I am happy to have the opportunity to be here today to address this House on diaspora affairs and to give an update on my work as the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development, particularly as that work applies to the diaspora worldwide. My work is guided by the Government's diaspora policy, Global Irish: Ireland's Diaspora Policy. Published in 2015, this was the first clear Government policy on the diaspora that recognises that Ireland has a unique and important relationship with its diaspora that should be nurtured and developed. With the publication of Global Ireland – Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025 last year, the Government committed to the development of a new diaspora policy in 2019, to be published in the first quarter of 2020. This will require a new strategic approach to supporting our citizens overseas and to developing diaspora networks internationally, including our traditional, affinity and return diasporas. In the coming months, we will engage in a consultation process on the development of this policy. Stakeholders will include people at home, the Government and, in particular, diaspora groups and representatives of Irish communities around the world. Consultation meetings will be held around Ireland and by our missions abroad.
The vision of Ireland's diaspora policy is "a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other." To work towards this, the main aims of Ireland's diaspora policy have been to support Irish communities wherever they are, to help Irish people and Irish communities to be more connected to Ireland and to each other, and to help Irish people maintain and develop their sense of Irish heritage and connection to Ireland. This is a vision that I wholeheartedly subscribe to. During my time as Minister of State responsible for the diaspora, it has been a vision that I have seen lived in Irish communities across the globe, whether they are the oldest and most established, in America, or the newest and fastest growing, in places such as the Gulf states.
Our engagement with this global Irish family is underpinned by an attitude of care and respect, and this is articulated through the Government's emigrant support programme. This programme has been in operation since 2004 and emphasises supporting culturally sensitive, front-line welfare services, targeted at the most vulnerable members of our overseas Irish communities. Support is also provided to a number of community and heritage projects which foster a greater sense of Irish identity, in addition to strategic capital projects for the relevant communities. Funding is also provided for projects that support business or other networks.
In recent years, the emigrant support programme has also facilitated a wider geographic engagement with Irish communities. In addition to the traditional areas of emigration such as Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, funding in recent years has been granted to Irish community organisations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Gulf states. Since its establishment, more than €170 million has been disbursed through the programme to Irish communities worldwide. This year alone, there are applications on hand for a total amount in excess of €21 million, involving more than 470 projects from 300 organisations. Requests for funding far outstrip our budget. I have witnessed at first hand the significant impact the emigrant support programme can have on Irish communities and organisations around the world. Funding made available to these organisations unlocks a whole new world of engagement and supports the continued flourishing of Irish culture, heritage, sport and identity far beyond these shores. This is why I am particularly pleased to announce today an increase of €1 million in the allocation for the programme in 2019, increasing to €12.59 million from €11.59 million last year. The programme is the most tangible expression of Ireland's care for its emigrants and its diaspora and the value in which it holds them. This increased budget is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to our diaspora. It is welcome, and I hope this investment will be built on in the coming years.
With a programme such as this we are able to articulate the Government's position that our diaspora is a group that we cherish and seek to support as part of a continuing relationship, rather than a resource which can be "harnessed". Only in this way can we truly develop two-way engagement and live up to our constitutional ideal whereby "the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage". This special affinity has grown and evolved as we have developed our diaspora engagement in recent years. The diaspora policy itself sets out a role for evolving engagement and commits the Government "to meet changing needs in changing times".
One of the ways in which we are evolving is in exploring new ways to increase practical engagement with and to meet the expectations of our diaspora. In recent times, this has taken the form of examining the potential to extend voting rights in presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State. I am pleased that we have been able to make progress on this issue, and the Government has now decided that the question that will be put to the people in a referendum is whether to extend voting rights in presidential elections to citizens outside the State, including in Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach further announced in the Dáil that this referendum will be held at the end of October this year. The proposal to extend voting rights to citizens outside the State is one I have long been in favour of. The extension of voting rights in presidential elections to citizens outside the State is an important recognition that the President of Ireland is a representative not just of our country, but of all Irish people. It is also an important statement to our citizens abroad and in Northern Ireland that we value them and their connection to Ireland. It will be an important statement of the value we place on our diaspora. The referendum also demonstrates that at a time of much change, Ireland is, and will continue to be, an open, progressive and outward-facing country that values its citizens all over the world. Ideally, we will have a campaign on this issue which will provide an opportunity to bring together Irish communities at home and abroad. I hope my colleagues in Seanad Éireann will become actively involved in that campaign. I will campaign and advocate strongly for a "Yes" vote as an expression of the value we place on our citizens overseas and as a recognition that they continue to represent a part of our nation, notwithstanding that they reside outside our State.
As Minister of State with special responsibility for the diaspora, my work and the work of my Department to engage with the diaspora is hugely varied. I have not touched on other areas of it, such as the support we give to the GAA, which does extraordinary work in developing our games and in community building abroad; the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, recognising those who have made an extraordinary contribution to Irish communities worldwide; the centenarian bounty; and a range of other projects and pilots we undertake to improve and increase our engagement with our diaspora. The breadth of this engagement is ongoing and is something that I had not fully realised before assuming this role. Only by working closely with my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and by visiting and meeting Irish diaspora communities and groups around the world have I come to see the array of activity, innovation, communication and connectedness that is out there. As Minister of State with special responsibility for the diaspora, it is my goal to be a voice for the Irish diaspora in government and here at home. As we prepare to travel for the St. Patrick's Day period, when the Taoiseach and Ministers will engage extensively with Irish emigrants, Irish communities and our affinity diaspora across the world, I look forward to meeting more of our global Irish family and ensuring that their concerns are given a platform.