The devastating economic legacy inherited by this Government demands that we fundamentally re-examine what we do and look for new approaches. Our economic difficulties may be daunting but they also present us with an opportunity to question existing practices, how we do business and the role of Government Departments.
For too long Government has made piecemeal decisions and policy has developed on a fragmented departmental basis. The traditional economic Ministries have usually exclusively addressed economic issues and other Ministries have concentrated on their discrete areas of responsibility. Neither the Department of Justice nor the Department of Defence would, in the past, have been perceived as having something substantial to contribute to economic growth or job creation in the private sector.
Insofar as the Department of Justice has impacted on the economy, it has been essentially in a regulatory sense - for example, in the context of prescribing the rules applicable to publicans and off licences or relating to the legal profession or to insolvency. Yet decisions made in these areas impact not just on public order issues or on curtailing unacceptable practices within the legal profession or in protecting creditors, they also impact on how business operates, on the capacity of business to create and sustain jobs and on the wider domestic economy. There are a broad range of initiatives that can be taken in the Justice area not only to modernise and reform our laws and increase competition in a manner that ensures we properly address the issues and dilemmas of this 21st century but also to ensure our laws do not act as a barrier to growth and recovery and contribute to job creation.
It is not only a question of law reform. There is much that can be done in how we administer our existing laws and improve administrative practices that can contribute to economic development, reduce the costs of Government and generate confidence in our future. Reforming inefficient bureaucratic practices no longer fit for purpose has much to contribute and I will return to this theme another day.
In the area of innovation, research and development, business start ups and job creation I believe also that, in addition to playing their important traditional roles, the Department of Defence and our Defence Forces have much to contribute. I visited the Naval Base at Haulbowline in Cork on Monday and the National Maritime College of Ireland and I am hugely impressed with the links between the Navy, the College and innovative small companies developing products in collaboration with the Naval Service, to the benefit of the Service, that have the potential to create substantial employment in the future and contribute to our export growth. There is a great deal more that can be done in this area by companies collaborating with our Defence establishment to the benefit of our Defence Forces, as a contribution to economic growth and to the overall benefit of the country. This is an area I intend as Minister of two great Departments of Government served by talented public servants to vigorously pursue.
I now want to turn to the specific initiative I am announcing today with regard to the area of visas which are the responsibility of the Department of Justice. It has been my view for some time that there is a need to ensure that our visa regulatory framework does not act as a barrier to our expanding our tourist industry and as a disincentive to potential visitors to this State. In the context of the dramatic contraction that has occurred in the number of tourist visitors to Ireland I believe it is vital to ensure that this State is an easily accessible and attractive holiday and business destination and that the tens of thousands who visit the UK as our immediate neighbour have an incentive to also spend some time with us on this island. Whilst the UK and American markets have been a central focal point for our tourist industry, I have for some time believed that a lot more can be done to attract tourists to this State from growing and emerging markets and to make visits here a good deal easier.
In this context, I am very happy to announce the details of a very significant initiative in the area of visa liberalisation. The programme will be on a pilot basis but it is capable of being extended if all goes well.
As things stand, a person who is coming to the UK for a short term visit and who needs a visa from the UK authorities makes an application and pays the necessary fees. However if that person wants to include Ireland on their itinerary they require a separate visa and have to repeat the same form filling and procedure with the Irish authorities and await the decision on their visa application. They also have to pay the Irish visa fee. It is not difficult to see how this can be a disincentive to those who might want to consider a trip to Ireland as an "add-on" to the UK. Given the large number of tourists annually visiting the UK and, in particular, those who will visit for the 2012 Olympics, Ireland risks losing out on a substantial tourism spin off.
We also have people from visa required countries who come to the UK to do business and who presently might, for the same bureaucratic reasons, be dissuaded from flying to Ireland for additional business meetings.
The nature of the new arrangement is as follows:
Nationals of 14 countries, who ordinarily need a visa to enter the State (at a cost of €60), who obtain a visa to enter the UK for a short term visit up to 180 days and want to travel from there to Ireland will not require an additional visa for Ireland. The countries to whom the scheme applies are as follows.
