Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you today.
As many of you may recall, at the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2013, it was announced that there would be a comprehensive review of our national Diaspora strategy to examine all elements of the government’s engagement with the Irish abroad.
A consultation exercise was then launched by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in February, 2014 where a strong recommendation for a Minister for Diaspora Affairs emerged. This subsequently led to my appointment as Ireland’s first ever Minister for Diaspora Affairs in July 2014.
The last 16 months have been incredibly rewarding, both professionally and personally. Although the Irish Abroad Unit was established in 2004, the appointment of a Minister has changed to some extent the dynamic of our relationship with the diaspora providing representation for the views and concerns of the Irish abroad.
Since taking up this position I have had the privilege to meet with Irish communities spread across five continents, 8 countries, 12 US States and 23 cities. I have taken part in events with elderly Irish communities in Britain, I have walked for Pieta House to support mental health services in New York, I have opened an exhibition of some of the most significant Irish artefacts in one of the world’s most prestigious Art Institutes in Chicago. I have supported Irish Business Networks and gatherings from Washington to Dubai and connected them with their counterparts here in Dublin and the rest of the country. I have visited Famine memorials and witnessed the respect and reverence in which the ancestors of one of the darkest periods in our history remember the suffering and sacrifice of their forefathers.
I have met with undocumented Irish in the US, I have heard first-hand the work that organisations in Australia do and the vital role they play in expanding the reach of our Embassy and Consulate there. I have seen where the Government’s Emigrant Support Programme has greatly enhanced the lives of some of our most vulnerable emigrants. I was with the families of some of our brightest young people who lost their lives in the dreadful tragedy in Berkeley this Summer, and watched their bravery, and the bravery of the injured and other survivors, as they struggled to come to terms with their new realities.
I have taken part in Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann events in New Jersey and the Asia Pacific business event at the world GAA games in Kuala Lumpur. I have visited Ireland’s 33rd county - our nearest neighbours off the West Coast in Newfoundland – where you need to remind yourself that you are not in Wexford or Waterford!
I have welcomed groups from Bosnia to Kenya, and many of my counterparts from all over Europe. All with the same objective – they want to learn from our experience and to model their own diaspora engagement on ours. Your attendance here today is a big part of what they want to learn about. Without exception, every group or individual I have met is overwhelmed by the support our diaspora gives to Ireland, how passionate you feel about Ireland and how selflessly you give your time and expertise to the Government, how you support indigenous industry, Irish charities and our national sporting heroes. Your engagement and involvement with our Embassies and Consulates in your home countries and the natural way that Irish people come together is the envy of many Governments.
In March of this year, I launched Global Irish, Ireland’s first diaspora policy, together with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, an indication of the importance of this document. “Global Irish” restates our policy to keep welfare at the heart of our diaspora engagement and since its establishment in 2004 over €135 million has been disbursed in grants to Irish communities around the world.
In addition to this, we committed to some new initiatives in this Policy and in June of this year we held the first ever Global Irish Civic Forum. Surpassing all of our expectations, this Forum brought together over 200 participants from 140 organisations in 17 countries and explored a range of issues from identity and heritage, mental wellbeing and returning emigrants. One of the highlights of that Forum was when Marty Kavanagh, the Honorary Consul in Perth, spoke of how happy he was to be able to return to Ireland to marry his partner in a more accepting, inclusive Ireland, something which he is still unable to do in Australia.
The Marriage Referendum which was recently signed into law marks a new more mature Ireland, a more welcoming place where people can express their individuality. The campaign for this created a new phenomenon as the “Home to Vote” and the “Be My Yes” campaigns mobilised the diaspora in new and very effective way. Harnessing the power of social media, these campaigns garnered worldwide attention. I am continuing to work with Government colleagues to identify the logistical and legal issues involved in extending the right to vote in Presidential elections to the Irish emigrants as recommended by Constitutional Convention.
As you have heard already, as the economy continues to grow and more and more opportunity is created, we want any of those who have left Ireland, and want to come home, to be able to do so. In order to smooth the transition, I have established an inter-departmental and inter-agency group which serves as a forum to address any of the barriers to return and we are looking at a range of issues from insurance, recognition of qualifications and exchange of drivers licences, as well as issues that affect people here too, such as affordable accommodation and suitable education. While it may not be possible to solve all of these issues, this group ensures that the perspective of the Irish abroad is included in any discussions and decisions.
Other initiatives included in the Policy are the establishment of a Global Irish Media Fund to encourage more reporting in Ireland of stories about our diaspora community and I am delighted to launch this new Fund here this evening with application forms available next week on the Department’s website.
During the last Global Irish Economic Forum many of you called for an immersive programme for second and subsequent generation Irish students, particularly in the United States. Other countries run similar programmes and the most well-known of these is the “Taglit Birthright” programme in Israel. In order to explore this idea further, we are going to launch a pilot programme in the coming months. We will shortly seek proposals from perspective partners to administer this scheme on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
My goal since coming into this office, has been to connect with as many Irish people, in as many ways as possible around the globe. One such initiative to do this was the Global Irish Parliamentarians Forum in September. With 44 Parliamentarians with Irish heritage or connections from US, UK, Canada, Australia and France, each of these got an opportunity to speak in Dáil Eireann, as well as a briefing from both Minister Flanagan and the Tánaiste and an update on the plans for 2016. Like the Civic Forum, connecting these people with each other was the most significant outcome as they continue to collaborate across jurisdictions for the good of Ireland and Irish people.
I would like to thank you all, particularly those who have travelled from abroad, for being here and for your continued support of all things Irish. Your steadfast engagement sets us apart, makes us a world leader, and a shining light showing the world what can be achieved when we work together.