By Ray O’Hanlon
It and more has been promised by various Irish political parties for years.
Now Taoiseach Enda Kenny has gone some way towards giving a voice to the Irish abroad, and most especially in the United States, by nominating Chicago businessman and immigration reform activist, Billy Lawless, to the Irish Senate.
Lawless, a Galway native, is well known in the U.S. Irish immigration reform community and two years ago introduced President Obama when the president delivered a speech in Chicago related to his executive orders on immigration, orders now bogged down in the courts.
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Lawless was one of eight individuals nominated by Mr. Kenny for the Senate, An Seanad.
Mr. Lawless is the only nominee living outside Ireland itself.
What is the upper house of the Oireachtas is set to convene for the first time since the recent election on Wednesday, June 8.
Normally, a taoiseach can nominate eleven individuals, but under the present minority government arrangement in Dublin three nominees this time around were the purview of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.
Lawless has lived in the U.S. for close to twenty years and is a successful restaurateur in Chicago.
He and his wife Anne became U.S. citizens a couple of years ago.
Being from Ireland and now residing in Chicago, Lawless, who campaigned with Mr. Kenny and for Fine Gael during the election campaign, is no stranger to politics in its more rough and tumble form.
No sooner had his name emerged as a nominee, reports appeared in the Irish suggesting that his appointment was an example of cronyism because he had once given the taoiseach’s daughter J-1 summer visa job.
Mr. Lawless described the assertion as being “absolutely ridiculous”.
“The claim of cronyism was absolutely ridiculous. I get fifty to sixty calls every year from Ireland about J-1 students coming over. It’s nothing new,” Mr. Lawless told Ireland’s Newstalk radio.
He said Aoibhinn Kenny was lucky and she was one of first ones to apply. He added that he knew her and “why wouldn’t you look after a friend’s daughter?”
Meanwhile, the Irish Times additionally reported: “Mr. Lawless, who is co-chair of the National Democratic Immigrant Council with Bruce Morrison, said the first he heard of his Seanad appointment was a telephone call last Friday afternoon.
“The Taoiseach asked me if I would serve, I said I would be delighted. I was surprised given how many TDs lost their seats,” he said.
“I always had a yen to open a business in the USA, then when my daughter got a rowing scholarship to Boston University, we decided to go,” he said of his move to American in 1998.
“My main focus here has been the undocumented Irish. Emigration reform is required.”
Mr. Lawless has also indicated that one of the key issues he will be focusing on is voting rights for Irish citizens abroad, to be secured, hopefully, in time for the 2019 presidential election.
The nomination of Mr. Lawless, meanwhile, has been well received in his adopted home city.
Chicago Irish Immigrant Support issued a statement hailing the move.
Said the CIIS statement in part: “One of the appointees is Billy Lawless Sr., a prominent immigrant rights advocate based in Chicago.
“Mr. Lawless, originally from County Galway, moved to Chicago in 1998 with his family and established a chain of restaurants and bars including The Gage, and Acanto.
“Since his arrival in the U.S., Mr. Lawless has been a leading advocate for the undocumented Irish community and a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform.
“He is Chairman of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform and Vice President of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).
“Mr. Lawless has tirelessly campaigned for an end to deportations and introduced President Obama at Chicago’s Polish Copernicus Center during the President’s announcement of his new executive orders: expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA in November of 2014.”
Chicago Irish Immigrant Support Executive Director Michael Collins added: “The appointment of Billy Lawless to the Seanad gives the Irish diaspora a voice in the Irish government.
“Likewise, this appointment is a clear indication that the Irish government is listening to the struggles that many Irish immigrants in the U.S. are facing.
“Mr. Lawless is the best possible appointee to represent the Irish people in the United States.”
The President of CIIS, Cyril Regan added: “When the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform was founded back in 2006, Billy was the best person to lead the organization.
“Since then he has taken the organization and its message to a much higher level and has been a great leader for the undocumented Irish for the past ten years.”
The Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, which serves as a national umbrella organization representing Irish immigration and community centers throughout the U.S., also welcomed the nomination.
In a statement it said: “The Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers is delighted to hear of our friend and colleague, Billy Lawless’ appointment to the Seanad by An Taoiseach.
“Billy has been a champion for the Irish in America and we look forward to supporting him in this new role.”
ICIRR CEO, Lawrence Benito, added: “The immigrant community welcomes the announcement of Billy Lawless’ appointment to the Irish Senate. Billy has been a leading figure in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform and his new role as Irish senator will give voice to hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women living in the USA.”
The securing of a Senate seat for the overseas Irish has been advocated for as long as Mr. Lawless has lived in the United States.
One proposal frequently aired is for three seats to be set aside for the diaspora.
Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform co-founder, Ciaran Staunton, actually ran for a seat during the recent Senate election as an independent candidate and came sufficiently close enough to winning one that he has vowed to run again in the future.