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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, Immigrant Council of Ireland Conference,

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Good morning.

Thank you Brian for the invitation to speak here today.

There are three words I often use when welcoming dignitaries to Ireland: Céad míle fáilte.

Céad míle fáilte is not a marketing slogan.  It is an ancient Irish greeting, a promise of a welcome to visitors, friends and newcomers.

I believe if words are to have meaning then we should live our lives by them.

Ireland has been a nation of migrants for centuries. 

Pre-Celtic tribes from Spain and Celts from Central Europe.

Roman citizens from Britain like our patron Saint Patrick.

Vikings from Denmark and Norway who founded Dublin and Cork and many other cities on our island.  

French-speaking Normans, the English and Scottish planters. 

Even an Indian doctor who married an Irish nurse while both were migrants in the UK

Each brought a new infusion of knowledge, culture and wealth to Ireland enriching us before becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves.

In more recent years, migrants have come from Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, India, the Arab world, China, the Philippines and Brazil, and all around the world. 

I believe each wave of migration has enriched Ireland and infused our country with new knowledge, new ideas, new cuisine, words, art and music.  Migration brings with it challenges but I am convinced its benefits outweigh these many times over.

In recent weeks we have seen some of those challenges in communities all across our country. 

If people fear their community identity is under attack they will respond in ways we can understand, even if we don’t agree with it.

Some feel that trust with communities has been broken.  As a Government we are working to rebuild that trust, communicating better, and engaging with communities to show how their town or village will be enriched not diminished. 

It is never said – but is worth saying here – that there are no protests in communities that already have provision for refugees.  The fear of the new evaporates when it meets the reality.

So, we need to engage better with communities and listen and respond to their concerns.   

We also need to call out the scaremongering of those who seek to exploit local concerns for their own political, personal or outright racist reasons. 

The message we need to articulate – is that migration is a good thing for Ireland and enriches our society.   We all benefit from diversity and together we will be stronger for it.

Migration makes our economy stronger, our public services sustainable and our culture and society richer.

I see it when I attend citizenship ceremonies and look at the faces of new citizens and what this means for them.   I see it when I visit Facebook and Google or any of our other multinationals and I realise that a diverse workforce is one of the main attractions for locating here. It’s not just about tax or access to the ESM, it’s also about talent which in Ireland comes from all over the world.  I see it when I visit any of our hospitals and appreciate the diversity of those who look after our sick and our elderly.

Our public services simply would not function without migrants to staff it.

Diversity in Ireland is a reality and it is one of our greatest strengths. 

It is a strength that we are now one of the most diverse countries in the EU, with 17% of the population born outside Ireland.  It is a strength that our workforce is the third most international in Europe.  It is a strength that we are a place where people want to live and work.

I share your vision of a society that respects human rights and diversity, and believes that everyone, including people from a migrant background, should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

As a Government we have tried to match that vision with actions.

We committed the Irish Naval Service to the Mediterranean to disrupt human trafficking and rescue people at sea, and are willing to do so again in the future. 

We have taken in refugees who were stranded on board rescue ships and from camps when other countries would not.

We’ve made it easier to become a citizen, 120,000 people have become citizens since 2011 which is wonderful.

We have sought to regularise some of those who are undocumented, providing legal status to people who arrived as students but become undocumented, along with their families. Indeed, over 2,000 people were regularised last year under this scheme.

We think it’s a good example for the US to follow in regularising undocumented people there who arrived on student or working visas and overstayed, many of them Irish. We ask for no more from America than we do here already.

And, we will of course honour our EU pact commitment not to support general amnesty as that could compromise visa-free travel for our own citizens should we break it.

In Europe we have called for the establishment of a common refugee and asylum policy and system, to replace the current one.  A small number of countries shouldering the responsibility of providing refugees with a fresh start in Europe isn’t fair.

Burden sharing is essential if we are to meet the challenges of migration and subsequent integration.

At the same time, we stand firmly against illegal migration.   It should not be a controversial thing to say – although apparently it sometimes is – that you support legal migration but do not support illegal migration.

We will continue to step up our efforts to stop people being trafficked to Ireland illegally by gangs and also those who seek to enter Ireland with false documents and false stories no matter how small that number might be.

And we uphold the view and the law that people in need of International protection should seek it in the first country in which it is safe to do so.

I know the issue of Direct Provision is a hot topic at present.

Direct provision is an imperfect system, but not an inhumane one.  We have yet to come up with a better system but we are open to finding alternatives that are viable and affordable.

Meanwhile, we are improving standards in line with the McMahon report.

Newer accommodation, such as that in Ballinamore and Borrisokane, offers own-door self-catering accommodation.  We want to see more offered of a similarly high standard.   

And I have to say it does concern me to see people opposing reception centres in their neighbourhood or blocking migrants from moving into a local hotel under the guise of humanitarianism and opposition to direct provision.

Too often, the sad reality is that the alternative to direct provision is what happens in France, Greece and Italy, which is camps and containers. I am determined that we never get to that point in Ireland. 

Part of the solution is better consultation with communities.  That is important and it has worked in places around the country. We must also explain to people what direct provision is because some have a misconception about it.  So we need to consult with communities and we also need people to understand direct provision better – what it is and what it is not.

When we look at those who come to Ireland seeking a new life we need to ask ourselves do we see strangers, or do we see ourselves?

Our global diaspora includes the children of economic migrants, the grandchildren of exiles, the great-grandchildren of refugees.  

There was a time when we were ‘the tired, the poor, the huddled masses who yearned to breathe free’.   The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are part of our historical DNA. 

There was a time when we were despised for our poverty, feared for our religion, and viewed by nativists and nationalists to be a threat to people’s way of life.

Last March, when I visited the United States, I spoke of the need for greater toleration, respect and empathy in the world.

It came down to five simple words.

‘We are all God’s children’.

Our words abroad should also have meaning at home.

So I want to conclude with the same message today.

Is páistí Dé muidne go léir.

Thank you.