Maiden Speech in the Seanad

Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo inniu. Táim trí scór is cúig bliana d’aois. Níor cheap mé riamh go mbéinn anseo i Seanad Éireann mar Sheanadóir ag labhairt ar son na mílte Éireannaigh atá thar lear, go háirithe sna Stáit Aontaithe. Is mór an onóir é sin. Tá súil agam go mbeidh mé in ann gach cúnamh agus tacaíocht a thabhairt do na daoine atá luaite agam. I ndáiríre, tá an t-ádh liom. I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me an opportunity to speak. This is truly an historic moment for the Seanad and the people of Ireland, regardless of where in the world they live. I stand here as the first Irish citizen emigrant to be appointed to this Chamber. I am here to give official voice to the millions of Irish men and women who have left these shores but have not forgotten the land of their birth or lost their innate sense of Irish identity. More than 70 million people throughout the world claim Irish ancestry. My appointment to the Seanad is an official and long-overdue nod to Ireland’s diaspora and an acknowledgement that the people of this proud and ancient island desire a modern and mature relationship with their fellow Irish men and women who live in other lands. I look forward to sterling debate and action in the Seanad for all the undocumented in the US.

It is with great honour and a deep sense of humility that I take up my post in this Twenty-fifth Seanad of the Irish Republic to represent Ireland’s emigrants. I thank the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, and his Government colleagues for their continued commitment to the diaspora. This has been made manifest by my presence in the Chamber today. Like countless men and women before me, I left Ireland to begin a new life for myself and my family in the US. In my case, I left for Chicago in 1998. Ireland and the US share a deep and enduring bond that has been forged over the centuries in common kinship, epic struggles and shared values. More than 40 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. Many of them are descended from the more than 1 million desperate men and women who fled this country during the ravages of the terrible Famine. I remind Senators of what President John F. Kennedy said on this issue when he addressed the Oireachtas in 1963:

And so it is that our two nations, divided by distance, have been united by history. No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States. And no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters. They came to our shores in a mixture of hope and agony, and I would not underrate the difficulties of their course once they arrived.

When they arrived in America, they faced a cold welcome, not unlike that received by today’s desperate immigrants and refugees fleeing war and famine. Despite that, the Irish set about building a new life for themselves and in the process helped to build the United States of America.

Emigration from these shores continues today, although it is diminishing rapidly, thank God. If one stands on the south side of Chicago, one is likely to hear brogues from the four corners of Ireland. The Irish continue to make their mark on the US and on countries throughout the world. From Argentina to Australia and from Dubai to Italy, Irish citizens are moving, innovating and working in every conceivable industry. In an era of global citizenship, when people are more mobile and nations are more interdependent than ever, Ireland has to choose between adapting to an ever-changing definition of nationhood and of Irish citizenship by embracing her diaspora, or looking away and focusing inward. The revolutionaries of 1916 certainly did not choose the latter option. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, I am confident that the lofty ideals of the Proclamation’s reference to “cherishing all the children of the nation” are being fulfilled. Today’s open and inclusive Ireland is redefining the meaning of nationhood and, in so doing, is reaching out to our diaspora in ways that have never been done before. My appointment to the Seanad is just the first step in this process.

Last Wednesday, I listened on the Internet to some of the speeches that were being made in this House. I thank Senator McDowell for introducing the Seanad Bill 2016, which proposes reforms that would not be before time. I am committed to making the Seanad a legislative body that is designed for the Ireland of the 21st century. I commend the Taoiseach on his willingness to extend voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad. If 25 of the 28 other EU member states can facilitate this – indeed, it is provide for in 125 countries throughout the world – so can we. I suggest we should start with the 2018 presidential election. If we allow people in both the North and the South to vote in that election, it might be the catalyst for them to vote for a united Ireland. Ireland will only benefit from engaging her dynamic emigrants in the democratic process. The thousands of people who flew home to vote in last year’s referendum on marriage equality showed us that Irish citizens who live abroad truly want a say in the country they call home. I respectfully challenge this Chamber to ask itself what it can do for the diaspora, rather than what the diaspora can do for it. This challenge rings particularly true for vulnerable Irish emigrants, such as the elderly in Britain, who were affected by the recent RTE longwave controversy, and the undocumented in the US, who continue to need our support. I stand committed to providing a voice for such people in this Chamber and beyond.

I would like to touch on a point that was made last week by Senator Norris, whose career in the Seanad I have followed for many years. I have enjoyed his oratorical analysis and his great wit, but I was surprised last week to hear him castigate the Taoiseach on his 11 appointments. Of course I am one of the 11 appointees. Was it not the Taoiseach’s constitutional duty, as set out in Bunreacht na hÉireann, to nominate 11 Senators?