Seanad Statement on the Diaspora
By Ciarán Cannon T.D.
Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
Go raibh maith agat a Cathaoirligh
I very much welcome this opportunity today to discuss the importance this government places on the Irish diaspora, and my work in this important area since my appointment as Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development.
As those of you who know me well already know, I have a deep and personal commitment to the global Irish, and I am passionate about engaging with them, connecting with them, and providing support and assistance for them where they require it.
Since my appointment I have been working for, and with, our communities abroad. As I have met with various groups and organisations here in Ireland, and also in London, in Leeds, in New York, in Chicago, in Milwaukee, and indeed in Tanzania and South Africa, I have been struck by the vibrancy and the commitment of our communities abroad, and the individuals – young and old - who do so much to sustain those communities and help them grow.
I know that this strong commitment to our global Irish is shared by many of the colleagues here today, and I will include in my remarks updates on a number of issues regarding the diaspora that you have previously raised with me and with my predecessor including : the Emigrant Support Programme, returning emigrants and the barriers to return, voting rights in Presidential elections and our undocumented citizens in the US.
Emigrant Support Programme
Through the Emigrant Support Programme, my Department provides almost 12 million euro to Irish organisations abroad each year, which is a tangible expression of the strong and enduring commitment by the Government and by the Irish public to the global Irish.
Our priority continues to be supporting the most vulnerable members of our community abroad, with 70% of funding going to organisations which provide frontline welfare services.
I have seen for myself the real difference that this funding makes in the lives of our people abroad. Recently in London I met with representatives of the very impressive array of organisations across Britain who receive Emigrant Support Programme funding. I would like to take the opportunity to once again commend the contribution of such organisations, and their workers and volunteers, in sustaining and supporting vibrant Irish communities across the world.
Our relationship with the diaspora goes far beyond welfare. We also provide support for the many other aspects of Irish culture that bind us including music, sport, business and cultural networks and the Irish language.
Our support is not just about the funding itself. The Emigrant Support Programme also nurtures a wider sense of connection to home and fosters the sense among Irish people abroad that we value them.
In this regard, I was extremely concerned at incorrect suggestions recently that the Government had somehow cut our funding to the Irish abroad in the Budget. It is important that I highlight the correct position and to confirm that the Department’s overall current expenditure budget for Programme A: Our People has actually increased by €2.2 million from €69.6m in 2017 to €71.8m in 2018.
Not only has the Government not cut funding for our diaspora this year, we are delivering better, more innovative services that benefit both our citizens at home and abroad. For example, since March of this year citizens can renew their passports on-line. In the case of citizens abroad this has reduced processing time from a number of weeks to ten days plus postage time to wherever the applicant is located. At the moment the average processing time is 4-5 days, and over 100,000 passports and passport cards have been already delivered.
This commitment to innovation in the delivery of improved customer service was recognised in last weeks CXi survey which placed the Passport Service as the top ranked Irish public sector in terms of customer experience.
In May, the Department hosted the second Global Irish Civic Forum at Dublin Castle, which I know a number of Seanad colleagues also attended. This was an extremely important opportunity for the Government to hear from the global Irish and to have their input to inform future policy development. One key theme to emerge at the Civic Forum was youth engagement and this will be a priority area for the Emigrant Support Programme next year.
In Global Irish – Irelands Diaspora Policy, the Government committed to work to facilitate the return of Irish people living abroad who wish to return to live in Ireland. The Government continues to deliver to ensure the economic conditions which will allow those who have left Ireland to return, should they wish to do so.
Separately, significant funding and support is also provided by my Department to support returning citizens. Over the past decade more than €4 million has been allocated to Irish-organisations working with returning emigrants. Through chairing the Inter-departmental Committee on the Irish abroad, I have been working to ensure joined up delivery of the Government’s Diaspora Policy and examining issues affecting the Irish abroad and those wishing to return.
Addressing “barriers” or any other disproportionate administrative burdens negatively affecting Irish emigrants who wish to return to live remains a high priority. I have commissioned an independent socio-economic report outlining what can be done to reduce 'red tape' and address other obstacles facing returning emigrants. This report will inform the work of the Committee into next year
In addition since my appointment I have met with Crosscare Migrant Project and with Safe Home Ireland, who are both engaged in this area this area. I took part, along with Senator Lawless, in a very useful Forum on the issue in Galway, and I have had a number of meetings with the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland and Insurance Ireland in relation to making practical improvements regarding mortgage and insurance difficulties being reported by returning emigrants. Earlier today I met again with Insurance Ireland and I am glad to report that car insurance is one priority area on which significant practical progress has been made to facilitate industry recognition of safe driving records abroad for the benefit of those who have lived abroad.
