Check Against Delivery

I am grateful to Senator Power for raising this issue to give an opportunity for me, on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, to outline the numerous positive developments that have taken place in relation to the Irish visa regime since this Government came into power and, in particular, those developments in relation to China.

The commitment of this Government to the facilitation and growth of visits to Ireland from China is shown by the fact that Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service of the Department maintains a dedicated Visa Office in Beijing.  In general business visas are processed within two to five working days of receipt and visit visa applications for Chinese nationals within one to three weeks.  It should also be noted that the approval rate for visa applications lodged in China for travel to Ireland is 95% which compares very favourably internationally.  Application guidelines for all visa categories are published on the Irish Embassy website in English and Chinese.  Applications for visas for Ireland are made online on a user-friendly web-based form.  This is in contrast to many visa regimes which require the completion of lengthy paper application forms.

There is no evidence that the visa process is a barrier to tourist, business or family visits from China to Ireland.  In fact, the latest report of the European Tour Operators Association which examined the effect of visa obligations on tourists from India and China (covering the year 2010) showed that the figure for cancellations due to perceived visa delays reflected very favourably on Ireland with only 15% of clients reporting cancellations as against 21% for the Schengen area and 24% for the United Kingdom. 

This demonstrates that Ireland is not at a disadvantage to its main competitors due to any issue with perceived delays in visa processing.  The Minister is advised that the checking procedures and processes in place are at least on a par with the UK with whom we share a common immigration area and less onerous than those in place for many other EU member states.  Of far greater impact on both tourism and business visits is the lack of a direct air link between the two countries. If the Senator has a particular case in mind or has suggestions which would further improve the situation while at the same time maintaining sensible immigration checks, the Minister would of course be glad to receive them form her.

The Minister launched the Short-stay Visa Waiver Programme, the first of programme of its kind in the history of the State, on 1 July 2011.  This allows visitors or business people, including those from China, who have lawfully entered the UK, including Northern Ireland, on a valid UK visa, to travel on to Ireland without the requirement to obtain an Irish visa.  CSO figures for the numbers of trips by Chinese nationals to Ireland show that there was a 24% increase in the twelve months following the introduction of the Waiver Programme compared to the twelve months before.  This demonstrates a real positive impact of the Government’s initiative.

With effect from 1 August, 2012, a more liberal multi-entry visa regime for business travellers and other visitors was implemented in the Irish Visa Office in Beijing. This regime has been extended to regular family visitors with a good immigration history.  The Minister has asked his officials to examine how this regime could be further developed.

In recognition of the growing number of affluent and independent tourists from China, a scheme to enable independent Chinese travellers to come to Ireland was introduced in November 2011. The category was formally launched by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny during the course of his official visit to China in April 2012. The visa application requirements for independent tourists are minimal and I am informed that Tourism Ireland has welcomed this initiative. This category of visa application is processed within 10 working days.

In relation to Chinese nationals visiting Ireland for study purposes, in 2012 a pilot programme in respect of English Language study was developed jointly between  the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) and Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), the umbrella body for English language schools, for the Chinese market.

This programme seeks to target high quality, motivated English language students and aims to develop the market in a sustainable way. The programme is designed to significantly contribute to the development of Ireland’s reputation as a premier destination for Chinese students to achieve a high standard in English language education. The programmes are at an early stage and it is important that they be given sufficient time to grow and develop before a final review is undertaken. However, progress under these programmes is reviewed on an ongoing basis.

Of course, all of these positive developments must be balanced against protecting the country's vital national interests by maintaining an effective immigration regime which is a feature of all visa regimes worldwide.  All visa applications must be assessed carefully to determine, as far as possible, that the applicants will abide by the conditions of their visa and will not become a burden on the State.  These concerns apply most pertinently in cases where elderly relatives are seeking to visit their relations in Ireland which is a common feature of visa applications from China. Such applications are not straightforward and present issues which all countries must address.  Nevertheless, the 95% approval rate for visa applications from China demonstrates that the checks and safeguards in place, in the long run, allow for the vast majority of persons seeking to visit their relatives to do so.

4 July 2013