Seanad Éireann - Volume 140 - 21 April, 1994

Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill, 1994: Second and Subsequent Stages.

Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

An Cathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister to the House.

Minister for Justice (Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn): This short Bill will regularise the right to Irish citizenship of persons who applied to have their births abroad entered in a foreign births entry book at an embassy or consulate abroad or in the foreign births register at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin in the transitional six month period, ending on 31 December 1986, provided for in the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1986, but who were not registered by 31 December 1986 through no fault of their own.

The Bill does not make any substantive changes in our citizenship laws. Its sole objective is to deal with the applicants who wished to obtain Irish citizenship by descent but whose applications were not registered by 31 December 1986. For the benefit of the House I will give background detail on our citizenship legislation.

The last basic Act on citizenship is the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956. The Act provides for five ways in which Irish citizenship can be obtained. These are: by birth in Ireland; by a declaration of acceptance of postnuptial citizenship by the spouse of an Irish citizen; by the granting of a certificate of naturalisation; by the granting of honorary citizenship; or by registration of a birth abroad. This Bill is concerned with the fifth category, that is, registration of a birth abroad of a person who wishes to obtain Irish citizenship by virtue of descent from a person born in Ireland.

The existing legal provisions as regards citizenship by descent are contained in the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts, 1956 and 1986. The 1956 Act provides that a person born abroad of an [132] Irish born parent is entitled to Irish citizenship automatically. The grandchild of an Irish-born person is also entitled to Irish citizenship provided his or her birth is registered for that purpose.

The registration can be made in a foreign births entry book at an embassy or consulate abroad, or in the foreign births register at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. Great-grandchildren and subsequent descendants of Irish-born people are entitled to Irish citizenship provided the birth of the parent through whom they claim citizenship has been registered in either a foreign births entry book or the foreign births register.

The main provisions as regards registration are contained in section 27 of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956. Under that Act the right to citizenship can be maintained from generation to generation provided the births in each generation are registered. However, if the birth of a grandchild or any subsequent generation is not registered the link is broken and subsequent generations would not be entitled to Irish citizenship by descent. A crucial point in maintaining the link from generation to generation is the requirement that for grandchildren or subsequent generations the parent through whom the right of citizenship flows must be an Irish citizen on the date of birth of the applicant.

In the period 1956 to 1986 the citizenship of the person whose birth was being registered was backdated to his or her date of birth or the date of coming into force of the 1956 Act, whichever was later. If the mother of a child wanted the child to have Irish citizenship but the mother herself had not registered by the time of the birth, she could always register after the birth of her child and the mother's citizenship would apply retrospectively. Her child's birth could then be registered as the mother's citizenship would predate the birth of the child.

The Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1986, brought about a number of changes as regards citizenship. These related to citizenship of spouses of Irish citizens and, of most interest to us today, the date from which the citizenship of [133] people registering foreign births applied. As I said, under the 1956 Act once a birth was registered the citizenship of the person registered was backdated either to his or her date of birth or the date of passing of the 1956 Act. Under the 1986 Act, however, citizenship applies only from the date of registration. This did away with the retrospective aspect of citizenship and gave much greater significance to the actual date of registration. For a great grandchild of an Irish born person to be entitled to register his or her birth, the birth has to be subsequent to the date of registration of the birth of the parent through whom he or she wishes to obtain citizenship.

The reasoning behind the change brought about by the 1986 Act is more easily understood if one looks at the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1935. Under section 2(2) of the 1935 Act, the birth of a person born outside the State to an Irish citizen also born outside the State had to be registered within two years of the birth or else that person lost the right to be a “natural-born citizen of Saorstát Éireann”. That law was changed by the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956. The requirement to register a birth within a certain period was not maintained and it was apparently the intention that a person would only acquire citizenship on and from the date of registration of the birth. However, in 1966 legal advice was obtained to the effect that, for the purposes of derivation of citizenship under section 6 (2) of the 1956 Act, registration of the birth under section 27, as required by section 7(2) of the 1956 Act, dates back to that person's date of birth or to the passing of the 1956 Act, whichever is the later.

