Senator Billy Lawless today sought government assurances that Irish emigrants in the UK would not lose their access to RTE radio, a vital link to home.
In a commencement debate in Seanad Éireann today, 2nd February, Senator Lawless outlined the fears of older Irish people in Britain over the threat that they would soon lose RTE radio on the long wave band, and highlighted that this generation cannot be forgotten or disregarded as the digital age bypasses their generation.
Joe McHugh, Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Trade visited the Upper House to debate this issue with Senator Lawless, Taoiseach’s nominee to Seanad Éireann in 2016.
While the retention of the long wave service is ultimately a matter for RTE, Senator Lawless reminded the house of RTE’s public service remit, citing a recent study into emigrants use of long wave which found that 92% of respondents indicated that they listened daily to RTE on the service at home or in the car, not via digital platforms.
Minister McHugh committed that his Department is working closely with RTE to ensure that the views of this elderly vulnerable community are heard in the imminent decision making process.
Broadcasting Service Provision
Senator Billy Lawless: I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this matter. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe McHugh, to the House to discuss this important issue.
I take my appointment as Ireland’s first emigrant Senator seriously. That mandate not only extends to the US diaspora, with which I am more familiar, but to the entire diaspora across the globe. One issue which comes up time and again with elderly members of the UK’s Irish diaspora is the continued access to RTE long wave radio service which is set to be abolished at some point in 2017. There may be many young or more digitally orientated people in RTE management who may scoff at the notion of retaining for what for them may be a feature of bygone era. However, this narrow thinking does not understand the richness RTE provides for the tens of thousands of listeners in the UK who tune into RTE long wave every single day.
There are more than 600,000 Irish-born emigrants living in the UK, with many of its older members forced out of Ireland in the 1950s with little education and no prospects of work at home. In January 2016, the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex University London, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, conducted a study into some of those emigrants’ usage of RTE long wave. Up to 92% of respondents to the survey stated they listen every day or most days, with 44% listening to it in the car or another vehicle. Less than half the respondents had used a television or some form of digital device to access the radio. Unsurprisingly, it was the so-called older age groups who did not access the service on digital radio platforms on a laptop or digital TV.
Will the Minister of State consider this survey, given it was funded by the previous Government, and implore RTE management to reconsider this ageist and discriminatory cut to RTE long wave planned for 2017? Nobody is trying to halt the digitalisation of our media or impede RTE in its process of modernisation. However, RTE must be reminded of its public service remit.
The historic first state visit of Uachtarán na hÉireann to the United Kingdom in 2014 was an incredible moment for the Irish UK community, particularly the elderly who have been through difficult times for the Irish in the UK during the Troubles. Anyone watching the concerts and events held around the President’s visit could see for themselves that they reconnected many Irish men and women of humble economic and social backgrounds in a way that had not been felt for many generations. This was an extremely proud moment, not just for those immigrants, but for the global Irish diaspora. It showed that this nation is taller than its borders. I ask the Minister of State what kind of message is sent to those people when three years later we turn the switch off on RTE radio, which is the daily, and perhaps only, link to home here in Ireland for so many. Thankfully, we have exited the period of austerity. It seems an extremely harsh and unfair decision for RTE to directly target some of the most elderly and vulnerable people who use the station’s services. This is not what public service broadcasting is supposed to be about.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Joe McHugh): Go raibh maith agat a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an gceist tábhachtach seo a chur faoin tseirbhís thar a bheith tábhachtach ar son muintir na hÉireann sa Bhreatain.
By way of background on this matter, in September 2014, RTE announced plans to shut down its long wave 252 service, which enables RTE Radio 1 to be broadcast into Britain. While the initial plan was for the long wave service to close on 27 October 2014, this was further deferred until 19 January 2015. On 18 December 2014, a decision was taken to continue long wave radio services until 2017.
Following this announcement, the Government’s emigrant support programme, which is administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, supported research into the listenership figures in Britain for the RTE long wave service. The purpose of this research was to obtain concrete data on the current listenership and also to explore the possibility of continuing the service using alternate technologies. The research was conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex University, which was appointed following a competitive tender process run by Irish in Britain, the national representative organisation for the Irish community in England, Scotland and Wales. Information was gathered through individual submissions, group submissions and focus groups. Overseeing the research was a consultative group of key stakeholders composed of representatives of RTE, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials based in Dublin and at the Embassy of Ireland in London, and representatives of the Irish community in Britain.
The figures show that out of 3,191 people who completed the individual surveys, 72% of those who responded were over 60, while 68% of respondents were born in Ireland and 62% were retired. For the majority of respondents, long wave was seen as a lifeline to Ireland, helping them to maintain a sense of Irishness and to keep up with events back home. The majority of listeners in the focus groups preferred the familiar, analogue service as opposed to digital platforms, computers, laptops and smartphones. The Government recognises the special value placed on RTE’s long wave 252 service by some Irish citizens in the Britain, especially the elderly, and my Department is working closely with RTE to ensure that the views of this community are heard in any decision-making process.
While any decision on the future of long wave services in Britain is ultimately an operational matter for RTE, it can, as a result of the study, now be informed by awareness of the role that the service plays in preserving and enhancing links with Ireland and keeping our people in Britain informed of important events and developments, such as the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and the Irish Government’s position. A meeting of the consultative group will take place in London next week in order to discuss the next steps, explore possible ways forward In the context of maintaining the link with audiences in Britain, and of keeping the Irish community involved in decision-making. I am hopeful that a positive outcome can be achieved.
Senator Billy Lawless: I thank the Minister of State. That is very encouraging and I am sure my colleagues will be more than happy with his response. It is vital that we look after our elderly, not just in the UK, but also in the United States. Our Irish emigrant population is getting older and they need these links.
Senator Catherine Noone: Hear, hear.
Senator Billy Lawless: I am delighted to hear the Minister of State’s response.
While he is here, will the Minister of State indicate if a decision has been taken in respect of the undocumented Irish. This matter is close to my heart and, of course, to the Minister of State’s as well. Will he provide an update with regard to what has happened in the past ten days in the United States?
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: That is a separate matter. If the Minister of State wishes to respond, I will call on him.
Deputy Joe McHugh: Out of respect to the Senator’s global reach, which is not just confined to the UK, I wish to state for the record that there is an intensive effort going in to continuing the dialogue and conversation with all our front-line services in America. It also continues at a political level in the US Senate and House of Representatives. The Senator is involved in that effort. He took part in a very important meeting in America on 12 January. Those meetings with the consulates and the embassy are so important. In the context of what we can control in terms of budget, in last year’s programme €2.3 million was allocated to the emigrant support service. We support many emigrant support services, be it in San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, New York or whatever part of America, and we need to continue that.
We also need to continue work on our strong relationship with the US. When the Taoiseach travels to the White House on 17 March, it is going to be about that relationship. Foremost in the minds of every politician, including my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, who is in the US this week, is the undocumented. That is a top priority and it will continue to be. It was my priority when I was in San Francisco, New York and Boston. I am going again – the Senator will be joining me- to visit the the east coast and we have to make it a priority because there are people feeling vulnerable at the moment. We have to ensure that the relationship that was always there between Ireland and the United States continues, in a similar vein to the Senator’s comments on the relationship with the United Kingdom. They are two separate issues but one and the same in terms of keeping the relationships strong.
Senator Billy Lawless: I thank the Minister of State.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I thank the Minister of State. That was very nice.