Billy Lawless: the emigrant Senator
The Chicago restaurateur, who’ll have by far the longest commute to Leinster House, has been representing undocumented Irish since he realised that his customers needed help
Welcome: Billy Lawless greets President Obama at Copernicus Community Center. Photograph: whitehouse.gov
When Billy Lawless takes his seat for the 25th Seanad’s first meeting, on Wednesday, he will be doing so as a representative of arguably the largest constituency of all: the diaspora.
Taking up office as the first Irish emigrant to be appointed to the Oireachtas will be no mean feat logistically for the Galway-born businessman, who lives almost 6,000km from Leinster House, in Chicago.
Lawless has had a lifelong passion for politics, but his early aspirations to hold office were stymied when his run for Galway City Council, as a Fine Gael candidate, was defeated in 1991. His neighbour and friend Michael D Higgins topped the poll.
Having sold his family’s dairy farm in the late 1970s, Lawless was running several bars and hotels in Galway by the early 1990s. Yet when his youngest daughter was offered a rowing scholarship to Amherst College, in Massachusetts, he “took it as a sign” and moved his family to the US.
He fell in love with Chicago while visiting a cousin, and opened his first bar there, the Irish Oak, in 1998. The family business has since grown to employ more than 300 in the city. The fourth bar-restaurant opened last week; a fifth is due within a fortnight.
The Oak became a popular lunch spot for Irish construction workers, many of whom were working illegally, and it was here in the early 2000s that Lawless became immersed in their plight.
“There’s a car park beside us where about 15 white construction vans were parked one day while they were inside having lunch,” he says from Chicago while preparing to fly back to Ireland to take up his Seanad seat next week, following his nomination by the Taoiseach. “I don’t think one of them had a driving licence. They were really concerned about it, and they asked would I represent them. So I said I would.”
Initially he thought he would be helping the 5,000 undocumented Irish in Chicago, but he soon realised that the Irish couldn’t plead for a special deal. He joined up with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, eventually becoming its vice-president.
In 2014, after 12 years of lobbying, a law was passed allowing for temporary driver licences for the undocumented. Since then 200,000 people of all nationalities have been licensed in Illinois. “It is just one tiny aspect of immigration reform, but we are really proud of that achievement,” Lawless says. “You can’t imagine what that has meant for the peace of mind of the undocumented.”
Lawless is now regarded as a leading activist for immigration reform for the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish and millions of people of other nationalities. His nomination to the Seanad has been welcomed by Irish immigration-reform campaigners, including the Irish Voice publisher, Niall O’Dowd, Noreen Bowden, an emigrant voting-rights advocate, and Celine Kennelly of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers in the US.
Lawless and his wife, Anne, lived in the US for 16 years before they became citizens themselves, after his son married an American and sponsored his parents, in 2014.
Later that year Lawless was invited to introduce President Obama, whom he considers a friend, on to the stage at the Copernicus Community Center in Chicago, to speak about his immigration executive action.
Obama’s policy initiative, which includes protection from deportation for millions of undocumented parents of US citizens and legal residents, is still under constitutional challenge. A ruling is expected in the supreme court this month.
Immigration reform is a slow process, says Lawless, and there have been several setbacks. Yet advocates remain hopeful of progress despite concerns about the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. They have to hope, Lawless says. A lot of the undocumented Irish are now in their 50s and 60s, and facing associated health problems.
“Every time I go home to Ireland I go on as many radio stations as I can to tell young people, please, do not come to the States if you want to emigrate but don’t have a visa. Go to Canada or Australia or England or New Zealand, where you will be legal. But I understand completely that America is Ireland’s natural emigrant home.”
When Lawless got the call from Enda Kenny last Friday, he says, he was astounded. “I didn’t expect it, especially given the number of TDs and Senators who lost their seats.”
Ciarán Staunton, a founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, had thrown his hat in the ring for the Seanad this year to represent the diaspora, but his endorsement by Sinn Féin may have thwarted his chances. Two other emigrants, Barry Johnson in London and Ed Davitt in Brussels, also stood for election, on the National University of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin panels, advocating for emigrant voting rights, but were unsuccessful.
Overseas voting rights
As one of the founders of a new international coalition of groups campaigning for Irish emigrant voting rights, VotingRights.ie, Lawless says he will be pushing this issue in the Seanad on behalf of the diaspora, and hopes a system can be put in place to allow overseas citizens to vote in the next Irish presidential election. “I was disappointed to see no mention of that in the programme for government. But I know the Taoiseach is committed to it, and we spoke about that on the phone.”
