Senator Billy Lawless
By Senator Bill Lawless
It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as the first emigrant senator in Ireland and I have spent most of my time in the Seanad using this privilege to advance the causes of our global Irish nation that comprises tens of millions of the Irish diaspora.
As a proud emigrant who loves Ireland, I believe there are few causes more worthy, or indeed more worthwhile, than supporting those who have left our shores, either by necessity or desire.
When Ireland was on the floor just ten years ago and net emigration began to rise again for the first time since the 1980s, Foreign Direct Investment and Tourism is what kept Ireland’s economic engine from complete collapse while our new and old diaspora gave us hope of what was possible.
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In September 2009, 13% of Ireland’s working population was unemployed. The economy was falling rapidly at a rate of minus 7.1% and, for the first time since 1995, more people left Ireland than arrived.
Yet in the middle of this state of hopelessness Ireland hosted its first ever Global Irish Economic Forum which blended major global businesses, thriving members of the Irish diaspora, and some of our domestic champions, to forge a future for how Ireland was going to exit its economic nightmare.
It was this conference which espoused hope for our future and ultimately laid the seeds for what was the bounty of Ireland’s economic recovery: a diet of foreign investment and tourism.
Connections to the diaspora creates more jobs, enhances communities and strengthens diplomatic ties across the world.
We need to do more to deepen these ties and I have passionately campaigned to give the diaspora a vote in Ireland’s presidential elections by way of a referendum which I hope will finally be called during the early lifetime of the next government.
When I travel across Ireland, or meet fellow Irish people across the United States, I am reminded that we are an exceptionally generous nation. We want to be linked to, and to support, those that have left our shores. We want to redouble our efforts when they come home.
The State should reflect what, in my view, is the will of the people.
The average Irish person has a much broader view of who forms the country than sneering commentators, or those who adhere to legalistic interpretations of our democracy.
It’s for that very reason that I believe it so essential that emigrants be given a direct say in who should be the president.
It is abundantly clear that the authors of the Irish Constitution believed deeply in the importance of the Irish emigrant, codifying that recognition in Article 2 which recognizes that the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.
Emigration has changed vastly. Emigrants come and go, with multiple departures and returns.
We are today permanently connected to our Irishness. We live in a globalized world, yet our democratic system, even for the largely symbolic office of the president, does not reflect this modern reality.
On the eve of the Easter Rising in 1916 only one in six Irishmen with enough wealth were qualified to vote, a total of 15%. The rebels rejected this limited vision of representation and made universal suffrage for all men, and women, a core principle of the rebellion.
By 1923, all citizens over 21 years of age living in Ireland, numbering nearly 1.8 million men and women, could vote. Even in the midst of a bloody civil war, the founders of the Irish nation made sure suffrage was expanded to meet the ideals of the Easter Proclamation.
Ireland is undergoing great changes in economics and demographics. In the years ahead we will have to come to terms with Brexit, a changing European Union, and the possibility of a new constitutional relationship with Northern Ireland.
These challenges, and many more, will demand much from our democracy.
In the coming decade the people will be asked to vote on issues that will define Ireland for the rest of the century. This will only be accomplished fairly if Ireland has a modern democratic electoral system that will be inclusive, encouraging, and grounded in the principle of equality that is universal suffrage.
Ireland must be willing to embrace a more expansive Irish electoral register for presidential elections and recognize that the Irish nation extends beyond the Irish Sea.
At the core of these ideals reflects a human desire to support the Irish emigrant in the same way we support our own.
In a poll I recently commissioned, it was found that there is a clear majority in favor of giving the diaspora a vote at the next presidential election. I have worked hard in the last three years, in my time in the Seanad, to grow public support towards this outcome.
Whether I form part of the next Seanad or not, I will fight tirelessly to ensure that this work has not been in vain.
Chicago-based Billy Lawless is the first member of the Irish Senate, Seanad Eireann, to specifically represent the global Irish diaspora.