Ireland’s Prime Minister calls on Trump to support illegal Irish immigrants as he unveils referendum

Enda Kenny, Ireland's prime minister, left, speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump
Olivier Douliery | Pool | Bloomberg

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny has called on President Donald Trump to help Irish immigrants in the U.S. as he unveiled a new referendum that will extend voting rights to citizens outside of Ireland.

Speaking at a St Patrick's Day luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Thursday, Kenny called on the new President to consider granting new working rights to the estimated 50,000 Irish citizens believed to be living illegally in the U.S., adding new urgency to an issue that has hung heavy over diplomatic relations between the two nations.

"I'd just like to say in finality, this is what I said to your predecessor on a number of occasions: We would like this to be sorted," Kenny said in an address to the President and a selection of delegates.

"It would remove a burden of so many people that they can stand out in the light and say, now I am free to contribute to America as I know I can."

The Taoiseach also called for further work visas for young people hoping to work in the U.S.

"There are millions out there who want to play their part for America – if you like, who want to make America great," he said, in a nod to the President's campaign slogan.

Kenny's comments came at the end of his first – and last – state visit under the new U.S. Presidency. Kenny, who has been Prime Minister since 2011, announced in February that he will not lead the Fine Gael party into the next election due next year.

President Trump said the occasion marked a celebration of "America's commitment to Ireland and the tremendous contributions."

"I know it well," he said. "The Irish immigrants and their descendants have made right here in the United States and throughout the world."

New rights for Irish overseas

Kenny's plea came as Ireland seeks to extend the rights of its global diaspora by holding a referendum which could enable Irish citizens worldwide to vote in Irish presidential elections.

If the decision is passed when it goes to a vote in Ireland, it will bring the country in line with more than 120 countries that have systems in place to allow citizens living abroad to partake in national elections.

This could extend the voting population of the Republic of Ireland from 4.4 million to up to 70 million people who claim Irish heritage. The vote would apply only to Presidential elections, and not Prime Ministerial elections.

"Today's announcement is a profound recognition of the importance that Ireland attaches to all of our citizens, wherever they may be," Kenny said speaking at an Irish Memorial in Philadelphia earlier this week.

It is an opportunity for us to make our country stronger by allowing all of our citizens resident outside the State, including our emigrants, to vote in future presidential elections.

Brexit 'bad for Britain'

The Taoiseach also used his first meeting as an opportunity to slam Britain's Brexit negotiations in a bid to secure future ties between the U.S. and Ireland.

He claimed that now, more than before, Ireland will be an important trading partner for the U.S., as it is set to become the only English-speaking country in the EU and a key point of access to trade.

"While we respect the UK's decision to leave the EU, I continue to believe it is bad for Britain, for Ireland and for Europe," Kenny said.

"Ireland is an important bridge between the US and the EU. Post Brexit, Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the EU, at the heart of the Single Market with unfettered access for companies, and in the Eurozone."

He also reiterated plans to stake a claim for companies planning to relocate from the U.K. to retain access to the EU.

"We want to be known as the best small country in the world for business. We will compete for mobile business from the U.K. that sees the value of and need for locating in the EU."

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