Billy is a restaurateur living in the Loop. He moved here from Ireland with his wife and four children to fulfill his lifelong dream of living in the United States. He’s passionate about fighting for the rights of fellow immigrants and truly believes that Chicago is the greatest city in the country.
Irish Times | June 13th, 2017
Good Friday alcohol ban: the Bill tabled by Independent Senator Billy Lawless would have removed the 90-year-old prohibition only for pubs and off-licences.
The Government is to ensure that the lifting of the ban on the sale of alcohol on Good Friday will apply to all premises rather than be restricted to pubs.
Enda Kenny was in Chicago on June 6th at the end of his final US trip as Taoiseach. He addressed a community reception at Drake Hotel where Billy Lawless was also in attendance.
By Maria Moynihan on 08 June 2017, http://www.farmersjournal.ie
Former dairy farmer Billy Lawless has become one of Chicago’s most successful restaurateurs. He wants to bring that same drive to his role as senator for the Irish diaspora, writes Maria Moynihan.
It’s been 40 years since Billy Lawless was interviewed by The Irish Farmers Journal. “We were in liquid milk in Galway city,” he explains, as he settles behind his desk at Seanad Éireann, “and I was rowing for Ireland at the time.”
An update, then, is somewhat overdue.
Because who could have predicted back then that Billy would become the first senator for the diaspora because of his work for the undocumented Irish in the United States, having immigrated there himself 20 years ago: going on to become one of Chicago’s most successful restaurateurs, employing over 300 people.
FROM THE WEST TO THE WINDY CITY
Among the framed family photos on the window sill, we spot one of Billy and his wife Anne with Barack Obama, snapped when he introduced the then-US president at a rally on immigration reform in the Windy City in 2014.
A long way from Dangan on the outskirts of Galway city – where the university playing pitches are today and where the Lawless family once farmed.
His mother, Nelly Fitzgerald, moved to Galway from Clonakilty in the 1940s and, according to Billy, “introduced, single-handedly actually, the small chick to all of the West of Ireland and the Aran Islands”.
“They used to call her Bean Na gCearc,” he smiles of the relationship she built up with the farmers’ wives that she advised on poultry keeping. “She was the first woman in Galway to have a government car.”
His father, Tom Lawless, was similarly “ahead of his time”, despite having left school at just 11, after his father died. With innovations like a portable petrol four-unit milking machine, he built up a successful liquid-milk business, supplying local hotels like the Skeffington Arms and the Great Southern on Eyre Square.
“That’s where I got my long arms from,” laughs Billy of how farming lent itself to his later rowing career. “Lifting six-gallon cans up three flights of stairs into the restaurants.”
With an outlying farm in Feeragh as well, Billy built up the business, but after marrying at 20 (“A much older woman: she was 21!”) and starting their family, he decided to sell up in 1977. “But I did love it,” he reflects, “it was a tough decision for me to make.”
Given his exposure to the hospitality trade through the milk business, perhaps it’s no surprise he went that route, buying his first pub, The Gallows, on Prospect Hill and gradually building his portfolio to include The Tribesman and Trigger Martyn’s on Shop St, and later The 12 Pins hotel in Barna, as well as becoming president of the Vintners Federation en route.
He also went into forestry, first in Woodford and later in Pettigo in Co Donegal. But yet?
“There was always a yen to open a business in the States and see could I hack it,” admits Billy, who finally took the plunge when his daughter got a college rowing scholarship in Massachusetts.
“I said: ‘Do you know what? That’s a sign,” he says, explaining how he, Anne and their four children, Billy Jr, John Paul, Amy and Clodagh, immigrated to the States on 1 January 1998 on a business visa after selling The 12 Pins.
“I was 47 years of age,” he says. “I remember my accountant saying to my solicitor: ‘Ah, he’ll be back, Billy. It’s just a fad.’ And I suppose if you had sat down and thought about it… man it was a monumental move. Lock, stock and barrel.”
