Go raibh maith agat, a Ceann Comhairle.
I am pleased to address the House this evening on Budget 2016 and my plans for the coming year as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
I am sharing time this evening with my departmental colleagues, Minister Seán Sherlock and Minister Jimmy Deenihan.
Budget 2016 is a positive Budget which is testament to the progress we have made as a country over the last few years, coming through very hard times for many people, to a position where we can now introduce measures to provide relief for people, increase and enhance services and support our ongoing economic recovery.
In my Department, Budget 2016 provides a modest amount of funding for key strategic activities which are centred on better meeting the needs of Irish citizens at home and abroad and supporting the world’s most vulnerable people in the way we always have done.
I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record my appreciation of the dedication of the staff of my Department who, like their colleagues across the public sector, have worked relentlessly and flexibly to deliver services in very difficult economic times, working diligently to provide services to our citizens, to promote peace and reconciliation on our island, to project our values internationally and to strengthen our influence internationally including within the EU, the OSCE and at the UN.
Irish diplomats have also played an important role in driving Ireland’s economic recovery through our Trade Division at home in the Department’s headquarters and in our mission network around the world. That network has expanded in recent years with new offices in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. The Export Trade Council, which I chair, brings together key Ministries, State Agencies and representatives of the private sector to maximise opportunities for Irish exports, attract inward investment and tourism and build international partnerships in fields like education. This work complements the very successful Annual Action Plan for Jobs model pioneered by my colleague, Minister Bruton, which has helped deliver 125,000 jobs since the first Action Plan in 2012. Ultimately, our focus is on jobs for people here at home and creating a sustainably healthy economy that will allow the government to provide more and better public services. Budget 2016 as a whole is focussed on providing relief and better services for the Irish people, through steps like a cut in the USC, more nurses and doctors for the health service, more affordable and quality childcare, and ending the unfair treatment of the self-employed. All sensible affordable steps that will keep the recovery going and bring its benefits to more households. In line with Government policy, Budget 2016 provides opportunities for my Department to deliver more for our citizens and for the most vulnerable people around the world.
Passport reform and modernisation
Last week I launched the Passport Card €“ the first of its kind in the world. The Card was introduced to offer a more convenient way for Irish people to travel €“ and it is now accepted in 31 countries throughout Europe. Innovative Irish technology companies were involved in its design and the ease of application for Passport holders €“ through an App or online €“ has generated over 6,300 applications since its launch less than ten days ago. Through Budget 2016, I will continue this process of passport reform and modernisation.
The demand for passports continues to grow with increased travel, our expanding population and the use of the passport as an identity document. Passport entitlement decisions are becoming more complex due to the wider diversity of family situations and changes to guardianship provisions. We also face a continued serious threat from sophisticated fraud and attempts at identity theft. Coupled with these challenges, the expectations of citizens in terms of the efficient, flexible and timely delivery of public services has grown, and rightly so.
Our Passport Service needs to respond fully if we are to continue to deliver the highest levels of customer service and maintain the integrity and excellent international standing of the Irish passport. We have made great strides; our passport book meets the highest international design and security standards and turnaround times for passport applications have improved.
All that said, the technology which underpins the passport service is over ten years old and can no longer be considered sufficiently flexible to adapt to the changing needs of the service. Nor is it adequate for future needs. The reform programme €“ to which we are allocating €4m under Vote 28 in 2016 – will see new technologies radically re-shape how passports are delivered over the next three years. The result will be a more streamlined system to process passport applications, including online renewals, and a stronger focus on first time applicants and areas that are potentially vulnerable to fraud. It will also ensure a more seamless and consistent service for citizens wherever they apply for a passport around the world.
An efficient passport service is essential for every country and particularly so for Ireland, which is so inter-connected globally. This ambitious reform programme aims to deliver a more citizen-focused service and build on the integrity of the Irish passport for the benefit of all.
An aspect of the work of my Department and its missions that is usually necessarily under the radar is the consular assistance which we provide to over 1,600 Irish citizens and their families each year. Very often, these sensitive cases involve death, arrest or hospitalisation overseas. This year, we were all proud that our diplomats provided the best of service to citizens in the worst of circumstances during multiple consular crisis situations. From the heartbreak of the balcony collapse in Berkeley to the terrorist atrocities in Tunisia and the aftermath of a horrific earthquake in Nepal, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has always sought to respond to tragedy with quick, compassionate and effective consular assistance to those impacted and their families.
This is a commitment to serving our citizens of which we can rightly be proud – but we must ensure that we can sustain this quality in the face of new global challenges. To do so we need to review our delivery and reform where necessary. With more Irish people travelling to less secure parts of a volatile world, we have to expect additional demand for consular assistance in non-traditional geographic locations and on increasingly complex issues.
We will use our budgetary allocation to reinforce our consular crisis response capacity, to better communicate with Irish citizens travelling abroad and to develop innovative ways of providing advice and services quickly to those who need help most.
Emigrant Support Programme
My colleague, Minister Deenihan will address the House on his priorities for 2016. I am very pleased that Budget 2016 will see this Department maintain its steadfast support for Irish community groups in very many corners of the world through €11.6 million in funding under the Emigrant Support Programme.
This Government has been able to maintain its commitment to our emigrants through the most difficult years and to provide much needed support to those who can often be quite vulnerable. While we hope now that many of those who left in recent years are considering coming home, this funding allows us to continue to provide support to those who have put down roots abroad. Minister Deenihan will address this area in greater detail and I’d like to take this opportunity to commend him for his passionate and energetic approach to his Ministry €“ I can think of no better person to fill the role of the State’s first ever Minister for the Diaspora.
International Development Assistance
Finally, I am proud that this Budget confirms clearly that international development and the fight to end global poverty and hunger are firmly at the heart of Ireland’s foreign policy. The Government has committed an additional €40 million for ODA in this Budget, a significant 7% increase. This funding will go towards, inter alia, addressing the very serious humanitarian crises we are facing in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa in particular. Minister Sherlock will address this area in greater detail shortly.
To conclude, Ceann Comhairle, I commend Budget 2016 to the House I look forward to my Department continuing to deliver crucial services to the Irish people and playing our part in sustaining and enhancing our economic recovery, in the best interests of our citizens.