As well as working to ease difficulties, my Department is always looking for new and innovative ways to assist Irish people abroad and those returning.
I recently launched Back for Business, an exciting new initiative to support entrepreneurial activity among recently returned emigrants. A period living abroad increases entrepreneurial inclination, but at the same time, time spent out of the country can often result in loss of local knowledge, contacts and networks. Back for Business is designed to bridge this gap and we have had a very strong response from interested applicants.
The programme will begin later this month, and all-importantly for me as a representative of a rural constituency it will have a strong regional dimension. These returning emigrant entrepreneurs will I believe have an important contribution to make to communities across the country not just in our main cities.
I know the Voting Rights issue is one in which many of you are interested and active. Together with the Taoiseach and Minister Coveney, I am very strongly committed to extending the right to vote in presidential elections to citizens outside the state. This would be another very tangible expression of our commitment to ongoing engagement with the global Irish.
In September the Taoiseach gave indicative timelines for a number of upcoming referendums, with this referendum now likely to take place in Summer 2019 concurrent with the local and European elections. This gives us a very important timeline to work towards.
I am in ongoing contact with Senator Lawless and others who are very active on this issue. Significant work is also ongoing at official level between the Department of Housing and Local Government, my own Department and other Departments given the complexity of some of the issues involved.
There is general acceptance now that even if a referendum was held immediately and passed, it would not be feasible to have comprehensive arrangements in place for an extension of the franchise to have effect for the presidential election to be held before 11 November 2018. This will require, among other things, modernisation of the voter registration process and the introduction of arrangements to facilitate those eligible to vote to exercise their franchise from outside the State.
In this regard, the Government has agreed that work should commence to effect improvements in the process for the registration of voters. Preliminary work has commenced on the modernisation of the voter registration process which will examine all aspects of voter registration, including the provision of registration information and practical experience from other countries which already provide voting arrangements for their non-resident citizens.
Undocumented citizens in the US
The Irish Government’s objectives regarding undocumented Irish citizens in the United States remain constant, namely, to achieve relief for the undocumented and to facilitate greater pathways for legal migration to the United States.
We do not, however, underestimate the size of the challenge.
This policy area has been a deeply divisive issue within the US political system for decades, with pronounced disagreement, even within the same political parties, on the best way to deal with an issue which directly affects over 11 million people.
The Government has consistently engaged with both parties in a bipartisan way to address our longstanding concerns and this continues to be our approach.
During our visit to New York for the UN General Assembly in September, Minister Coveney and I met with representatives of the four Irish Immigration Centres in the region and a representative of the US-wide Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres. It gave me the opportunity to hear from those working at the coalface with the undocumented Irish as to the current situation and the problems they are encountering on the ground.
Minister Coveney further emphasised the Government’s commitment to this issue when he travelled to Washington DC from 3 to 5 October and met with senior members of the US administration and with members of Congress, including the Congressional Friends of Ireland Group.
It was useful that Deputy John Deasy, the Government’s Special Envoy to the US Congress on the Undocumented, who was appointed by the Taoiseach to that position last June, was able to accompany the Minister to those meetings. His appointment was another important statement of our intent and seriousness on this issue.
Our Ambassador in Washington D.C, Dan Mulhall, hosted a roundtable discussion on 25 October on the issue with key stakeholders, including the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres, which brought together Irish immigration centres from across the US.
Our Embassy in Washington DC, and our six Consulates across the US, continue to work continuously with Irish Immigration Centres in order to provide vital services to the undocumented in the United States.
The Government remains wholly committed to working with the US authorities to resolve the plight of the undocumented Irish. The Government will continue to articulate to the US authorities our keen interest in this area while respecting the right of the United States to set its own immigration policies.
I can assure the House of the Government’s continued commitment to pursuing these matters on behalf of our affected citizens in the US, and our continued openness to routes and policies that will provide relief for the undocumented.
In addition through the Emigrant Support Programme we continue to support welfare and advice services that are uniquely tailored to the needs of the undocumented.
As you can see, the Government’s strong commitment to engage with and provide support for our communities abroad remains. I will continue to advocate and deliver for our diaspora across this wide range of areas and issues.
I am particularly committed to increasing our communication with the global Irish. We have introduced a more dynamic Global irish newsletter , and I’m asking for your assistance and support in publicising the @globalirish twitter handle and the Global Irish hub website. These are all important modern resources that help us to keep our diaspora informed on current issues of interest, and for them to keep us informed, but also have an important role to play more widely in keeping the Irish abroad culturally connected with home.