Like so many others who are concerned about the ongoing plight of the tens of thousands of undocumented Irish men and women in the United States, I was delighted to read last week that An Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, has selected Billy Lawless as one of his nominees to Seanad Éireann (the upper house of the Irish Parliament). He is an excellent and uniquely well-qualified choice.
Billy Lawless is a Galway-born businessman who operated a number of hotels, restaurants and pubs – the still-booming Taaffe’s Pub on Shop Street in the city center was one of them – before immigrating to the US and settling in Chicago some 20 years ago. In that city, he started off in the bar business and now owns several high end restaurants.
Lawless has also been very active in the Irish community, particularly on the issue of the undocumented Irish, and has been among the most effective advocates for the cause of immigration reform for all living in the shadows of America. Given his Chicago bona fides and friendship with President Obama, his was likely one of the crucial voices in persuading the president to sign the executive order that is now under challenge in the courts, but would improve the situations of millions.
In light of myriad, well-received efforts to reach out to and engage more directly with the Irish diaspora in recent years, one might have thought that Lawless’s appointment to the Seanad would have provoked little controversy and actually been welcomed widely. This has not proven the case, however.
The Irish Mail on Sunday ran a front page story that Billy Lawless’s appointment was in some way a “tit for tat” for his having given a summer job to the Taoiseach’s daughter, who was in Chicago on a J-1 visa. Sunday Independent columnist Jody Corcoran wrote that people in Ireland and in Irish America are asking “Billy who?” In the Sunday Times, his appointment was described as “frankly baffling.” Similarly dismissive and disdainful remarks have been made by commentators on radio and television.
There are three stated grounds for this negativity, but they are underpinned by a “little Ireland” mentality that sadly persists in some quarters here.
First, the implied allegation that Lawless has been appointed to the Seanad because he gave the Taoiseach’s daughter a low paid summer job in a restaurant is downright preposterous. He surely was happy to help Enda Kenny, with whom he is friendly. There is absolutely nothing unusual or at all untoward about that. Countless J-1 students have had doors similarly opened for them by friends and relatives in the US.
Second, he has been disparagingly called a “Fine Gael Whest of Ireland old-boy.” It is a fact that Billy Lawless is a Fine Gael supporter, who once stood for election and who chaired the Galway West constituency organization. Yet, virtually every political commentator in this country assertively predicted that predominantly Fine Gael loyalists would be appointed this time around because of the party’s substantially diminished number of seats in the upper house.
Indeed, another champion of the Irish in the US and, like Enda Kenny, a County Mayo native, Ciaran Staunton, who ran a very strong campaign for a Seanad seat, may have been appointed were it not for his ties to Sinn Féin. That the Taoiseach chose a diaspora senator from his own party is not surprising in this context.
Third, there is the issue of his travel expenses. Commentators on social media and elsewhere question how he will handle being bi-located and how much it will cost the taxpayer. The annual expense figure of €30,000 for those who live furthest away from Dublin is being bandied about.
Undoubtedly, there will be some expense involved. But Billy Lawless owns a home in Galway and spends a considerable amount of time in Ireland as it is. He is semi-retired and has signaled an intention to spend far more time here.
Additionally, it can be argued that a few thousand euro a year is a pittance to have real representation from the diaspora in the Seanad. There are important issues for a large segment of the population here that deserve to be discussed in the Oireachtas (Irish Legislature).
For instance, Lawless is well-acquainted with the heartbreaking stories of the undocumented Irish in the US who cannot come home for sad or joyous family occasions because they are trapped in an unenviable situation; he knows that emigrants who return permanently to Ireland are often treated unfairly in terms of entitlements, taxes, motor insurance, university fees, etc.; and he is committed to ensuring that Irish citizens living abroad finally have a vote in a country they love so much, but in many cases were forced to leave.
Sadly, in my view, it is a “little Ireland” outlook that underpins the stated objections to Billy Lawless’s becoming a member of Seanad Éireann. Some people here, despite paying lip service to the power of the diaspora and to the many contributions that have been made by those around the world who are Irish-born and/or of Irish descent, maintain a “when you’re gone, you’re gone” attitude. The idea of an “outsider” – some on social media were even asking if Lawless is an Irish citizen – holding a seat in the Seanad rankles them deeply.
In 2013, the government sought to abolish Seanad Éireann, contending, among other things, that it was a useless talking shop for politicians in training or nearing retirement and an outdated relic in a modern parliamentary democracy. I was involved with a group who successfully fought this initiative. We argued then, and argue now, that the Seanad can provide an important platform for men and women whose voices would not otherwise be heard in the lawmaking process. These senators, we believe, can help Irish democracy not just to function, but to flourish.
His critics notwithstanding, I am confident that Billy Lawless, as a representative of the Irish diaspora, will be one such senator.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com and TheJournal.ie.