Nationals from Eastern Europe
United Arab Emirates
Other Asian Countries
Peoples’ Republic of China
This list will, of course, be kept under review in the light of experience and other countries may be added to it over the course of the programme.
This is a major change in public policy – it is the first time that Ireland has contemplated such a programme and, as such, it is proposed that it be pilot-tested from July of this year to October 2012.
From the perspective of potential visitors it saves them the inconvenience of applying for visas and all the associated (but necessary) form filling and document submission. Additionally, there are significant cost savings, for example; if a family of 4 from, for example, India want to travel to Ireland as part of trip to London, the cost of visas to them currently would be €240. This will be zero from July. Last year approximately 30,000 people were issued visas from the participating countries to come here. These visitors helped to provide and maintain jobs in our economy. This new measure provides the potential for substantial growth in our visitor numbers and a much needed boost for our tourism industry.
This is not a simple stroke of a pen measure. Immigration is a complex issue and anytime you want to bring in changes you have to think very carefully about what you are doing. Immigration abuse is a major issue with potential to expose the exchequer to very substantial losses if you get things wrong. However, my officials have looked at the potential risks and are satisfied that the way the scheme is set out addresses any concerns that there might be in that area. Of particular importance is that the persons concerned have already entered the UK legally on foot of a valid visa and having passed through immigration control there.
The Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK is a cornerstone of the close relationship between our two countries. It has survived many threats over the years and remains alive and well. It has been a major influence in economic development, commerce and tourism and is indispensable to tens of thousands of people on this island as they go about their daily lives. Today's announcement will serve to further underscore that close relationship and our common interest in protecting, nurturing and enhancing it. What makes the Common Travel Area possible is the close co-operation between our two countries in immigration and security matters and in protecting our collective borders. I believe that the measures I am introducing will enhance the potential of the Common Travel Area to deliver economic benefits to this State.
I am not, of course, going so far as to suggest that these measures will transform our tourism industry but they have the potential, if properly followed through, to significantly increase our tourist visitor numbers. Of course, the vast majority of our tourists presently come from the UK, the rest of the EU and the United States and they don’t need visas at all. What these measures will do is allow the industry to pursue with confidence new opportunities in emerging markets for "add on" tourism from people going to the UK. The pilot period for the new scheme will include the London Olympics. Together with the availability of cheap online flights and ferries, it should open up the possibility of attracting a significant number of new visitors to this State at low cost to them. It will also help tourism on an all Ireland basis so that key market visa required travellers in Northern Ireland can now come south as part of their trip.
The new arrangements announced today are both a challenge and an opportunity to all airlines and shipping companies that provide services between Ireland and the UK to target for new business the 14 countries named and I look forward to their responding to this new opportunity to create new customer markets.
In addition, special arrangements will be put in place to facilitate visits by nationals of the listed countries who are long-term residents in the UK and for visitors on cruise liners. In the case of the latter, the Department has very recently agreed a set of procedures with representatives of cruise liners which will facilitate the easy embarkation of passengers at ports. It was indicated that over 80 cruise liners – some with over 2,000 passengers – are likely to call at Irish ports this season.
While the need for immigration control is undiminished I am committed to the Department of Justice and Equality taking on an increasingly proactive role in using our immigration system as a tool to assist economic development. We will do so in a sensible way in consultation with colleagues and will use the accumulated expertise in immigration matters to inform policy changes. Any changes we make will be very carefully considered.
I do not see these reform measures as the end of a process but rather as a significant new beginning and an important milestone in the Justice Department’s contribution to the roadmap to recovery. There are more things we want to do in this area. For example we have to look at how we can configure our immigration system so that it does more to encourage entrepreneurship and investment. My Department is drawing up proposals in this area at present and will be working through these with the relevant stakeholders shortly.
We are also working on revamping our immigration categories to provide a more diversified set of permissions that can be better tailored to cater for different migration scenarios.
We will continue to reform the student immigration system, working in tandem with the Department of Education and Skills and the State Agencies involved in the promotion of Ireland as a high quality destination for international students.
The message I want to send today as the Minister responsible for immigration is the same as from other parts of Government. "Ireland is very much open for business". I am happy that my Department is able to make a significant contribution to that overall strategy and that it will continue to do so into the future.