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Minister announces funds for emigrant support program

Minister Charlie Flanagan meeting Congressman James Sensenbrenner during the former’s recent visit to Washington, D.C.

By Ray O’Hanlon

The Irish government’s budget is set to extend well beyond Ireland’s shores.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan has today highlighted allocations within Budget 2016 for ongoing modernization of the Passport Service, further development of consular assistance capacities and continuing support for Irish community and diaspora groups around the globe.

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A total of €11.6 million in funding will be allocated to the government’s Emigrant Support Programme.

The minister also confirmed that Irish job creation, export growth and promoting Ireland’s attractiveness for investment, tourism and education will remain and develop as key priorities for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Ireland’s network of diplomatic missions.

A seven percent increase in the “Official Development Aid” budget has brought the overall budget up to €640 million.

Speaking ahead of his Budget 2016 address to Dáil Éireann, Minister Flanagan stated that passport demand had surged in the last fifteen years – up from 388,000 in 2000 to 630,000 in 2014.

Already this year, 580,000 passports have been issued, up 8.7 percent on the same period last year.

“As demand for passports continues to grow, I want to ensure that our Passport Service continues to deliver the very highest levels of customer service and to maintain the integrity and excellent international standing of the Irish passport,” said Flanagan.

And he continued: “I intend to introduce new, world-class technologies to radically re-shape how Irish passports are delivered over the next three years and €4 million has been secured in Budget 2016 to achieve this goal.

“Last week I announced the activation of our Passport Card project, part of our citizen-focused modernization plan. Over 6,000 Passport Cards (good for travel in the EU only) were applied for in the first week.

“The next phase of modernization will include a more streamlined passport applications system, a facility for online renewals, a stronger focus on first-time applicants and tightening up even further against any attempts at passport-related fraud. It will also ensure a more seamless and consistent service for Irish citizens wherever they apply for a passport around the world.

The minister additionally stated: “In terms of our consular services to Irish citizens, my department has always sought to respond to tragedy with quick, compassionate and effective assistance to those impacted and their families. We typically provide such assistance to around 1,600 Irish citizens and their families each year and in 2015 we have also witnessed such high profile incidents as the tragic balcony collapse in Berkeley, the terrorist atrocities in Tunisia, and the horrific earthquake in Nepal.

“To ensure that we can sustain this quality in the face of new global challenges and anticipated additional demand for consular assistance in non-traditional geographic locations and on increasingly complex issues, we will use our 2016 budgetary allocation to reinforce our consular crisis response capacity. This will focus in particular on communicating in new and better ways with Irish citizens travelling abroad and on developing innovative methods of providing advice and services quickly to those who need help most.”

Minister Flanagan said he was also “extremely pleased” that in line with the government’s recently launched diaspora policy “Global Irish,” that Budget 2016 would see his department “maintain its steadfast support for Irish community and diaspora groups in very many corners of the world through €11.6 million in funding under the Emigrant Support Programme.”

That program helps fund Irish immigration support centers in the U.S., this in the face of a continued absence of comprehensive immigration reform and the presence in the country of thousands of undocumented Irish.

In recent years there has been hope for a standalone E-3 renewable visa program for the Irish modeled on an E-3 scheme for Australians but this has not transpired.

However, during his recent visit to Washington, Minister Flanagan conferred with Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner who is offering a standalone bill that would result in Irish citizens being able to avail of any of the 10,000 annual E-3 visas for Australians that are not taken up.

Given that Sensenbrenner, whose district is in Wisconsin, is with the majority party in the House of Representatives and has taken a hard line on immigration issues in the past, the possibility of his bill being approved is not entirely remote in a Congress that has shown little appetite for initiatives designed to let more immigrants enter the country.