The position, therefore, is that the 1986 Act restored the situation to that originally intended, that is, citizenship would not be backdated. Under the 1986 Act births must be registered before the birth of next generation if the entitlement to citizenship by descent is to be maintained from one generation to the next. If a person who has to register to obtain Irish citizenship by descent does not register prior to the birth of his or her [134] child then that child is not entitled to Irish citizenship under the provisions of the 1986 Act.

The 1986 Act was passed on 1 July 1986. It included the following transitional provision in section 8: “For the period of six months commencing on the passing of this Act, any person who but for this Act could become an Irish citizen may continue to do so.” The six months period provided for in section 8 was the six months running from 1 July to 31 December 1986. When the provisions of the 1986 Act became known abroad the number of applicants for foreign birth registration increased enormously. The Consulate General at New York and the Consulate at Johannesburg, in particular, received greatly increased volumes of applications. The Department of Foreign Affairs took exceptional measures to deal with the upsurge in applications. It employed more staff and sanctioned overtime. As a result of the extra staff, 4,200 applications were processed in 1986. By comparison 925 were processed in 1983, 1,270 in 1984 and 1,650 in 1985.

In addition to the 4,200 applications actually processed in 1986, there was a further 10,000 applications which had not been attended to by the end of 1986. About 6,000 of these were from third generation applicants — for example, people with a grandparent born in Ireland who generally had no children and therefore were not adversely affected by the deadline. These applicants were registered in 1987 and 1988. However, there is a residue from the 10,000 applications, amounting to 3,773 valid applications received in 1986 from third and fourth generation applicants which were not registered. Some 2,010 of these applicants are from South Africa and 1,341 are from the United States. The remainder are from New Zealand and Canada.

Before the end of 1986 the Department of Foreign Affairs realised that the backlog of applications could not be dealt with by the statutory deadline of 31 December 1986. It therefore sought legal advice. The legal advice was to the effect that applicants could not benefit from the more favourable regime provided for in [135] the transitional provision of the 1986 Act unless the applications were actually registered by 31 December 1986. This was of vital significance for many fourth generation applicants whose right to citizenship was dependent on registration of their parents' births by 31 December 1986. These fourth generation applicants would not be entitled to Irish citizenship unless their parents' births were registered by that date. They are adversely affected by the failure to register their births by 31 December 1986.

These people made valid applications, including paying their fees, and it was no fault of theirs that their applications had not been registered by the statutory deadline. It was evident, therefore, that legislation was desirable to provide for these applications being regarded as registered by 31 December and, accordingly, work on the processing of such applications was suspended on 1 January 1987.

These applicants are the main concern of this Bill. The Bill provides for the registration of their births and for the registrations being regarded as having been completed by 31 December 1986. This in turn will enable their children to be registered as Irish citizens where they had made applications for registration and the registration of the children had been held up due to the inability to register the parents' births by the statutory deadline of 31 December 1986.

I am sure there will be agreement in the House that it is only equitable that eligible persons who applied should be entitled to obtain Irish citizenship. I received representations on this matter from public representatives here and, indeed, from abroad. I am glad to be able to sponsor this legislation which will ensure that the applicants in question will receive their entitlements as regards Irish citizenship.

I will now deal with the sections of the Bill. This is a short Bill which contains three sections. Section 1 provides for definitions. Section 3 provides for the Short Title, collective citation and construction. Section 2 is the operative section of the Bill. The heading of section [136] 2 is “Registration of Births outside Ireland”. As I explained, the Bill is concerned only with applications for registration made during the transitional six month period provided for in the 1986 Act but which were not registered by the end of the six month transitional period provided for in the 1986 Act and which ended on 31 December 1986.

Section 2 (1) deals with two different circumstances. Paragraph (a) deals with the outstanding 3,773 applications for registration made during the transitional period which have never been registered. It specifically provides that all such applications may now be registered. This provision is necessary to cover those fourth generation applicants who but for this Bill would not be eligible for registration. There were many family applications by parents who where third generation Irish and their children who would be fourth generation. The right of the fourth generation applicants to registration was directly dependent on their parents being registered by 31 December 1986.

