IRELAND’S newly-appointed Diaspora Minister has said that gathering the views of the Irish abroad on social issues such as abortion has “nothing whatsoever” to do with his role.
In a move that some members of the Irish community in Britain will see as a snub, Jimmy Deenihan has said that it is not his job to listen to and communicate emigrants’ views on issues such as Ireland’s abortion laws or gay marriage.
Instead, he told The Irish Post that emigrants wishing to express their views should go elsewhere.
“I would suggest that they write to the Minister for Health in Ireland or the Taoiseach,” he said.“That is certainly not my role and I do not want to pretend to people that I have another role.”
The minister, whose new role has 'special responsibility for the Irish abroad', added: “The only issue I am interested in as regards emigrants is getting them a vote in the Presidential election and they have my full support for that.”
The Fine Gael TD’s comments come after crowds gathered outside London’s Irish Embassy last month to declare their “shame” at their home country’s abortion laws.
“It is embarrassing to be an Irish person in England and have news like this break internationally with people asking you if that is what it is really like in Ireland,” said Cork woman Hazel Nolan, one of the 150 people at the demonstration.
“And it is even worse because as Irish people abroad we cannot vote at home and do not have anybody to represent our views.”
Masses of Irish people around the world also spoke out online after a suicidal woman was denied an abortion.
But both sides of the debate are to be ignored by the Diaspora Minister, who it was hoped would use his role to give emigrants a strong voice within the Irish Government for the first time.
And in a second blow, Mr Deenihan said that the Irish abroad will have no say in next year’s gay marriage referendum adding that if they want to be heard then they should contact another minister.
“There is no mechanism through which they can vote [in the referendum],” he said. “It is the same as voting in the Dáil. But they can voice their opinions on it obviously through the line minister.”
Mr Deenihan explained that he views his new role as one that would largely focus on Presidential votes and Ireland’s economic relationship with its emigrants.
“My role is just on issues like welfare in centres, the future the Irish Diaspora will play maybe by giving them votes in Presidential elections and votes in the Senate,” he said.
“That is very strictly my role. It will be a business role as well and an economic role. I will be putting a major emphasis on that.”
The news comes after emigrant rights group We’re Coming Back claimed to have received a “huge volume of emails” from Irish people asking about their right to vote in the gay marriage poll scheduled for next spring.
“These people are coming to us because they want to participate – as Irish citizens – in one of the most important political chapters in the history of their generation,” wrote the group on the Irish Times website on Friday before thousands took to the streets of Dublin on Sunday to march in support of gay marriage.
Mr Deenihan’s comments are also likely to dismay those who thought his role would offer more than a tokenistic nod to the Irish abroad.
After his appointment by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the new role in July, Jennie McShannon of the Irish in Britain charity called on him to bring “the views, aspirations and contribution of the Diaspora straight to the decision makers in Leinster House”.
Others were less optimistic with Claire Barry, director of London-based Irish charity Mind Yourself, stating that the role is “symbol over substance”.
Hopes were raised after it was pointed out that Mr Deenihan supported a failed 1991 Dáil bill to let Irish people keep their voting rights after emigrating.
Speaking at the time about his experience of Irish communities in Britain, Australia and the US, he said: “They all had one thing in common, they felt they were not recognised in their own country and when they had left our shores they were forgotten.”
He added: “They want some say in how their country is run. We have never given them the recognition or the opportunity to do that.”