A voice for the Irish diaspora

Appointment of first overseas senator an opportunity to deliver for emigrants who want a say in future of their home country

 

The Taoiesach’s appointment of Ireland’s first overseas senator is an opportunity to foster greater understanding of issues related to Irish citizens living aboard. Galway-born and Chicago-based businessman Billy Lawless, co-chair of the National Democratic Immigrant Council in the US, comes with some understanding of Irish politics. In the 1980s, he was chair of Fine Gael in the Galway West constituency and stood unsuccessfully for the city council in 1991.

Mr Lawless can help push a diaspora agenda, expose political commitments that have not been delivered upon and specifically represent the interests of undocumented Irish in the US. His appointment, nonetheless, sits a little uncomfortably with the Government’s campaign to target Irish voters living in the UK to help keep Britain in an EU whose executive, in 2014, criticised the Irish State for “disenfranchising” its citizens living abroad by not granting them voting rights.

Fine Gael has promised to hold a referendum on giving the Irish abroad a right to vote in presidential elections. It has committed to addressing the needs of emigrants who wish to return home; to working with Irish business groups abroad to provide opportunities for emigrants, to advocate on behalf of the undocumented Irish in the US, and to support local communities to strengthen relationships with their diasporas.

And yet a constitutional convention report recommending Irish citizens abroad be given a vote in presidential elections; an Oireachtas committee on EU affairs report recommending acceptance of the principle of emigrant voting rights, and last year’s report of the working group on the Seanad, urging that Irish citizens abroad would have the right to have a vote in Seanad elections, all remain unimplemented.

If Mr Lawless’s appointment gives our diaspora an empowering voice in parliament, gives him greater access to US political decision-makers and helps ensure ultimately that Irish emigrants continue to have a stake in the future of their home country, epitomised by an entitlement to vote, it will have been a good day’s work.

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