Paragraph (b) deals with persons who applied for registration during the transitional six months period but who were registered after 31 December 1986. It allows such persons to apply for re-registration if they so wish. Most of these are unlikely to apply for re-registration as there is no particular benefit to them. However, I understand that in a small number of cases where there were family applications by parents and their children, the parents, on learning that they had not been registered by 31 December and that their existing children were not therefore eligible for registration, insisted on their own registration proceeding. The result was that the parents were registered but the existing children could not be registered because the citizenship of their parents was not backdated.

I understand the concern of such parents who decided to proceed with registration to ensure that any future children they might have would be entitled to Irish citizenship even if it meant that their existing children might lose out. Paragraph (b) means that such parents can [137] remedy the situation by applying for re-registration so that the applications made during the transitional period for the registration of their children born before 31 December 1986 can be processed.

Section 2 (2) provides that any person registered or re-registered by virtue of subsection (1) shall be deemed to have been registered on 1 July 1986. In effect that will allow every person who made a valid application for registration during the transitional period but who was not registered by 31 December 1986 to be put in the same position that they would have been in if they had been registered during the transitional period.

The transitional period in the 1986 Act commenced on 1 July 1986 and ended on 31 December 1986. A date during that period had to be picked for the purposes of section 2 of the Bill and it was decided to pick the date which would be most favourable to applicants. This is the reason for the date 1 July 1986 being provided for in section 2(2) of the Bill.

Subsection (3) of section 2 is a direct consequence of subsection (2). As we are providing in subsection (2) that valid applications made during the transitional period but not registered by 31 December 1986 shall, under the Bill, be deemed to have been registered on 1 July 1986, it is only reasonable that applications actually registered during the transitional period should not be treated any less favourably. Accordingly, subsection (3) provides that such applications shall also be deemed to have been registered on 1 July 1986.

In most if not all cases the actual date of registration within the transitional period should be of no significance. There is, however, the possibility that the date of registration during the transitional period could be of importance in a small number of cases. This could happen, for example, if a woman applied for registration during the transitional period but after submitting her application and before it was registered she gave birth to a child and did not have an opportunity to submit a further application for the registration of that child by 31 December 1986. I am not aware of the existence of any such case [138] but, to avoid any possibility of a grievance, the Bill provides that all relevant applications are deemed to have been registered on 1 July 1986.

Before concluding I want to refer to another Bill in the area of immigration and citizenship; this is a Bill to provide a statutory framework for refugees and asylum seekers. In recent months I have mentioned on a number of occasions that this legislation is in the course of preparation and that it would be brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Government recently approved a draft scheme of the Bill to deal with refugees and asylum seekers. The Bill is being drafted at present and I intend to have it published and through the Houses of the Oireachtas in the near future. As the Bill has not been published I cannot go into detail on it at present. I can say, however, that the recommendations of the interdepartmental committee set up to examine this whole area and which have been published form the core of my legislative proposals to deal with refugees and asylum seekers. When the Bill is processed and comes into operation our system for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers will be open, impartial, humane and will allay the fears of those who have expressed concerns about the present non-statutory system.

The reason I mention my legislative proposals on refugees and asylum seekers is that I do not want the House to be under the impression that the Bill before the House today represents the totality of my proposals in the area of immigration and citizenship. The Bill before the House is a short Bill and it has not delayed in any way work in my Department on the topic of refugees and asylum seekers and the preparation of legislation in that area. Work on a Bill on that topic is proceeding as quickly as possible. When the Bill comes before the House, Senators will see that it is a major piece of reforming legislation and it will ensure that our international obligations are maintained to the highest standards.

