Billy Lawless’s speech to the Ireland Network USA Annual Conference Chicago

Ireland Network USA Annual Conference Chicago

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am absolutely delighted to be here with you today, for what is my first Ireland Network USA conference, since my appointment as Senator for the Global Irish last summer.

I am deeply honoured to be the first emigrant Senator to be appointed to Seanad Eireann – the Irish Senate – to give official voice to the millions of Irish men and women, who left Ireland’s shores, but who never forgot, the land of their birth, or lost their innate sense of Irish identity.

My appointment by our former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was an official and welcome nod to our diaspora, and an acknowledgement that the people of our proud and ancient island, desire a modern and mature relationship with their fellow Irishmen and women living abroad. I am also delighted to say that our new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has reaffirmed to me directly his own steadfast commitment to you,o ur diaspora.

Like countless men and women before me I left Ireland in 1998, to begin a new life for myself and my family in the United States. Ireland and the United States of America share a deep and enduring bond, forged over the centuries in common kinship and shared values. Over 34 million Americans today claim Irish ancestry, many of whom are descendent from the more than 1 million desperate men and women, who fled famine-ravished Ireland during An Gorta Mór.

When President John F. Kennedy addressed the Oireachtas in June 1963 he stated:
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 the Irish faced a cold welcome – not unlike that received by today’s desperate immigrants and refugees fleeing war and famine – but despite that, the Irish set about building a new life for themselves, and in the process helped to build the United States of America, and in particular left their indelible mark on the fabric, of this most American of cities- Chicago.

I feel particularly at home here at the INUSA Chicago conference, as I made my own mark in this very city, when I moved here to open an Irish themed pub in Wrigleyville 20 years ago.
It was here that I encountered first hand so many of the Irish undocumented who call this country, home, and witnessed the pain caused by a broken immigration system that hurts businesses and divides families. Over a decade ago, I began championing meaningful immigration reform and I continue that work today in my new role as Senator.

As we all know, immigration is once again a hot button issue in America’s national discourse. Last week’s announcement that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), will be phased out for its 800,000 young recipients was a particular gut punch, to those of us who worked so hard to see the program implemented under President Obama. It only added to a litany of unfortunate actions, against immigrants and refugees including the Travel Ban, threats to withhold federal funds from Sanctuary – or better put, Welcoming – jurisdictions, and the presidential pardon for an Arizona sheriff known for his discriminatory practices against immigrants seeking a better life.
There are mixed signals as to whether Congress will act in the next six months to rectify this terrible wrong.

Friends, in these challenging times I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Junior when he said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
I will continue to advocate for the least amongst us and am inspired daily by the selfless determination, of so many ordinary individuals and grassroots organizations -in the Irish community and beyond – who are heeding the call to action and are rejecting a vision of America that is inward looking and myopic for an America that is inclusive and an example for the world.

Poll after poll has shown that the vast majority of Americans – 74% – support common sense immigration reform – including a majority of Republicans I might add. The American people clearly want a solution that secures the border but provides a pathway to legal status for the 11 million here without papers. I ask you when has it ever been Republican policy, to not allow people to pay tax?
I am confident that a nation founded by immigrants and forged in the ideals of liberty and fairness can find a solution that is fair to the rule of law and to those seeking a better life.

Ireland too faces her own challenges today, none more so than the implications of Brexit, which could affect the wellbeing of every man, woman and child on the island. As we move forward, the Irish government is determined to keep the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland open, preserve the hard fought peace on our island, and mitigate the economic impact of one of our largest trading partners exiting the EU.

In an era of global citizenship, where people are more mobile and nations more interdependent, Ireland has made her choice to look outward and to embrace not only her place among the nations but her diaspora living overseas.
The revolutionaries of 1916 called for us to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’. Today’s open and inclusive Ireland is fulfilling the marker set down by the architects of our Republic, by redefining the meaning of nationhood and is reaching out to our diaspora in ways that were never done before. My appointment as Senator for the Diaspora is proof that your voice is being heard in the corridors of power in Leinster House and is only the beginning.

I have travelled to many American cities since my appointment, and have listened to the concerns of Irish citizens living here, and I am pleased to say that Dublin is listening to them now, too. The Irish government recently announced that it will hold a referendum on Voting Rights for the Diaspora in Irish presidential elections. This is an important first step in enfranchising all Irish passport holders living overseas and in Northern Ireland. I have been proud to advocate for this issue as a founding member of Voting and have always said that if 24 of the 28 members states in the EU can do it then so can we.

It is my job to highlight important issues affecting emigrants living overseas and those returning to Ireland, so I encourage all of you to reach out to me with your ideas and your concerns.
It doesn’t need repeating here today that Ireland has had a long and storied history of emigration, and it continues unabated today. If you stand in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood or in Yonkers you’re as likely to hear a brogue today as you were 100 years ago. The Irish continue to make their unique mark on the United States and in countries the world over. From India to Israel, from Dubai to Denmark, Irish citizens are moving, innovating and working in every conceivable industry and field.

I am particularly impressed by the Ireland Network USA with its myriad of local chapters, including Chicago, bringing together Irish and Irish American professionals and business people from every field, to celebrate their Irish identity and develop deeper ties. The Americans may have coined the phrase ‘networking’ but the Irish were masters at it before it was even uttered.

As a people we are naturally gifted with the gab and excel at making that personal connection with every other Irish person we meet. How often have you met someone from home who will rattle off a list of names until you land on a common denominator – a person to whom you both connect and who arguably binds you to the stranger you just met. The ancient tribal Celtic heart still beats strong under a modern façade.

The Ireland Network USA is in many ways a modern Irish tribe. It fosters relationships among its kin, encourages trade and enterprise within its boundaries and beyond, and binds its people to the land of their birth.

In closing I want to commend the INUSA for a wonderfully successful conference and for all of the work that you do to promote Ireland and foster Irish identity in the United States. To quote an ancient Irish saying:
Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.

Under the shelter of each other, people survive.

Under your leadership the connection between Ireland and the United States not only survives it thrives.

Go raibh mile mhaith agaibh. Thank you.