to receiving proposals on how to connect with new diaspora communities to help the Irish there retain their identity. We will also try and build better and stronger links with alumni from Irish institutions overseas as they have enormous potential for the institutions and for Ireland as a whole. In 2015 we will launch an alumni challenge fund to provide seed funding to new collaborative initiatives by Irish institutions to target their Irish and non-Irish graduates working internationally.
I have outlined some of the actions contained within our new policy. Their implementation will be overseen by an interdepartmental committee that I will chair. This committee will ensure a whole of Government approach, will report to the Government on progress and will review the implementation fully after two years.
I thank the Chairman and Senators for the opportunity to address the Seanad this evening. I am grateful to have the opportunity to outline the work I have done since I was appointed Minister of State with special responsibility for the diaspora, and to highlight some important upcoming work. I look forward to our discussion this evening and any feedback or questions on the issues I have outlined.