In my time in the United States the issue about which I have received most correspondence has not been the Belfast Agreement, Brexit or the Irish economy, but rather Government plans to facilitate ordinary Americans to retire in Ireland.
A lot of this correspondence followed a speech delivered by Leo Varadkar, then tánaiste, to a conference of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Pennsylvania last summer.
The idea for such a scheme has been knocking around for a number of years – championed by people like former minister Charlie Flanagan.
In 2018 the then government announced the Ireland-USA Diaspora Retiring to Ireland programme, which would have offered residency visas to Americans aged between 55 and 75. It was hoped the offer would be a quid pro quo for the E3 Visa Bill that was before the US Congress at the time. But both plans stalled when a congressional majority could not be secured.
Varadkar revived the Irish initiative in his speech last July, and suggested it could “help us to continue to make the case” for US immigration reform that could benefit “young people who would like to work in United States and undocumented Irish already in the US”.
The speech came after a number of politicians on Capitol Hill last year sought to resurrect the immigration reform plan that could see potentially several thousand Irish people with specific qualifications secure surplus E3 visas to live and work in the US. However, that move fizzled out in the US Senate after the midterm elections in November. This process would now have to be restarted in a more uncertain political environment in which Republicans control the House of Representatives.
Varadkar told the Ancient Order of Hibernians that “work is progressing on how the details of the scheme will work”.
Previously it had been envisaged that US citizens seeking to move to Ireland under such arrangements would “be entitled to bring accompanying spouses, to work 20 hours per week, undertake voluntary work and study in Ireland, though full private health insurance would be required”. Yet in the months after the speech in Pittsburgh little if anything was heard further about such a scheme – which in turn prompted the queries to The Irish Times office in Washington about its status.
The whole issue is also potentially politically sensitive in Ireland amid claims from some quarters that it could allow wealthy Americans to compete with Irish people for scarce properties, exacerbating the housing crisis.
In Washington last week the Taoiseach told me that “to be frank there has not been much progress” on the issue in recent months.
“It is a still work in progress, though, and it is something we want to do. We are not talking huge numbers of people. But there are people who are American citizens and who have an Irish-American background and who want to retire in Ireland. I think it makes sense that we should try to facilitate them. It is not going to be huge numbers. And despite what some people have been trying to make out, it is certainly not going to put pressure on our housing or health system in my view.”
The Taoiseach did not have a timescale for implementing such an initiative.
Ancient Order of Hibernians president Danny O’Connell said his organisation had originally proposed the retire-in-Ireland measures “because they make economic sense” and would “keep ties vibrant”.
At present immigration from Ireland to the US runs at a trickle. There has not been any large mass movement of people from Ireland to the US in more than 30 years. Advocates of the retirement scheme proposals contend that it would foster or reinforce personal and family links between the two countries that may become more distant in the absence of renewed immigration from Ireland.
The danger for the Government is that any retirement scheme might get enmeshed in domestic political arguments over housing and healthcare even if it believes that the potential numbers involved would be quite small.
As a quid pro quo for an immigration deal for Irish people or an initiative for the undocumented in the US, the retirement scheme would, arguably, be easier to sell.
The Government is still behind the retirement proposal. However, as a stand-alone initiative it may still take some time to bring to fruition.