By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Free travel concessions within Ireland for elderly Irish emigrants on visits home from many parts of the world are being examined as part of an overall review of "free" schemes, according to the minister for social, family and community affairs, Dermot Ahern.
The Federation of Irish Societies sought extension of the plan for pensioners living in Britain.
"I am by no means unsympathetic to this proposal," Ahern said recently. "Apart from the monetary value of concessions, which could be relatively small in individual cases, I appreciate such a move would be welcomed as a acknowledgement of Irish people who, although now living outside the country, very much value their Irish identity and wish to be recognized as such, particularly when visiting their homeland."
The minister warned, however, that extending the free travel to the Irish in Britain was not a simple and straightforward matter.
A fundamental part of EU legislation provided for equality and it would not be possible to extend and confine the concession to Irish pensioners alone.
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"This means the issue will have to be examined in the broader context — the possibility of extending to similar groups in all members states of the EU and possibly to other countries, such as the U.S., Canada and Australia, with which we have bilateral agreement on pension matters," Ahern said.
The cost of extending the free travel concession to Irish people living in Britain would cost the exchequer £8 million a year, according to evidence given to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Family.
Anne Vaughan of the department’s pensions and research unit said the free travel plan currently costs £34.5 million a year.
People over 66 can travel completely free and it is the regarded as the best scheme in the EU as other countries only had travel concessions.
She said the £8 million cost of extending the scheme to Irish in Britain was a conservative one and was based on 230,000 Irish-origin senior citizens traveling home each year.
About 120,000 of these 230,000 visitors relied on forms of public transport when in Ireland and it is estimated that each of them spent about £66 on travel.