CHECK AGINST DELIVERY
Good morning everyone. I am delighted to attend this meeting. I know that my colleague, Minister Stanton, has been most actively engaged in chairing this important forum and I am pleased to have an opportunity to join you today. This Committee is dealing with a policy area of critical importance to the current and future wellbeing of our society. The successful integration of newcomers into communities across the country is vital – both for the newcomers themselves, and for the communities in which they make their homes.
Large scale inward migration to Ireland is no longer a new phenomenon. There are many long-established migrant communities in Ireland. There are also recent arrivals. Many migrants to Ireland are well-placed to integrate successfully here, and many do so. But for others, there are barriers to integration that require a public policy response.
Coming from the town of Portlaoise, I have particular insights. My home town was one of the places where Vietnamese people settled in the aftermath of the horrific conflict in their country. The country welcomed just over 200 so-called ‘Boat People’ in 1979 and a number settled in Portlaoise where they integrated well into the community. In more recent decades however, the pace of change has been phenomenal. Portlaoise has doubled in size and its population now comes from all over the world. In the 2016 census, Non-Irish nationals accounted for 10 per cent of the population of Laois. The fact that this figure refers to the county as a whole unfortunately does not capture the situation in Portlaoise which is the major population centre. Nonetheless, the census recorded that 8,253 persons spoke a language other than Irish or English at home and of these 1,712 could not speak English well or at all. This gives a small insight into the challenges that present in my home town as just one example.
Our vision for an integrated society is one in which migrants are facilitated to play a full part in Irish society - a society in which migrants have the opportunities they need to lead full lives; to enjoy the benefits of living in Ireland; and to make a contribution to Irish life and society. For this vision to be a reality, we need a coherent strategy – and that is what makes your work so important.
This involves, for example, ensuring that public service providers – right across the board – are serving their migrant customers in ways that help to reduce and eliminate barriers to integration. This can mean that additional targeted supports are needed for migrant customers to help ensure that they are able to access services on a like basis with the native population. Let us recall that all public sector bodies have a legal duty to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights in their daily work.
This work is not only essential from the perspective of equality and human rights, but also as a means of promoting social cohesion. The links between social exclusion and extremism are complex and I have no wish to draw any simplistic conclusions in such a sensitive area. However, it is widely acknowledged that poorly integrated groups who experience social exclusion and lack a positive sense of belonging within wider society can be at particular risk of radicalisation. This brings a special urgency to our work – to your work - in this area.
We have an opportunity to learn from and avoid the mistakes of other countries who experienced significant population changes decades ahead of such changes reaching our shores.
Integration cuts across all aspects of broader social inclusion policy. Key indicators of integration are concerned with employment, with education, with health, with poverty reduction, with access to housing, with civic and political participation. These are public policy areas well beyond the remit of my own Department of Justice and Equality. I cannot overstate the importance of working together on this agenda. No one Department or Agency can do what needs to be done if we are to succeed. And in that context I am particularly pleased that we have the contribution of many of the key non-governmental organisations working in this area.
The four year national Migrant Integration Strategy gives us a very useful framework for action. I know that there is a lot of important work underway within this framework and I look forward to hearing more about it at today’s meeting. I encourage you all to prioritise this work and to approach it with creativity. This is a policy area that needs innovative approaches. No one has all the answers on integration. The Strategy is intended to be a living document with the flexibility to adapt, and I encourage you to make use of that. I will bring a report to Government later this year on progress under the Strategy and look forward to further engagement with this Committee in that context.