RESTAURATEUR TO REFORMER
While Boston was the most obvious choice to set up in business, a trip to Chicago turned Billy’s head towards the mid-west, and he opened his first pub, The Irish Oak, just 100 yards from Wrigley Field, home of the famed Chicago Cubs.
“I didn’t even know who the Cubs were,” he admits, explaining that many people thought it was “hilarious opening an Irish pub in the middle of the holy grail of baseball”.
Clearly they were mistaken.
Today, Billy runs one of Chicago’s leading fine-dining restaurateurs, with The Gage and Acanto on Michigan Avenue, along with the Dearborn Tavern across from City Hall. He, however, credits his children with the progression of the business: all four are involved, while Billy Jr also runs The Beacon, The Dawson and Coda di Volpe.
“I think they did what I did with my father,” he reflects. “I progressed the farm on from what he had and multiplied the numbers, and my own children took what we had, The Irish Oak, and went up another notch, which is progression the way it should be.
“But the restaurant business is like farming. If you’re not a worker, you’re not going to make it. It’s as simple as that.”
But back to The Irish Oak days for a moment, which is where Billy first became engaged in immigrant rights and reform.
The pub quickly became a hub for the Irish community – particularly those in the construction industry – and Billy recalls the day in 2002 when he was approached by a group of tradesmen who were unable to get driving licenses due to their illegal status, looking for representation.
“They asked me would I help them to get drivers’ licences and I said I would,” he explains, “and we formed the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform to see what we could do in the State of Illinois for drivers’ licences.”
And while it took almost 12 years, Billy was instrumental in lobbying for the introduction of temporary visitor driving licenses (TVDLs) for the undocumented in 2014, which allows them to drive legally, without fear of being pulled over and deported.
“And since then, 280,000 have been tested and granted licenses,” he says, explaining that as TVDL holders must have valid insurance, it’s a “win-win” for all road users.
But while Billy started by representing the Irish community, he soon realised the power of co-operation with other groups, and went on to become vice-president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
He explains how they were “so close” to achieving immigration reform in both 2007 and 2013, but that with the election of President Trump, “we’re as far away as ever”.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. Who does?” he says, as he explains the day-to-day reality of the undocumented Irish in the US in the midst of such uncertainty.
“You can’t open a bank account, you can’t get a social security number and you can’t go on a plane,” he lists, explaining that heartbreakingly, many people have to watch their parents’ funerals “on Skype” because they can’t risk returning home.
“And you get the criticism: ‘Well, why did they have to go there in the first place?’ Well, they had to go. Most people don’t want to leave their native land,” he continues. “I left by choice; but 99% didn’t.”
STATES TO SENATE
Billy himself became an American citizen in 2014, receiving a personal letter of congratulations from President Obama. The following year he was awarded the accolade of Freeman of Galway City, as well as receiving an honorary doctorate from NUI Galway – but he admits that he was “flabbergasted” when he was chosen by Enda Kenny as the first emigrant Senator for the Irish diaspora living overseas.
“It’s just an incredible honour to represent them,” he says.
While reform might be at a standstill Stateside with Trump, he points out that more could be done here to incentivise people to come home. For example, to open up the help-to-buy scheme to returning emigrants, or to recognise no-claims bonuses earned abroad when getting car insurance.
“There should be no impediments for a young family coming home who wants to buy a home, who wants to work and has a job, doesn’t want to live off the State. That’s not what they’re coming home for,” he stresses.
“They want to be an asset to society. We shouldn’t have impediments in their way. We should be making it so easy for them.”
As a founding member of Voting Rights.ie, Billy is also fully supportive of the planned constitutional referendum to allow Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote in the presidential election in 2025 and has called for a worldwide grassroots campaign for a “Yes” vote.
Earlier this year, he also tabled the bill to end the closing of pubs on Good Friday – a bugbear since his Vintners’ days – but diaspora affairs are his focus going forward, as he commutes between Leinster House and the US.
