In Boston for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, Irish Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald heaped praise on the network of bodies who work to better the lives of Irish immigrants in the city.
The Minister’s busy trip included visits to the Irish International Immigrant Center and the Irish Pastoral Center; an American Ireland Fund Young Leaders gathering; an Irish American Partnership Breakfast; an Irish Network Boston celebration; a visit to Newport, RI for the St Patrick’s Day Parade; and the Charitable Irish Society’s 275th anniversary dinner.
Speaking with The Irish Emigrant at the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC) on Thursday, the Minister said that the services offered by the IIIC and other groups in Boston are crucial, especially as more and more Irish arrive in the US every day.
“They’re a model for work with immigrants,” she said of the IIIC’s work, much of which is devoted to helping immigrants obtain US citizenship. “What’s really good about it is the wide range of services offered.
“It’s not just the access to citizenship. That’s critical of course, but so are the needs of the average person who comes in the front door. Their professionalism is very impressive. Having started with volunteers, the IIIC has now grown to a combination of full-time staff and volunteers, who all do what is a tough job.”
Sister Lena Deevy, the IIIC's executive director, said the Center was delighted with the visit and the chance to showcase its operations.
“The Minister's grasp of the issues and her understanding of the challenges facing immigrants, especially the undocumented, was impressive,” she said.
“She conveyed the Irish government's concern for its emigrants, and commented on the numbers leaving Ireland. The Minister was very impressed with IIIC's holistic approach to supporting immigrants in providing legal, wellness and education services.”
Asked about Ireland’s ongoing immigration crisis, Ms. Fitzgerald agreed the situation is grave, with the lack of a choice for Ireland’s youth being the government’s main concern.
“Emigration that is forced is not something that any government wants to see,” she said. “It’s great to see young people traveling the world getting experience, but we want people to have the choice of jobs at home or experience abroad. That’s been our priority for the past year and will remain so.
“The Diaspora has been extremely positive in terms of foreign direct investment and support, [which was seen at] the Global Forum. We have five visiting TDs in North America at the moment, including the Taoiseach, so…we’re very conscious of our young people abroad.”
This jet-setting element has brought the government stinging criticism in recent weeks, but the Minister was adamant that it is necessary. For St. Patrick’s Day, as well as Minister Fitzgerald, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton visited New York, Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan was in Atlanta, and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton headed for the West Coast. The Taoiseach’s ongoing US trip takes in Chicago, Indiana, New York and Washington, DC. Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore traveled to Canada.
“[Such travel] has to be very targeted, with tight programs, done economically,” she said. “It’s not excessive, and it’s extremely important. I’d reject completely anyone who says it isn’t. Having seen the contribution our citizens based in America and elsewhere want to make in Ireland, I think we equally have to give them the message: ‘We want you, too.’ It certainly isn’t going to work if we do the opposite.”
Back to matters at home, on the long-discussed Irish referendum on children’s rights, the Minister said she feels common sense will prevail and the necessary amendments will be made. With very few explicit mentions of children at all, the Irish Constitution fails to recognize a child as a legal person in their own right, to which separate legal representation must be afforded.
“We have work to do, and it’s serious work,” she said. “The referendum I would see as a turning point in the history of child protection in Ireland. What we’re saying is that children matter as citizens themselves, their voices should be heard, and their best interests should be considered in judicial cases.
“We will have a debate in relation to it; I think that the vast majority of people will see that it’s the right thing to do. We will have that referendum this year.”
One of only a handful of women in the Cabinet, the Minister had some forthright views on the minor role played by women in Irish politics. Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton recently told an International Women’s Day event that she felt the number of women TDs and Senators in Irish politics was “disappointingly low,” but Ms. Fitzgerald went a step further, saying it left Ireland with “an unfinished democracy.”
“It’s a disgrace, an absolute disgrace,” she said. “I don’t think it’s good enough to have two or three women in the Cabinet. I think the reason for that is because there are less women in the Dail overall, just 15 percent.
“I’m very proud that this government is bringing in quota legislation so that on the tickets, when people are being selected, any political party that gets money has to have 30 percent of women selected across the country on their ticket.”
The legislation she referred to is the Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Bill 2011, published in December, which will halve State funding to parties unless conditions are met for the next general election.
“It’s very strong, positive legislation,” she said. “It’s needed - otherwise we’ll be waiting 100 years to get 40 or 50 percent women [within] Irish politics. And I think low numbers of women does determine the quality of debate – it changes the nature of the debate.”