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Martina Devlin: We must tread carefully selling residency for jobs

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I suspect Alan Shatter unwinds at night in front of a boxed set of the 'Blackadder' series because there's a definite hint of "I have a cunning plan" in his latest proposal. It's a scheme to award residency rights to foreign entrepreneurs and investors, in return for creating or saving jobs in Ireland.

On the face of it, as a cash-strapped country we must shake our money-maker wherever a market exists. But the figures associated with this Cabinet-backed suggestion bring the hapless Baldrick to mind.

Mr Shatter prices a two-year term of residency, reviewable for extension, at €75,000 if an applicant has an approved start-up business idea in the innovation line. And €500,000 could open doors for an immigrant investor.

Cheap at the price. After all, we're bartering a commodity with value. Back when Haughey ran the country on a droit de seigneur basis, we expected passports to change hands for £1m.

Residency isn't citizenship, of course, but it can be a stepping stone -- after five years, residents are entitled to submit naturalisation applications. The Department of Justice confirmed yesterday that ordinary rules would operate in this case, but there would be no fast-tracking.

However, we've strayed into George Bernard Shaw territory already. The principle of being on the counter, displaying our wares, is established -- as a number of Arab sheikhs can testify. Currently, we're merely haggling about price.

Still, to my mind, we either agree to put residency on sale at a handsome figure, or we decline to sell under any conditions. But Mr Shatter is suggesting a third way: a low price tag but with possible job benefits.

Under the infamous passports-for-sale regime, certain politicians viewed passports as gifts they could pull out of their back pockets. "Here's something for yourself." "Thanks, big fella."

The decade-long scheme capsized in 1998, under a tidal wave of scandal, although the Fianna Fail-led government unravelled its money-spinner with reluctance.

That was 14 years ago, you may say: it could never happen again. Our political class has matured, our citizens would never tolerate such skulduggery. Maybe yes, maybe no.

But as soon as Mr Shatter mentioned offering Irish residency on the open market, my anxiety levels soared. His intentions are undoubtedly good, but we all know how the road to hell is paved.

I accept he is trying to tackle joblessness. Inaction is sinful, as Dante outlined in 'The Divine Comedy', when he spies a group called the Uncommitted near hell's entrance, who did nothing for either good or evil in life. Their punishment is constant stinging by wasps, while insects gorge on their blood and tears.

At least Mr Shatter's initiative saves him from such a fate. However, his bona fides don't mean we should automatically roll out the welcome mat -- "once bitten twice shy" is the guideline.

Any job stimulus must receive serious consideration because unemployment is the most crippling problem facing this State. Without jobs there can be no recovery. But let's be wary of residency arrangements that don't carry obvious jobs benefits. Calling it residency and specifying the term doesn't disguise its potential for abuse.

The Department of Justice insists all "English-speaking advanced economies" operate similar schemes -- but all English-speaking "advanced" economies don't mirror our track record on corruption.

In 2001, then foreign minister Brian Cowen was forced to admit to the Dail that former Taoiseach Charles Haughey gave Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law an Irish passport in "dubious" circumstances. Sheikh Mahfouz was described as a major financial backer of Bin Laden.

And in 1992, citizenship was granted to the wife and son of a wealthy Palestinian after he lent €1.1m to then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds's pet food company.

Clearly, passports were doled out like junk mail.

Speaking in the Seanad in 2003, Senator Feargal Quinn noted that while some worthwhile investments were made, many applications "turned out badly".

He said: "Some of the 107 granted citizenship were very dubious characters, some of the promised investments never materialised, and some of the promised jobs were never created. Some of the money involved seems to have entered the pockets of middlemen who specialised in facilitating this very process."

In 1988, as today, the overwhelming concern was job creation, and inward investment seemed to be a route map towards the holy grail. But if a foreign Money Bags was generous towards a politician, it led to the distinct likelihood of a passport with a harp on it -- conferred not just on that single individual, but on others in his circle.

The benefits of an Irish passport remain considerable. Citizens enjoy easy movement within the EU; they are free to live and work in any member country without applying for residence or work permits. Tax advantages are another enticement -- why else did members of the Getty dynasty apply for (and receive) passports under the scheme?

If Mr Shatter's initiatives proceed, they must be policed thoroughly. This is a reflection, not on the Justice Minister, but on our past experience. Transparency has to be guaranteed, with precise terms stipulated and published -- none of that "a nod's as good as a wink" mentality of the passports-for-sale era. The good character of the applicants should also be vetted.

For confidence to be upheld, it is essential that the public can see the proposals put forward to win residency -- and whether they are subsequently honoured. If a certain number of jobs are pledged, then those jobs must be delivered. After all, promises may be discarded as quickly as made.

Above all, this idea must be taken out of the hands of politicians. Mr Shatter acknowledges that state agencies have a role to play, and I say it is absolutely essential that the schemes should be overseen by an outside entity.

"A large crisis requires a large plan," Rowan Atkinson noted in 'Blackadder IV'. Wisely, Mr Shatter refuses to speculate on the Government's expectations here. But we can safely conclude that what was revealed yesterday is neither a large plan nor a cunning one.

The best we can say is that it has possibilities if properly monitored. Then again, green shoots are better than none at all.

Martina Devlin tweets @DevlinMartina

Irish Independent