Congratulations are certainly in order for Chicago restaurateur Billy Lawless, a tireless worker for immigration reform who has been chosen by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as Ireland’s first emigrant senator.
The Irish abroad will now have a voice in domestic Irish politics. Galway native Lawless has been an impassioned advocate of voting rights for Irish abroad and for comprehensive immigration reform.
He has close links to the Obama administration and also had a career of being involved in Irish politics with Fine Gael before he immigrated to America 18 years ago so he knows how the land lies over there, something that should not be underestimated.
To no one's surprise, much of the Irish media has acted negatively to the Lawless appointment, as always wary of anyone breaking the close held consensus on how the diaspora should be viewed -- negatively if at all.
In this instance Lawless was accused in the Irish Daily Mail of providing work for one of Kenny's children when she spent a summer in America. Normally such an act would be viewed as a favor to a friend which Lawless has done on countless occasions as many Irish Americans have, but in this case the Daily Mail managed to drag up nepotism and crony accusations.
It is a measure of how thin the reed this government with its one vote majority stands on. Every and any setback can quickly escalate to a crisis, and it is clear much of the media has written off Kenny as yesterday’s taoiseach and would prefer a shiny new version, but facts are stubborn things. Helping out the family of an old friend is how the Irish American community got started.
Kenny has now appointed a minister of the diaspora and an emigrant senator, two strong advances for the Irish abroad lobby.
Alas, though it seemed the diaspora ministry was poorly funded and despite his best efforts Jimmy Deenihan, the first minister appointed to the job, found it difficult to enact any major changes despite being highly personable and hardworking. The new diaspora minister is Joe McHugh.
Lawless will have to be careful that the Irish media does not stereotype him as a Kenny crony. Already they are bench marking his expenses and the cost of travel between Chicago and Dublin, hilarious in a country where profligate spending bought the nation to its knees.
What an emigrant senator spends will be a drop in the bucket, and Lawless has been generous to a fault in welcoming arriving emigrants and supporting good Irish causes.
The need for emigrant representation has rarely been as important. As a senator Lawless can provide a voice that has always been silent in the seats of power in Ireland.
There are many issues to be worked out between the emigrant community and the Irish government, but having Lawless help negotiate them is a good start and challenging the Kenny crony tag is a good place to start as he has already begun to do.
But rest assured he will come under extra scrutiny because he is from “over there” and not “here.” That may be the most difficult barrier of all.