As Lawless lives more than 360km from Leinster House he will be entitled to claim almost €30,000 in expenses, but he says he has not even begun to get his head around the practicalities. “I spoke with the clerk of the court, and they didn’t know either, because it is a brand new appointment, something they have never dealt with before. I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
The furore this week over his friendship with the Taoiseach, and the circumstances in which he offered summer work to the Taoiseach’s daughter, who’s travelling on a J-1 visa, left Lawless baffled.
“It was so petty,” he says. “I get 50 or 60 calls every summer [about J-1 jobs]. There are hundreds of other Irish business people in Chicago, and every mother and father in Ireland is ringing them up about a job for their daughter or son.
“It is a natural thing to call a friend and say would you keep a job. Even if I can’t I always tell them to come down to my pub and have a coffee, and I give them my cell number to call if they ever need anything. That’s what we Irish do for each other.”
He’ll be taking a step back from the family business in Chicago now, giving more responsibility to his four children, and is looking forward to spending more time in Ireland. “Hopefully I will be able to do a good job, and have the influence to open more doors to help the Irish in Capitol Hill, too.”
'A significant move for the Irish abroad': What emigrant representatives think of Billy Lawless's nomination:
Noreen Bowden, diaspora consultant and emigrant voting rights advocate:
This is a significant move for the Irish abroad. For the first time, an emigrant voice is being granted a formal place in the political system. The timing is important: With one in six Irish-born citizens living outside the country, and the Government seeking more and more to leverage the economic power of the diaspora, it's past time to begin the process of allowing non-resident citizen voices into the political system.
Because emigrants have always been excluded from the process, there is a low level of awareness about the fact that emigrants are affected by policies made at home. Decisions made by politicians and policy-makers can affect the quality of emigrants' lives abroad, and also determine whether they can return home, as well as what kinds of barriers they may face in returning. Billy Lawless, as an emigrant who has worked on the issue of undocumented Irish for so long, will bring this sorely-needed emigrant perspective into the political system.
I would view this as a first step toward greater representation of the Irish abroad generally. Many of us advocating for the emigrant vote are hopeful that the Manning Report on Seanad Reform will be adopted - and that this reform will result in Irish passport holders around the world being granted the right to vote in a reformed Seanad. This is not a radical notion: almost every developed nation in the world gives their emigrants the right to vote. While this appointment is a relatively small step forward, it's a move toward building the foundation that will strengthen the relationship between the political system and every citizen, and allow Irish citizens abroad to eventually participate in the political process at home the way nearly every other European citizen can.
Billy has been such a strong voice for emigrants and a tireless voice for the Irish undocumented. He's been a powerful advocate for marginalised immigrants of all nationalities in the US, and has really succeeded in building bridges between communities to work on behalf of some of the most vulnerable people in America. As one of my fellow co-founders of VotingRights.ie, he's also passionate about the issue of votes for emigrants. I believe he will be a strong advocate for all of the Irish abroad, including the disenfranchised, the vulnerable and elderly, the undocumented, and the emigrants facing barriers as they hope to return.
Celine Kennelly, president of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers:
The appointment of a Seanadóir to represent the Irish abroad has been discussed for a number of years and has been much anticipated by the Irish immigrant community and those that serve them. The appointment of Billy Lawless by the Taoiseach, as well as the appointment of a second Minister of State for the Diaspora (Joe McHugh) highlights the Government’s continued commitment to the Irish abroad and the issues they face.
Billy has been working on behalf of the undocumented Irish for many years. As an immigrant himself who had to navigate the US immigration process with his own family, he has a keen understanding for the difficulties faced by our immigrant community. He is well respected in the wider immigrant community as well as in the US administration. His work at both the local and national levels on behalf of the undocumented Irish has been tireless and we know his mission to pass comprehensive immigration reform and create a future flow of migration between Ireland and the United States will be a large part of his endeavours as Seanadóir.
Billy has boundless energy, years of experience and knowledge, and is dedicated to the issue. He is one of a handful of people who are qualified for the job and we are excited to have him represent us.
Niall O’Dowd, founder of IrishCentral.com and advocate for immigration reform:
Billy deserves better than to be pilloried for giving Enda Kenny's daughter a start in Chicago. It that was a bad thing to do then we are all guilty over here of helping neighbours and friends. I'm sure he will overcome such efforts and become a new voice for the Irish abroad at the heart of Irish power in the Oireachtas. He will do us proud.