Finally, let me repeat that the Bill before the House does not make any substantive change in our legislation as [139] regards citizenship. However, it is very important for the 3,773 applicants who could not obtain citizenship at the end of 1986 through no fault of their own. The Bill enables them to obtain citizenship as is their right. It also ensures that there will be no anomalies as regards those who applied for registration prior to 31 December 1986 and who decided to have their births registered subsequently.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Neville: I welcome the Bill. As the Minister said, it is an enabling Bill and is non-controversial. The purpose of the Bill is to regularise the citizenship rights of persons who made valid applications to have details of their birth abroad entered in a foreign births entry book at an embassy or consulate or in the foreign births register at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin during the transitional six month period ending on 31 December 1986 provided for in the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1986. These people, through no fault of their own as the Minister said but probably because of the number of applications, were not registered by 31 December 1986.

It is unfortunate that thousands of people in many countries who applied for Irish citizenship as far back as October and November 1986 find that their application has not been dealt with until 1994. At the time of the expiry of the statutory deadline at the end of December 1986 thousands of legitimate applications plus the required fees were lodged in our overseas diplomatic and consular offices but were not processed because of difficulties with the legislation. Those fees are still with the Department of Foreign Affairs. As the Minister said there are 3,773 applications outstanding from people seeking Irish citizenship by virtue of the fact that they are descendants of an Irish born person.

When the Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956, was passed it was envisaged that Irish citizenship would be extended to as a broad a range of people as possible. It mainly gave great-grandchildren [140] of Irish people who emigrated to the United States during and following the Famine period an opportunity to regain the citizenship their ancestors had prior to their enforced departure from this country. It is unfortunate that, having regard to the manner in which we have pursued the United States in relation to visas for Irish citizens, we have taken this approach to the problem of American descendants of Irish citizens who wish to regain Irish citizenship. I am pleased that the Bill will right that situation.

I would like to refer to the difficulties Irish citizens experience when obtaining visas for the United States. Everything must be done by the Minister and the Government to assist moves to introduce a Bill in the US Senate which would remove the regulations regarding the visitor visa scheme for the Irish. We must do everything in our power to mobilise the full political and diplomatic support we have in the US to ensure that the US visitors visa scheme as operated for Ireland is changed. It is absurd that nationals of other countries, including people in Northern Ireland and the UK, can come and go to the United States without complying with visitor visa requirements.

It might be suggested that the present scheme is due to the serious unemployment problem here and the possibility of a large influx of people from Ireland if the situation was changed. I do not accept that because there is a greater unemployment problem in Spain, yet there is no similar requirement for Spanish nationals travelling to the United States. I commend the American Ambassador, Mrs. Jean Kennedy-Smith, and her predecessors who have done much work to remove this anomalous situation. A message should go from this House fully supporting the efforts of Congressman McCloskey and wishing him success with his Bill which asks that the overall penalty on Irish people travelling to the United States be removed and that our nationals visiting the United States are treated in the same way as US nationals visiting Ireland.

Fine Gael fully supports the Bill before [141] the House. It is not a contentious Bill and one for which we have been asking for many years since the difficulties arose. The only reservation we have is that it took so long to bring the Bill before the House. As the Minister said the Bill does not make any substantive change in the current legislation regarding citizenship. It is important for the 3,773 applicants who could not obtain citizenship at the termination of the 1986 period because of an influx of applications and a failure to deal with them. The Bill also ensures that there will be no anomalies as regards those who applied for registration prior to 31 December 1986 and who decided to have their births registered subsequently. In this context I commend the Minister for introducing the Bill and we on this side of the House will facilitate its quick passage through the House.

Miss Ormonde: I, too, welcome the Minister to the House. I commend her for bringing forward this piece of legislation because it was long awaited. It took this Minister to process it and I congratulate her.

The Bill deals with citizenship rights for persons with valid applications to have their births registered at an embassy abroad or with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Some applications are still in limbo as a result of the six month transitional period. It was unjust that these people were left in limbo and I am glad the situation is being rectified. It is welcome because many people came to us as public representatives and asked about the position in relation to applications that had been submitted but which had not been processed. I often wondered how one would handle the situation and the Minister has made it easy for public representatives. The Bill makes it clear that people who have applied will not be affected.

