I thank the Chairman and members. Before I address Vote 28, I wish to make a few comments on Vote 29 with which the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, will deal in more detail. Members will see that in 2006 there is record expenditure on overseas development aid. In September of last year, the Government announced we would reach the UN target of spending on ODA of 0.7% of GNP by 2012. We are well on the way to meeting this target. My Department's €600 million allocation, together with contributions from other Departments, means the total Government spending on aid will reach €734 million in 2006, which is 0.5% of GNP and will be reached one year earlier than predicted in September of last year. This represents an overall increase of €129 million, or 24%, year on year from 2005 to 2006. Indeed, the increase in the aid programme for next year is greater than the value of the entire programme in 1995, that is, €123 million.
The overall allocation for Vote 28 amounts to €243 million, of which €39 million is expected to come from appropriations-in-aid, largely in the form of passport and visa fees. This compares to the 2005 allocation of €228 million. Some 80% of the 2006 allocation of €195 million relates to the Department's administration budget. This funds the ongoing operational costs of the Department at headquarters and its 74 missions abroad where our officials and staff, some 1,400 across the world, are engaged in promoting the country's interests and in protecting the well-being and safety of Irish citizens.
This year's administration budget also includes a capital allocation of €30 million. This will enable the targeted purchase of mission properties abroad where it makes good business sense and also provides for the introduction of a biometric feature into our passports later this year. The purchase of embassy offices and residences abroad, as distinct from renting, has been raised and encouraged at many meetings here in recent years. The balance of the 2006 Estimate, €48 million, funds the range of programmes operated by the Department — for instance, our emigrant support programme, €12 million, the reconciliation fund relating to Northern Ireland, €2.7 million, and our programme of contributions to the various international organisations of which Ireland is a member, €26 million.
I will now focus on a number of areas where new or additional resources have been secured in the 2006 Estimates. While proud of our development aid programme, I am also conscious that the poor and the vulnerable can also be found within the communities of Irish citizens that live abroad. The report of the Task Force on Emigrants in 2002 provided an agenda for action which my Department is proactively taking forward. I am pleased that funding for emigrant services has increased again in 2006. The Government's commitment to this priority area is clearly demonstrated by the 45% increase in funding from 2005 to the unprecedented amount of €12 million.
This substantially increased allocation reflects the strength of the Government's continuing commitment to our emigrant communities, particularly in Britain. The Irish abroad unit within my Department is working in close partnership with emigrant support organisations, both at home and abroad, to protect and advance the interests of vulnerable Irish communities overseas.
Our partners in the voluntary sector have warmly welcomed the very significant increase in funding over recent years. The bulk of funding will go to organisations helping those in the emigrant community in Britain who are in the greatest need of support. Our funding to the Irish immigration centres across the US is also growing and is supporting the delivery of an enhanced range of services to our citizens. These include the undocumented, many of whom are living in stressful circumstances.
I know and appreciate that all Members on this committee share our concern about the plight of undocumented Irish citizens in the US. This was manifested in the support given by all sides to the Dáil motion on the legislation in the US Congress sponsored by Senators McCain and Kennedy. I greatly appreciate and compliment the lobbying work which the committee has undertaken on its recent visits to the US. I have raised this issue with senior legislators on a number of visits to Washington.
As members are aware, before Easter the US Senate came very close to passing a comprehensive and positive Bill. This week Senators have resumed their consideration of this matter and their discussions are expected to continue until they break for recess on 26 May. In view of this, I attach a particular priority to emphasising again the support of the Government for measures that would enable the undocumented Irish to regularise their status and have open to them a path to permanent residency. I have asked the embassy and the consulates in America to treat this matter as a high priority.
This year's Estimates also provided a €3.4 million increase in Ireland's funding contributions to international organisations, bringing the total allocation to €26.36 million. Most of this results from increased mandatory contributions to the United Nations, including an increase in Ireland's share of the UN peacekeeping budget. Our continuing support for the UN reflects its importance as the primary mechanism for ensuring international security.
We play a full and constructive role in the reform agenda being led by the UN Secretary General, in which I was honoured to play an envoy role in 2005. Since last September's UN summit, encouraging progress has been made in the decisions taken by the General Assembly to establish the peacebuilding commission and the human rights council, while management and budget reform issues remain a work in progress.
Provision has also been made in the Estimates for a significant increase in the grant-aid to the European movement in Ireland — €250,000 — to allow it to expand its work of disseminating information and stimulating debate on EU matters. Last week the Oireachtas celebrated Europe Day in a unique way by making European Union affairs the focus of an entire day of its business. A series of debates were arranged on migration, agriculture, scrutiny of EU legislation and on Europe and the developing world, to which several Ministers and the EU Commissioner, Dr. Fischer Boel, contributed.
I am glad this important initiative on the part of the Oireachtas, which was put together to bring the European Union closer to Irish citizens, had the support of all parties and was judged a success. There is a constant need for improved communication on EU issues, whether it is through the National Forum on Europe, the Oireachtas or other fora for debate and discussion.
This year's Estimates also include an allocation of €1.5 million for training initiatives focused on the administrations of the new and acceding member states. In this regard, I am very pleased that the Second Stage of the legislation to provide for the ratification of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania commenced on Europe Day and I am glad comments by Deputies from all parties on the Bill were positive. Enlargement and the issue of free movement of labour are some of the challenges facing the European Union and it is important there is an opportunity to fully debate these in the Oireachtas.
