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Health Issues for the Irish Community in both the US and UK


Minister Deenihan - Joint Committee on Health and Children

Health Issues for the Irish Community in both the US and UK

11 December 2014


Chairman, members of the committee, I am delighted to be here with you this morning.

I am also very pleased to see Dr Mary Tilki and Jennie McShannon from Irish in Britain and Brian O’Dwyer and Mike Carroll of the Emerald Isle Centre in New York here too.

The primary objective of the Emigrant Support Programme, which is run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is to address the needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable Irish emigrants. It has a number of objectives. Those most relevant to our discussion today are:

  • supporting equitable access for Irish emigrants and community organisations to statutory and voluntary services
  • promoting the development of responses from the voluntary sector which reflect the diverse needs of the emigrant Irish community
  • supporting the professional development of the Irish abroad voluntary sector and encouraging best practice and capacity building

Since taking up my position as Ireland’s first ever Minister for Diaspora Affairs I have had the opportunity to visit many of our Irish communities in the traditional areas of emigration including London, New York, Philadelphia, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth. I have also visited some of our newer Irish communities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur. In all of these locations I have witnessed the Emigrant Support Programme at work.

I would like to pay tribute to Mary, Jennie, Brian, and Mike, and of course the many others like them, who work day in, day out to help improve the lives of Irish people all over the world. Without people like these the work the Government does, and funding provided by the Emigrant Support Programme to organisations that provide vital services to Irish communities would not have the impact that is does.

The Emigrant Support Programme works in partnership with organisations like Irish in Britain and the Emerald Isle Centre across the globe. The main focus of the Programme is to support the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the Irish community overseas.

In the main, the funding provided under the Emigrant Support Programme enhances the lives and wellbeing of the people it supports either through outreach services for the elderly, lonely and the vulnerable, and through the provision of health services such as those provided for individuals suffering with mental health issues. In general, it does not provide services directly but enables people access those services to which they are entitled locally.

In the past ten years the ESP has provided over €114m to over 200 organisations in over 20 countries. Most of this funding has gone on welfare with 72% of the total budget allocation between 2009 and 2013 going to this area. In Britain this figure is even higher with a total of 86% of the monies granted to Britain going on welfare. This funding has had a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of many thousands of Irish emigrants during the course of the last decade.

Even though cultural and heritage projects are not directly related to health, the recent Clinton Institute report on “supporting the next generation of the Irish Diaspora” highlighted the therapeutic impact of culture on the Irish diaspora as a whole. It creates an environment where people can celebrate and be proud of their Irish identity.

In order to give you a sense of the depth and breadth of the Emigrant Support Programme and the type of work it supports, allow me highlight to you a number of different projects supported. While not all of these projects provide direct health services, these culturally sensitive programmes contribute greatly to both the physical and mental health of some of our most vulnerable countrymen and women.

Monica’s Place in Birmingham, specialises in taking care of elderly Irish men with significant alcohol issues, in the Birmingham area. Monica’s Place provides accommodation in three residential houses and also assists this vulnerable group with practical, social and emotional support to meet their physical and mental health needs.

The Emigrant Support Programme supports a number of housing associations in the UK, for example Innisfree Housing Association, providing homes for vulnerable Irish people.

The Programme also provides funding for a significant number of elders groups in the UK, US and elsewhere that provide outreach, meals, companionship, education, arts and crafts, music as well as other practical health initiatives, like keep fit classes and specialist groups for those coping with Alzeihmer’s disease.

Dr Tilki here has done a lot of work in the area of memory loss and the Cuimhne programme run by Irish in Britain is a wonderful example of this. It was for this, and much more of the work done by Mary, that saw her receive a Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad in 2013.

The primary aim of these elders groups is to ensure that the older members of the community do not become isolated or withdrawn and that they remain as active and as healthy as possible throughout their later years.