The Bill is a little complicated. When I read it I realised that it dealt with third and fourth generation Irish-Americans. Grandchildren, the third generation, will have to be registered at birth. Great-grandchildren will also have to be registered at birth; but the kernel of the Bill [142] is that their parents must have been registered, according to the 1986 Act, before those children are born. Many people may not fully understand the Bill because it is quite detailed. One would have to read it a number of times to comprehend it fully. Up to 1956 one could backdate it and have a right to Irish citizenship. However, the key point is that, under the 1986 Act, the parents must have been registered before the children were born. If fourth generation children were born before their parents were registered, they would lose citizenship rights by virtue of Irish descent or connections.

Most of the applications came from the United States, but a huge number also came from South Africa. This is interesting. Perhaps the fear and turmoil that existed there over the years prompted people to connect once more with their Irish roots. We all like to return to our roots. Our country of origin is most important to us if we ever encounter difficulties. American citizens of Irish descent can also have an Irish passport.

This legislation is welcome. I ask the Minister how long it will take to process the remaining approximate 3,700 applications. The legislation has been set in motion, but in 12 months we should not be in the position of having to ask if there is a sufficient number of staff to process it and how long it will take. I want to be able to tell the country that this is a new piece of legislation to be welcomed. All our Irish connections in America and other countries would like to feel that they have rights to Irish citizenship and can have an Irish passport. This should be so and the Bill endeavours to do that. However, I want the Bill processed quickly so that I can tell people it has been passed.

I compliment the Minister regarding the Bill she intends to introduce to provide a structure for refugee status. Many refugees are seeking asylum in this country, particularly Bosnians. I welcome the introduction of that piece of legislation because there are many people in limbo seeking acknowledgement of their plight. I congratulate the Minister for speeding [143] up this legislation and I hope it will not take too long to process.

Mr. Magner: I welcome the Minister to the House. Wherever one is, it is a great day for the Irish. I expect there is a tape in the background of Bing Crosby singing “Does your mother come from Ireland?”.

This is an uncontroversial piece of legislation and has been welcomed by all sides. I am sure it is also welcomed greatly by the people waiting for the word. The holding of an Irish passport is a great honour and it is also a marvellous shield. I have been in some most unusual places around the globe and I was very glad there was a harp on my passport rather than anything else. It ensured a warm welcome, as Colonel North discovered when he decided to take a trip to Tehran. If one has to travel safely, one is best travelling on an Irish republican passport. Its value is well recognised.

I am not at all surprised that the number of applications from Johannesburg has soared. I am sure that, post independence, the holding of an old South African passport will not exactly be a badge of honour or welcome. Obviously, if one has any chance of getting an Irish passport, now is the time to do it if one is taking out an insurance policy on the future of South Africa. Who would blame them?

Many of the applications from Americans are prompted by nostalgia. They like to retain their roots. It would be nice to think that when votes for emigrants are finally introduced, the Minister might be elected from New York and Swaziland rather than Galway. I am sure she would do equally well. Perhaps that is what she intends.

Regarding Senator Neville's point about American visas, I have always found that process humiliating to some extent. I do not wish to appear anti-American, but these people annoy me at times. Senator Neville referred to entry requirements for Spaniards. They are far worse off than us in terms of employment but they have open entry. When one [144] considers that most of the Donnelly visas and others are not taken up, what is the problem? There is a group in the American immigration department who are back in the 1920s. I appreciate the efforts of the American Ambassador, Mrs. Kennedy-Smith, and others; but it is time these people in the State Department grew up a little and recognised that our modern economy will be capable in a short time of catering for all our people. Any time I am in America I cannot wait to leave and I often wonder why people want to go there in the first place. However, people want to go and the Americans should rethink their policy. It is outdated and outmoded. They are very lucky to have people that have gone through one of the best educational systems in the world. They are getting our graduates for nothing and I sometimes think that they should be paying us rather than charging for visas.

