By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Support for a fresh approach to emigrants has been promised by Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen, who pledged the new report of the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants would not be left to gather dust.
Receiving the report, which recommends a major financial boost for emigrant services, Cowen said the focus would be on priorities in a long-term strategy, but he said that that was not a code for deferring initiatives.
He noted that in the past, there had been no structured approach to dealing with emigrant problems. “People were effectively out of sight, out of mind,” he said, adding that the diaspora has to be recognized as an asset. He said that the government’s responsibility to Irish people extends beyong territorial boundaries. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to our emigrants who have done so much to help build our country.”
There is now an obligation to assist emigrants, whose expectations were not met in the country they went to, the report said. For too long, the voluntary efforts of Irish communities abroad had been relied on to care for emigrants in need and a new approach was needed.
Many emigrants want to retain their links with home and to express their identity and “we need to consider how best we can help them.”
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As the Irish government struggles to control public spending, it will have difficulty with the Task Force’s key recommendation — for a huge increase in emigrant funding to euro 18 million next year, rising to euro 34 million by 2005. The current funding is about euro 3.2 million a year.
Asked by reporters if he ias in favor of giving the vote to emigrants, the minister said he supports the view of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution
Last March, the committee recommended no extension of the right to vote to emigrants “at the present time.”
It did, however, suggest that a taoiseach should in future include a person or persons with awareness of emigrant issues among the 11 nominees to the 60-member Seanad.
Voting rights for emigrants was not part of the Task Force’s brief, but chairman Paddy O’Hanlon, founder member of the SDLP and a former Stormont assembly member, said it had been an issue that they had found was low on the agenda put forward by emigrant representatives they had met.
For over a decade, emigrant groups have been battling for a full extension of the vote to all Irish-born citizens abroad, arguing it is a basic entitlement of citizenship.
Cowen said the report had brings “focus and priority” to the needs of emigrants and he would discuss its findings with cabinet colleagues and input the costings of the recommendations into the estimates procedure.