Welfare Centres in Australia provide support to the full range of the Irish community there from the older emigrants to the young people that travel around Australia as backpackers. I was in Australia recently and had a chance to meet with the people who run these centres and hear first-hand the stories of the people, young and old, that they help.

Also while in Australia, I met with a group called “Irish Families in Perth”. This group came in to being to provide support for families newly arrived or moving to Australia. With over 2,000 members, Irish Families in Perth help young families integrate into life in Australia, while at the same time, encouraging them to be part of the vibrant Irish community there.

In the US, the Emigrant Support Programme is an important partner in the work of Irish Immigration Centres across America such as the Emerald Isle Immigration Centre, including their umbrella organisation the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres (CIIC). These centres, similarly to those in Britain and Australia, provide outreach services to those who are vulnerable including the elderly and those with substance abuse issues. A key role for these centres is support for the undocumented Irish who are rendered vulnerable by their status which can have a negative impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.

I am delighted that President Obama recently took executive action on the issue of immigration reform, allowing those who meet the criteria and register, to be protected from deportation and given temporary legal status. Applications for this programme will open in 6 months. While this will by no means resolve the situation for all of the undocumented Irish it will help a considerable number of them. Those living without documentation have lived with the stress and strain of their situation. I have spoken recently to Irish people living in the US who have created employment there, who are paying taxes but who are living in terror of a knock on the door from the authorities. They live in constant fear that their families will be broken up. They live too with the fear of being in an accident or requiring medical treatment that they know they cannot afford. I hope that this action will bring some relief for such families.

For those that don’t qualify under the President’s action, and to ensure a long-term solution to this issue, the Taoiseach, Minister Flanagan and I will continue to press for comprehensive immigration reform by way of legislative action, as will our Embassy and Consulates in the US.

Since the announcement the immigration centres, in conjunction with our Embassy and Consulates, have held public information sessions with immigration lawyers to provide people with as much information as possible and to avoid any situations where people could be taken advantage of. I would strongly urge anyone in the states looking for information on the changes to contact their nearest immigration centre as a first step. These immigration centres have received €1.3m in funding from the ESP in 2014 and over €12m since 2004 showing the depth of the commitment that successive Governments have had to our emigrants in the US.

One particular issue that I am very concerned about is that of the mental health of our emigrants. This issue has come up during the consultation process for our Diaspora Policy review and also in the recent report on the Emigrant Support Programme. The Programme supports a number of mental health projects, primarily in Britain, that provide counselling service to those in distress. Organisations like ICAP (Immigrant Counselling and Psychotherapy), Console, who have in recent years expanded their services to the UK, New Horizons and Mind Yourself provide vital services to these people.

The Coalition of Immigration Centres in the US has done a lot of work in this area including the roll-out of suicide prevention training - QPR – Question, Persuade and Refer, across the immigration centres they represent. The GAA are also playing a role in raising awareness and providing support to people who need it.

I am delighted to announce here today that we are, for the first time, providing funding to Pieta House to support their work internationally among emigrants. Pieta House will this week receive a grant of $90,200 (€72, 258) to help introduce their crisis intervention services for those considering suicide and self harm to the United States. They will pilot this project in conjunction with the three main Irish centres in New York; the Aisling Centre, the New York Irish Centre and the Emerald Isle Immigration Centre that Brian and Mike represent. This pilot project will create a “Pieta Room” in the New York Irish Centre and will be the main point of referral for Irish people in crisis in the New York area. In addition, Pieta House will work with the GAA to bring the Pieta “Mind Your Buddy” campaign to GAA clubs in New York.

Once again, I am delighted to be able to appear before you today to talk to you about how the health and wellbeing of our emigrants is at the core of the work of the Emigrant Support Programme and the Irish Abroad Unit in my Department. It is fundamental to much of what we do and as the first ever Minister for the Diaspora, it gives me great pleasure to be in a position to highlight the work that is supported by this Programme and bring focus to the issues that impact on the lives of our families overseas.