My final point is in relation to refugees. I have faith in the Minister and I said this a long time ago when Deputy Geogh-egan-Quinn became the Minister for Justice. So far my faith has been justified in everything that she has done. The status of refugees here is a sign of our type of country. France lived for many generations on its reputation for receiving people who were under pressure in their own country, political prisoners, etc. It was an honoured reputation. The Swedes also lived on its reputation for its concern for others around the globe. I hope the Minister will be brave when that Bill is introduced, and I know she will be brave. People need a beacon and a country that has no interest other than the pursuit and protection of liberty and of ordinary people. Any Bill the Minister brings before the House in relation to offering succour, and in many cases a homeland for a new start safe from death, would be welcomed by all sides.

I welcome the new South Africans, the new Americans and whoever else the Minister decides to catch in the net. We will have some fun when we give them votes.

[145] An Cathaoirleach: I take it, Senator Magner, that you will not be going to the World Cup? Would that be correct?

Mr. Magner: I have no interest whatsoever in going to America for anything.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister on presenting it. This matter was raised in the Seanad only some months ago. I raised it with the Tánaiste and he gave us an assurance that legislation would be prepared by his colleague, the Minister for Justice. I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill so expeditiously.

A specific problem needed to be addressed, that is, the issue of the deadline in the 1986 Act which created difficulties for many people. Almost 4,000 applications have been stuck in no-man's land for the past number of years. Many of these people found this to be an inconvenience. The application was made, the money paid but the goods were not delivered. This caused a lot of concern to some of those who had submitted applications. Some of them were concerned because they needed an Irish passport, so it was important to amend the legislation and bring this Bill to the House. The Minister is to be complimented on what she has done. In her speech she gave an outline of the history of the 1956 Act and all the legislation and regulations that cover citizenship for people other than those born in Ireland. The legislation is welcome and I wish to thank the Minister for introducing it so quickly.

Minister for Justice (Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn): Ba mhaith liom ar dtús mo bhuíochas a ghlacadh leis na Seanadóirí a labhair sa díospóireacht. Tá an-áthas orm an fáilte mhór a cuireadh roimh an bpíosa reachtaíochta seo a fheiceáil. Táimid ag fanacht leis an mBille seo ón mblian 1986 agus tá go leor de mhuintir na hÉireann thar lear, go h-áirithe san Afraic Theas agus i Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá, á n-iarriadh. Bhí brú ar pholaiteoirí sa tír seo an píosa reachtaíoch a seo a chur chun cinn. Tá áthas orm gur ar mo cheannsa a thit sé é a thabhairt ós comhair an Tí.

[146] Senator Magner welcomed me to the House. I have been here so often in the past few weeks that I feel like a piece of furniture in the Seanad at this stage. I said to Senator Neville yesterday that there would not be any easing up of the pressure on him or on myself over the next couple of months.

I am very happy with the welcome this legislation has received. This anomaly has existed since 1986, as Senator Taylor-Quinn said. As Senator Ormonde said, there has been a lot of pressure on all politicians in both Houses of the Oireachtas. People who were caught in the anomaly made representations to their local Members of Congress in relation to it. I know that there has been a long delay in bringing this Bill before the Oireachtas. Since I became Minister for Justice I have discovered that one has to be ruthless in setting priorities for legislation. It would be very easy to get involved in 15 or 16 different pieces of legislation at the same time. Unless one is ruthless and decides what one's priorities are going to be, very little is achieved. I was glad that in the course of setting priorities I was able to give priority to this legislation. I know that the 3,773 people or thereabouts involved will be very happy with it.

In relation to the point raised by both Senator Magner and Senator Neville, that is, visas for the United States, I happened to be in the other House yesterday when this issue was raised on the adjournment with the Tánaiste. This issue concerns all of us. Both Senators are correct in saying that we are sending to the United States some of our best educated young people, who make an enormous contribution to the economy of the United States when they get there. I am sure that all of us have relatives who went to the United States in times of great difficulty and great economic deprivation and who got a very warm welcome there. These people went on to earn a very good living there and to play an important role both in the economic and in the political affairs of the United States. We always have to be appreciative of that and everybody here today is.