A substantial increase has also been provided for the promotion of cultural activities providing our missions abroad with an improved capacity to further enhance awareness and appreciation of Ireland and Irish culture. A major focus of our cultural outreach this year is a travelling exhibition to mark the centenary of the birth of Samuel Beckett.
This year's Estimates also include a new programme subhead, with a €200,000 allocation, to meet my Department's obligations under phase two of the Asia strategy. These relate to incoming trade delegations and media visits from the priority Asian countries and the expansion of the internship programme currently focused on Shanghai.
My bilateral visits to Japan and China last week where I met with Foreign Ministers Aso and Li have reinforced my belief in the importance of broadening and deepening our relationship with these key countries and markets. Both Japan and China, priority markets in the first phase of the strategy, saw very substantial increases in exports from Ireland in recent years. I believe exports to China have increased by approximately 34% since 2005. Both Japan and China now number among Ireland's top ten trading partners.
The Asia strategy is now in its second phase, 2004-09. It targets not only established markets but also emerging markets in the region. With the Government's commitment to greater interaction with Asia, including the opening in late 2005 of an embassy in Vietnam, I have no doubt the linkages which have already been established will be further developed and enhanced in the years ahead.
In regard to Northern Ireland, the Estimates provide an allocation of €2.7 million to resource the operation of my Department's reconciliation fund. This fund supports cross-community engagement within Northern Ireland and enhanced contact and dialogue between both parts of the island and between Ireland and Britain. It has proven to be very effective in making interventions in areas where the larger funding agencies might not have been active and in generating goodwill in communities that hitherto might not have been well disposed to the Irish Government.
The appalling murder of young MichaelMcIlveen in Ballymena is a very sad illustration of how far we still are from the full achievement of tolerance and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. This is an area that will require sustained attention over many years before the old mindset of hatred and division is fully banished.
However, yesterday was a good day for Northern Ireland. As the committee is aware, members of the Assembly convened at Stormont for the first time in over three and a half years. This was an important step towards realising the Government's objective of restoring the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
In Armagh on 6 April, the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, set out the Government's joint strategy for achieving a fully functioning Assembly and Executive in 2006. This strategy is founded on a shared conviction that devolved partnership government, as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, provides the best opportunity to create a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.
The Assembly has been mandated to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and form an Executive within six weeks. Should that not prove possible, the parties will be allowed some additional but limited time — until 24 November — for the express purpose of implementing the Good Friday Agreement and establishing the Executive.
The recall of the Assembly yesterday brings with it a precious opportunity for Northern Ireland's politicians and for the people they represent. It brings an opportunity to foster real political progress and to chart the way for important decisions affecting the lives of every section of the community to be taken by locally elected politicians. This is right, not only in terms of effective government, but in creating a truly common future for all.
We now want to see all the parties in the Assembly engage in positive politics. If all sides are truly committed to working together in partnership government, and if the progress we have seen on PlRA criminality and paramilitary activity is sustained, then there is no reason, by 25 November this year, or even before that date, Northern Ireland should not have a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and a power-sharing administration.
I stress that the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, remains the template for co-operation between the two Governments. Our clear aim is the formation of an Executive within the period indicated. However, in all circumstances, the Governments are agreed that we will exercise our responsibilities to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is implemented to the maximum possible extent for the benefit of all communities.
The Department of Foreign Affairs is very committed to service delivery to our citizens. Every citizen is a potential customer of the Department and each of them is entitled to a quality service. In 2005, the Department issued 680,000 passports. This represents an increase of 48% over the 458,000 issued in 2000. Achieving this increase, without compromising the processing time for each applicant, would not have been possible without automating the process. The automated passport service project delivered on its business objectives which were to allow the Department meet an ever-increasing demand for passport services and produce a passport booklet which is regarded as world class in security terms.
Building on the platform of the APS, the Department is now, in accordance with international best practice, introducing biometric features into Irish passports. This will further enhance the security and integrity of our passport. The feature being included will be the facial image of the applicant taken from the passport photograph and will not involve any additional cost or inconvenience for the applicant.
A further impetus to the introduction of biometrics was the decision by the US to make it a requirement for continued participation in the visa waiver programme, from which Irish visitors to the United States have greatly benefited. Our citizens would not have welcomed a reversion to the status quo ante where US visas were required for visiting the United States. The procurement process for the biometrics project was successfully completed in March, the development phase is well under way and we are on course to meet the target for the introduction of biometrics in late October of this year. Based on the procurement exercise, the project has been costed at €8.8 million and I am confident it will be delivered on time and on budget.
Another important dimension of the Department's service is the consular assistance provided to citizens who find themselves in difficulties or distress. Given the ease with which Irish people now travel all over the globe, all of our missions abroad — from Argentina to Zambia — are regularly responding to citizens in need. ln most cases, the situation involved is relatively manageable — no more than a loss of passport but in some cases, however, it may be a tragic situation such as a loss of life. ln all cases our officials seek to respond quickly and compassionately to the needs of the citizen in difficulty, including when these emergencies arise outside of business hours.
The 2006 Estimates for Vote 28 have resourced my Department to advance its work across a number of priority areas. I am happy to respond to any points raised by members.