The scale of likely cutbacks became evident last week with the unveiling of sharply curtailed budgetary spending estimates by Ireland’s finance minister, Charlie McCreevy.
The warning signs, however, have been evident for some time.
When she spoke to the assembled heads of U.S.-based Irish immigration centers in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, the Irish government’s minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Coughlan, was generous in her praise but noticeably cautious when it came to backing this up with the prospect of extra dollars for the centers. Extra aid, she said, would have to be considered “in the overall budgetary context.”
Thirteen immigration centers in eight cities currently receive an annual injection of Irish government aid. They are sharing $300,000 for the year 2002-03. The money is welcome, but the heads of the centers agree that more is needed to maintain or expand services to Irish immigrants, particularly the undocumented and the elderly.
Coughlan was speaking in the context of a report compiled by the government-appointed Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants.
The task force was formed in December 2001 with a mandate to recommend long-term policies on emigration and meeting the needs of emigrants.
The task force report was formally submitted to Ireland’s foreign minister, Brian Cowen, on Aug. 28 and made public that same day at a press conference in Dublin.
Prominent among its 79 pages was the recommendation that the Irish government’s six-figure annual aid allocation for the U.S.-based Irish immigration centers be hoisted well into the seven-figure category.
The report was drawn from the research of a government-selected panel with broad-based experience addressing both immigrant needs and financial realities.
Members of the task force included New York radio broadcaster Adrian Flannelly and the late Msgr. James Murray, former head of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York.
In publicly unveiling the task force report, Cowen, like Coughlan would later be, was careful when it came to the matter of backing up the report’s recommendations with hard cash.
“It is important to point out that there is a huge amount of money being spent by government in a whole range of departments and I think what this task force report is helping us to do is bring some focus and priority to the needs of Irish emigrants,” Cowen said.
The Irish Times reported Cowen as adding that with the report in his hands, he would have to “discuss matters” with relevant government ministers and “input this into the estimates process.”
In short, the report did not stand alone in grand isolation from other government wish lists. It would have to compete for a slice of a public spending cake that was fast shrinking. And it would be Cowen who would have to argue on its behalf with his ministerial colleagues.
Nevertheless, the report concluded that current funding for immigrant advice agencies fell far short of what was needed. Instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the task force wanted to see millions spent by the Irish government in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“A significant increase in the level of official funding for emigrant services will be necessary to implement the recommendations of this report,” the task force stated.
Its members were “convinced that there is compelling justification for such an increase. There is a need for a sea-change in the approach of funding for emigrant services and the low level of support currently being provided should not be a baseline.”
The task force backed up its assertion by stating that funding for emigrant services should be viewed in the context of the “substantial sums of money” sent back by emigrants over the years in the form of remittances to their families in Ireland and the “significant savings” to the Irish government’s treasury arising from the net outflow of people from Ireland.
In the case of the U.S., the task force recommended that the $300,000 being distributed this year be increased to euro 2 million next year and reach euro 6 million by 2005.
Given the rough parity of the euro and dollar that would mean about $6 million by 2005 or close to twice the total of $3.6 million allocated in the 12-year period from 1990 to 2002.
What had been a decade’s worth was now, in the view of the task force, just a year’s worth.
The recipients of the two largest grant sums, Project Irish Outreach and the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, are both in New York. Each are to get $55,000 from the current allocation.
The sums given out tend to depend on the city. New York and Boston have always gained the lion’s share with San Francisco and Philadelphia making up the second tier.
The grants reach their lowest levels in cities such as Seattle and San Diego. Centers such as Irish Outreach in San Diego will receive just $2,000 from the current allocation while Irish Immigration Support in Seattle will receive an identical sum.
When he announced the latest grants during a visit to New York in September, Cowen said that the report had been a comprehensive review of the situation facing Irish emigrants, that the government was positively disposed toward the report and that it would be carefully considered.
Cowen said he hoped the report would mark the start of a “new departure” in relations between the people in Ireland and the Irish abroad.
The question being asked in the wake of Charlie McCreevy’s hair shirt estimates is if that departure will now be long-fingered.
If it is, it will not be good news for Fr. Tom O’Halloran, director of Chicago Irish Immigration Support.
The Chicago center falls into the lower half of the list of 13 in terms of money coming from the Irish government. Its share of the $300,000 pie will be just $12,000.
Not nearly enough for a center in a city with an undocumented Irish population estimated by O’Halloran to be as high as 5,000.
“If we don’t get something more like $100,000 next year, we will have to close,” O’Halloran said.
The Chicago center gets no money from its host city and Fr. O’Halloran spends what he considers too much of his time having to fundraising to meet a minimum annual budget he places at $120,000.
“We are getting calls from all over the Midwest,” he said. “Recently, we had to help a young Irishman who was stranded in Iowa when a promised job did not materialize.”
O’Halloran might not be guilty of exaggerating the center’s financial needs but the “we” is a bit of stretch. It means the County Clare-born priest and a part-time assistant.
“If I was talking to Brian Cowen I would argue that the cause of Irish immigrants is a just one,” he said. “And proper funding for the immigration centers is long overdue, even with constraints and tight budgets.”
Few would argue that Cowen is a good man to have in your corner when ministerial haggling over limited money gets serious. But a spokesman for the minister indicated that the centers will have to play their part in the battle for the kind of money envisioned in the task force report.
“The centers will have to provide concrete proposals and expenditure estimates,” the spokesman said.
And even then, the spokesman indicated, there will be no guarantee that the task force’s request is attainable in the light of the coming squeeze on Irish government spending.