01/04/15 Senator Daly addresses the Seanad and Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Deenihan on Irish Diaspora Policy

Senator Daly: I welcome the Minister of State and his appointment as the first Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. We in Fianna Fáil are delighted to be the first party to publish a policy paper on the diaspora and to call for such an appointment. I am delighted to see that it is the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan.

—Later—

We take some credit, but the Taoiseach might have had slightly more to do with it. We published our paper in July 2013. When asked in October 2013 whether there should be a Minister of State for the diaspora, the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade stated that there should be. In 2014, Sinn Féin came out with its policy. Lo and behold, everyone agreed and the Minister of State was appointed. That was consensus politics working at its best.

The Minister of State has done a great job in the role. It is a large one and I would like it to have more resourcing and staffing. As the Minister of State has seen from this meeting, there is much that could be done in terms of collecting up and connecting with county associations as well as the various religious organisations that have major connections in traditionally non-Irish areas.

The Minister of State touched on the matter of votes for the Irish overseas and those who were born in Ireland and hold Irish passports. There are many such people. The county that the Minister of State and I are from had an equally famous politician, Daniel O’Connell, who fought for Catholic emancipation and the right to vote. In 1918, the centenary of which we will celebrate shortly, women got the right to vote. In the 1960s in Derry, people marched for the right to vote. In a modern democracy, though, we are denying many of our citizens the right to vote, even in presidential elections. Some 120 countries manage to give their citizens overseas a right to vote. Of the 33 countries in the Council of Europe, only four do not give citizens outside the state a right to vote, those being, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Ireland. The Minister of State mentioned that there were technical and logistical issues. That is undoubted, but any country that can bring the top pharmaceutical and Internet companies to its shores can surely give the most basic right to its citizens, that being, the right to vote. I attended the Constitutional Convention when extending the right to vote in presidential elections was supported, but the Minister of State should bear something in mind. Extending the vote to Irish citizens in presidential elections is the least expression of their democratic rights as citizens that we could give them. Only nine countries extend the right to vote in presidential elections to their citizens overseas, but all nine have executive presidents similar to President Obama. We are discussing doing this just for presidential elections.

The Minister of State has mentioned Seanad elections. I agree that citizens overseas should have votes in the Seanad and that the Seanad should be expanded and reformed, but we are a long way off that. The Minister of State is supportive of the process and the concept, but we need to accelerate it. As my colleague pointed out, what better way would there be to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising than to extend the right to vote to people who reside in countries that contributed so much to the rebellion?

The Minister of State has been working with our consuls and ambassadors, but Fianna Fáil’s policy document referred to honorary consuls. It is unfair to expect our ambassadors and consuls in the US, Australia and Canada to cover such vast territories. We should replicate what other countries have done. For example, Mexico has a consul or honorary consul in each of the 50 states of the US. We should consider doing the same there as well as in Australia and the provinces of Canada. As the Minister of State knows, there is a large Irish-American community in Montana, yet that area is covered by the consulate in San Francisco, which has just two staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and some local staff. They are asked to cover an area that is nearly the size of western Europe. We are not deploying enough resources to tap into the goodwill or to have people serve as go-to people on the ground. I am sure that the Minister of State has met the honorary consul in St. Louis. He has done an extraordinary job for 40 years. If any Member of our Parliament visits St. Louis, he is the guy on the ground, the connected man and someone we can plug into, as it were. Perhaps the Minister of State should consider this suggestion.

I welcome the global civic forum. It is a great idea. Perhaps the Minister of State might invite members of this committee to attend. He is also working on the birthright proposal. It borrows what has worked in other countries, for example, Israel. The concept would be well received. I met Mr. Gidi Mark, head of Taglit-Birthright Israel. It formulated its programme as a business plan rather than a concept. It brought business leaders together and asked how it could be made to work and have a significant benefit to the Israeli community without being a large burden on the state. The concept arose approximately three decades ago and has been successful ever since.

The Minister of State is working on an interparliamentary gathering, but we need to be more formal. He is taking a great first step and the proposal is in the works, but I understand from my colleagues in other parliaments around the world that, as soon as they get elected, they are invited to countries like Israel and India. Such countries understand the importance of having good relationships with England, America and Canada. Taxpayers in Ireland might not believe it to be the greatest idea in the world. Congressman Paul Ryan, who was in Leinster House yesterday, is probably the most powerful politician in America, as he is in charge of the appropriations committee.

The Minister of State has mentioned the complex issue of the undocumented Irish, but he might also touch on the visa waiver issue that has arisen in recent weeks and the possibility of an Irish E-3. No comprehensive reform will happen in America for the next couple of years. People are holding out hope that, after the presidential election, something might happen. We should bear in mind that the Republicans control both Houses of Congress, so it does not matter who is President of the United States.

What matters is what can be done in Congress at this moment because that is not going to change a lot over the next few years.

On the 2016 commemorations and the idea of launching and engaging with the Irish overseas on that and the global programme, there is a concept that Congressman Brendan Boyle is taking up of having gardens of remembrance dedicated in 2016. That might be something the Minister of State might look at in terms of getting it out to the diaspora through our consulates.

We will discuss later the case of Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish citizen overseas. Does the Minister of State have any update on that for the committee?

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