Billy Lawless: A Former Emigrant Senator's Musings

It has often been said that you don't miss something until it's gone. Under lockdown, I can imagine that there are many 'at home' reminiscing fondly about their last pint in the local or harkening back to a time, when their daily activities had not been curtailed by a global pandemic.
Billy Lawless: A Former Emigrant Senator's Musings
The Irish Famine Memorial on the North Quay in Dublin. Photo:PA

It has often been said that you don't miss something until it's gone.

Under lockdown, I can imagine that there are many 'at home' reminiscing fondly about their last pint in the local or harkening back to a time, when their daily activities had not been curtailed by a global pandemic. It's only human nature, as they say.

Yet, perhaps, the old adage has not rung quite as true for Irish emigrants.

Ireland has had a curious relationship with the people of her diaspora, who for many years felt as though they were gone, but not quite missed. Many emigrants have reported feeling abandoned or disconnected from home as the years went by.

Maybe history had a part to play. Did we try to bury the collective trauma of the Famine that forced more than a million people to board the coffin ships? Was there a sense of national guilt that so many of our young had to leave after the foundation of the State to make a living elsewhere? Was there resentment from those who remained towards those who had left?

These are poignant questions, which historians and commentators alike have mused for decades, but one thing is clear: it has only been in recent years that we have meaningfully engaged with our diaspora of 70 million people worldwide.

In 2014, the former Taoiseach Enda Kenny created the first post of Minister for the Diaspora and in 2016 he appointed me to Seanad Eireann as Senator for the Diaspora.

I was no stranger to the emigrant story myself, having been born into a dairy family in Galway but ending up in the restaurant business in Chicago.

Businessman and Former Senator, Billy Lawless
Businessman and Former Senator, Billy Lawless

It was there, in my Irish-themed pub, that I encountered first-hand the undocumented Irish of America. They were going through many of the challenges that you would expect from a vulnerable population; far from home with no safety-net or legal status.

When they asked me for help, I couldn't help but step up.

With the aid of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform, we campaigned for US immigration reform that would provide them legal status and for state drivers’ licenses that would at least allow them to get to work without fear of being deported.

We were successful in 2013 in passing the Illinois Temporary Visitor Driver's License law that saw 250,000 undocumented immigrants from all ethnic persuasions secure a license (and more importantly the proper insurance to be on the roads).

That paved the way for 13 other US states and territories to bring their own laws onto the books.

After my appointment to Seanad Eireann, we didn't shy away from the issue of immigration reform. However, congressional gridlock in Washington, DC, where all matters related to immigration remain politically polarised, meant that all progress has stalled for now.

While we have actively discouraged Irish citizens going to America with no visa in tow, I have worked hard to ensure that Ireland gets dealt a fair hand with other US work-visas.

Bipartisan support for Ireland remains strong on Capitol Hill, where, with Special Envoy Deputy Deasy and Irish community groups, we championed the E3 Visa Bill.

This legislation redirects unused Australian E3 Visas to Ireland, which could see us securing up to 5,000 two-year, renewable work-visas every year. The bill passed the House of Representatives by unanimous consent on March 10 of this year and has been introduced to the Senate, where it also has strong bipartisan support.

The Coronavirus crisis has halted its progress for now, but to have gotten it to where it is, speaks to the huge influence that Ireland and her diaspora still have in Washington.

It particularly highlights the importance of building political relationships in a town where the Irish community knows their elected representatives by name and are not afraid to call on them.

"All politics is local" said the famous Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. But I would go one step further and argue that all politics is personal. I had grown deep roots in the Chicago Irish community and those roots reached all the way to Washington.

I would encourage all future governments to build upon this model of diaspora representation in the Seanad with actual members of the global Irish community. We bring a very different dimension to the work of government by highlighting the lived experience of the Irish abroad.

We know personally the impact of government policies, or lack thereof, in our own lives, such as problems securing an Irish driver's license or getting access to a primary school for our children should we return home. I have made it my mission in the Seanad to highlight these stumbling blocks and while we have made great progress, much more remains to be done.

Many of today's emigrants do not fit the stereotype of the son or daughter who left never to return. Emigrants today tend to be highly educated or equipped with a skilled trade.

They leave, either with a wanderlust or a desire to gain new experience, but they always express a strong desire to return home in the not so distant future.

This new face of the diaspora requires us to rethink our relationship with Irish citizens with deep roots at home, which are augmented by the virtual reality of an instant web connection.

For this reason, I welcomed the Government's commitment to supporting a referendum on voting rights in presidential elections for Irish citizens living abroad and in Northern Ireland.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, to his credit, has always expressed firm support for holding such a referendum. As a founding member of VotingRights.ie, we saw immediately the benefit of extending the franchise to Irish people who still feel they have 'skin in the game'.

They may have left for a time but they want to stay connected and relevant to the home that they have left. This was never so apparent until the Home to Vote movement took off with many engaged, young people returning home to cast their ballots in the Marriage Equality and 8th Amendment referendums.

The appetite is certainly there among the Irish electorate and if 24 of the 27 EU countries can do it, then so can we.

If the recent Covid-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that our greatest treasure is our people.

The diaspora should be seen as Ireland's greatest asset beyond its physical borders and all attempts should be made to keep our people abroad invested in Ireland's future.

We are facing the biggest challenge since the foundation of the State, as we dig ourselves out of the COVID-19 pandemic, whose economic implications will be felt for generations to come.

I have no doubt that our diaspora communities in America and beyond will play a crucial role in rebuilding a prosperous future. They stand ready to help and ask only to be engaged.

- Businessman, Billy Lawless, emigrated to Chicago from Galway in 1998 with his wife Anne and family.

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