Seanad Reform Speech

Billy Lawless Speech 12th October 2016

Cathaoirleach,

A total of 35 million people in the US, 16 million in Great Britain, 4.5 million in Canada, 2 million in Australia and 500,000 in Argentina claim Irish heritage. Ireland is much greater than the jurisdiction of this Parliament and broader than the community of this island. Tens of millions of people around the world claim Irish heritage. I am the first representative of those interests to have been afforded a voice in the Houses of the Oireachtas. At a time when our neighbours across the sea are retrenching from European partnership, when the party of Abraham Lincoln in the US is calling for borders to be closed and trade links severed, now is the time for Ireland to send a message and reach out to its community across the globe. I can think of no better way of demonstrating to the Irish diaspora that Ireland wants it to be part of our State and our community than expanding the franchise of this House and building a Seanad that can have a meaningful impact, not just on these shores but much further afield.

When the Irish people voted to preserve the Seanad in 2013, they did not do so out of any true affinity to how this House operated. The people gave the Houses of the Oireachtas the clearest mandate they have ever received to reform the Seanad. We must look forward and this Bill is a leap in that direction. Giving Irish citizens with current passports living abroad the chance to be eligible to register and vote on a panel of their choice for the Seanad would give a clear voice to the Irish emigrant community that I represent. It is estimated there are 3.1 million Irish passport holders living overseas. Affording these people a vote in our Seanad should be just the first step in redefining Ireland. A European Union without the United Kingdom, with which we have always shared common positions on trade, investment and taxation, will be one where Ireland needs to present itself as a nation of 70 million people and not as a small country on the periphery of Europe. The emigrant voice needs to be heard and we need to connect with that voice.

Studies have shown that, over time, a 10% increase in immigration in a particular country is associated with a 1% increase of exports to that country and a 3% increase in imports from it. Networking and strengthening connections with the diaspora has consistently been shown to increase economic activity in the home country. Whether it is Israel becoming the world’s second largest venture capital market or India becoming a global technology hub, it is the diaspora strategies of those states that has been at the root of their success. We need to harness the Irish diaspora now more than ever to ensure more investment in this country, more jobs, and greater economic stability in the face of the inevitable economic winds this country will face as a result of Brexit.

It is not just the economic benefits of providing the diaspora with representation in this House that should be considered but also the enormous cultural, political and social ties that have led to transformative changes in Irish society and that show why the diaspora deserve to vote for representatives of this House. Nowhere was this more evident than the same-sex marriage referendum where more than 70,000 returning emigrants were estimated to have flown home to vote and have their say in such a significant change to this country’s social identity. Speaking in the Dáil in 1963, President John F. Kennedy summed up the interwoven fabric of the diaspora to this State’s development best when he said:

If this nation had achieved its present political and economic stature a century or so ago, my great grandfather might never have left New Ross, and I might, if fortunate, be sitting down there with you. Of course, if your own President had never left Brooklyn, he might be standing up here instead of me.

In describing the modern Ireland, he extolled the virtues of a truly global independent Ireland:

For self-determination can no longer mean isolation; and the achievement of national independence today means withdrawal from the old status only to return to the world scene with a new one.

His words have as much meaning today as they did in 1963. Ireland must stand on its two feet on the global stage and we need our diaspora to achieve that. I commend all those who have worked on this Bill and it is my sincere hope that Dáil Éireann and this Seanad can see swift passage of the reforms in this Bill, empowering the diaspora with a vote, sending a clear message to Ireland’s global community that we are listening and that we want their voices to be heard now more than ever.