Welcome Speech to Taoiseach in Seanad Éireann

I welcome the Taoiseach. Irish people who live abroad are delighted that he appointed a Senator with a specific brief to advocate for their concerns, particularly with regard to the undocumented status of many of them. Two weeks ago, I attended the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Harp and Shamrock Society in San Antonio. I stayed directly across from the Alamo, where many Irish people died. Twelve of those who died there were born in Ireland and a further 20 were of Irish descent. Thirty of the 300 people who attended the event a fortnight ago were born in Ireland. This shows how diverse the Irish community in that region is. The same thing can be said of every state in the US.

As the Taoiseach knows, the United States is less than 40 days away from a presidential election, the result of which will be as close as any in recent memory. The Irish and immigrant rights community in the US is watching the race extremely closely, as opinions on immigration expressed by the two candidates could not be further apart in substance or tone. I was in New York last week with the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. We met representatives of Irish community and immigration advocacy groups. I assure the Taoiseach that they are already planning their responses to either a Trump or a Clinton victory in the forthcoming election and are preparing their strategies for the first 100 days of the next Presidency.

The Irish community leaders I met in Ireland House asked me and the Irish Government to petition the next President of the US and the US Congress for new visas for the Irish. They made the case that Ireland lost 18,000 visas a year under the 1965 immigration law, which today results in fewer than 350 green cards being issued to Irish people I feel that the political will exists in Congress. Irish people punch way above our weight. Given that 10,500 visas were secured in a 2013 Senate Bill, I believe an Irish visa Bill could pass if the Irish Government joined forces with legislative allies on Capitol Hill and Irish community groups to make a major push.

Irish companies now employ more Americans in the US than American companies employ here in Ireland. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is very proud of his Irish roots and is a major advocate of immigration reform. Will the Taoiseach, through his Ministers and the ambassador, make contact with the next President, whoever he or she may be, to ensure a visa Bill for the Irish is initiated? I suggest that any visa Bill should also provide for a path for the undocumented Irish, who would not be averse to coming back to Ireland to secure such a visa at the US Embassy here if it were guaranteed that they could return to the US.

I thank the Taoiseach for his commitment to the diaspora and to the issue of voting rights for immigrants abroad. As the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, alongside Ambassador Anderson, noted in New York, we have a constitutional obligation to the Irish diaspora under the Good Friday Agreement. This statement was wholeheartedly appreciated by the community leaders we met in America. They also wondered about the Government’s stance on the voting rights issue. Can we expect that a referendum on this matter will be held and the result implemented in time for the 2018 Irish Presidential election? The subject of immigration reform and the plight of the undocumented Irish are of relevance to the process of Seanad reform that is currently under discussion.