[147] There is enormous pressure on all public representatives in relation to young people, very many of whom are students, who would like to visit the United States, or young people who are working in lower paid or part-time employment who would like to go to the United States for a holiday. There seems to be some doubt in the minds of the authorities as to whether they are legitimate visitors or not. I pay a very special tribute to Ambassador Kennedy-Smith in this regard because, of all of the recent United States diplomats resident in the Phoenix Park, she has shown a real personal interest in this issue. She seems to understand it better than any of her predecessors. She has grasped the nettle and has been very supportive. I know that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his officials have had many discussions with her in relation to this issue and that she certainly has smoothed the way during her term of office here.

I also support Senator Neville's statement that we should be supporting in every way we possibly can the Bill that is being put through Congress at the moment. The Tánaiste indicated that very strongly in the other House last night. We have been lobbying our friends on Capitol Hill and urging support for it. Our Ambassador, Mr. Dermot Gallagher, has been very active in mustering support from Congress Members for this legislation. It would be very welcome legislation. It would solve some of the difficulties some of us as politicians from time to time have had in relation to the whole question of visas for the United States.

Senator Ormonde and Senator Magner both raised the question of refugees. That has been a controversial issue for a long time. When I became Minister for Justice 15 months ago the issue on which I got the most representations during the first number of months was in relation to refugees and asylum seekers. We have got bad publicity in this country and abroad in relation to the perceived treatment — it is a perception rather than a reality — of refugees and asylum seekers. I was [148] very anxious that it should be put on a statutory footing, that it should be at arm's length both from the Minister and the Department officials. We want to make sure that it is seen as an open system and that it is independent and impartial.

We want to maintain the high standard of welcome we have for people in this country, and that should also apply equally to asylum seekers and refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees have been extremely helpful and co-operative with us and were with the interdepartmental committee set up to look at this area and to offer suggestions and give support for the legislative proposals we were putting in place. That is now with the Attorney General and I hope that it will be back to the Government and through the Houses of the Oireachtas in this session. Everybody on both sides of the House has welcomed this.

I personally support the giving of votes to Irish immigrants. Senator Magner will be aware that I do so for a very personal reason, because I visit Boston every year to see a huge percentage of my constituents who have emigrated. They have Morrison or Donnelly visas or they emigrated long before these visas were available. I am sure that, like Senator Taylor-Quinn or anybody else from the western seaboard, we all have many constituents there and we would be delighted if they were included on the register of electors. The Government is looking very closely at this question and investigating the possibility of how and whether it might be done. On a personal level I support that very strongly.

Senator Ormonde raised the question of the processing of the applications. As Senators know, that will be a matter now for the Department of Foreign Affairs. Senators will notice that there is no set commencement date for the Bill, so as soon as it goes through both Houses and is signed by the President it comes into operation, which is a good thing. The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Tánaiste have assured me that there will be no delay in the processing of the applications. [149] They hope to get stuck into them straight away and that is important.

The people out there know about this legislation. I publicised this Bill during the course of my visit to the United States on St. Patrick's Day and I asked my Government colleagues to indicate at any public function or engagement they attended that the legislation was going through, that we expected to have it through very shortly after Easter and that the 3,773 people affected would be contacted. I do not see that there will be any delay. It suits all of us that it should be done as quickly as possible. I thank the Senators for their welcome for this legislation. It is important and although it only affects a small number of people it is righting an injustice which has existed for a period of years.

Question put and agreed to.

Agreed to take remaining Stages today.

Bill put through Committee, reported without amendment and received for final consideration.

Question proposed: “That the Bill do now pass.”

Miss Ormonde: I thank the Minister for the speedy passage of this Bill through both Houses.

Mr. Neville: I concur with that thanks.

Mr. Magner: I also agree. It is probably a record.

An Cathaoirleach: Not really. I think 32 minutes is the record.

Mr. Magner: We are spoiling the Minister.

An Cathaoirleach: I regret to say the Minister does not hold the record.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 11.30 a.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.