“I’m working harder now at 66 than I was working 10 years ago,” he smiles, as the interview draws to a close. A gallop through 40 years in just over 60 minutes. Next time, we won’t wait so long… CL
Good morning everyone, Minister, Cathaoirleach of Cavan County Council, Councillor Fergal Curtin, Councillors and my colleagues, Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Denis O’Donovan and Senator Diarmuid Wilson.
I would like to commend Cavan County Council for its diaspora engagement strategy which is being launched today. Cavan experienced some of the worst ravages of the famine and resulting emigration from the 1850s onwards. The Irish – and the Cavan diaspora in particular – are widespread, and found in every corner of the globe.
The Cavan diaspora engagement strategy, seeks to build upon work that is already happening, but will focus the energy of the county’s residents on its successful diaspora members.
The strategy involves a multi-pronged approach of identifying the Cavan diaspora, engaging it and laying the groundwork for projects which will grow as a result of engagement with local and diaspora community members.
We live in an increasingly connected globalised society, but no matter where we go we are always called back, as Irish men and women, to the home place. We are a people rooted in our history, and in the land of our forefathers, and the green fields of Cavan are no different.
Your plan to engage with the Cavan diaspora is not only good policy but timely, and a testament to the outward looking nature of a county whose global links stretch far and wide.
The recent success of the Gathering, which brought so many towns and villages across the length and breadth of Ireland together to celebrate their diaspora, shows quite clearly that the Irish people want a modern and meaningful link to Irish people living abroad. But remember that so many people came home to Ireland for the Gathering, simply because they were invited. An invitation from the home place has such huge resonance for Irish people living overseas. That’s something to consider when developing any diaspora engagement Project.
I would encourage you all to continue thinking big, but also connect with the marvellous work being undertaken on a national stage with diaspora engagement policy.
First established by Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan and continued on by Minister Joe McHugh, the Government’s commitment to the diaspora has grown from strength to strength.
Indeed, my own appointment as the first emigrant senator with the specific brief of representing the Irish living overseas, speaks volumes of the government continuing focus.
The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade is Chaired by your own, Brendan Smith, T.D., who is very supportive of the undocumented and was in Washington DC in December last, where he met with Senior Cabinet people, including Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Mangement and Budget, who’s own daughter attends Trinity College, Dublin, and other members of The Friends of Ireland Congressmen.
We must also remember though, that engagement is a two-way street and many of our diaspora members wishing to return to Cavan and Ireland in general, are faced with many hurdles and obstacles upon their return. They sometimes find it difficult to establish residency, and secure vehicle car insurance for example. Third level State fees is also a problem for the children returning Irish citizens, who have been away for some time.
We recently had a very successful Civic global Forum in Dublin Castle, which brought together diaspora organisations and representatives from across the world.
The groups discussed a variety of issues but chief among them was insuring a smoother return process for our fellow countrymen, who wish to make Ireland home again.
I would encourage you in Cavan, to be ahead of the ball curve, and respond to your own diaspora members who wish to take up residence again in this great County.
Again, I would like to congratulate you for your great work and thank you for your continued commitment to diaspora issues.
Speech by Senator Billy Lawless at Global Civic Forum
Good morning. I am honoured to represent the Global Irish. We have a world-wide constituency of 1.73 million citizens.
First, by allowing emigrants to vote, we have the possibility of creating a third historic opportunity to expand the franchise. The first expansion of the franchise came in the 19th Century, when Daniel O’Connell ensured Catholics got the vote. The second expansion came in 1916.
At the core of the 1916 Rising was a demand for equal rights and equal citizenship. And as a result of the revolution everyone over the age of 21 – both men and women –got to vote by 1923 – 1.7 million citizens voted. So the revolution was a success; politically we had become a more equal society.
But in the intervening decades, Ireland has lost its way and has become a less equal society. We now have a three tier system of citizenship.
Voters in the Republic are first class citizens, who get to vote. Citizens living off the island are second class citizens, and cannot vote. And then there are – of course – the Irish citizens in the North of Ireland, several hundred thousand, just over the border who have Irish passports, but they are not allowed to vote either. They represent the third class.
As a result of this 3 tier voting system, Ireland is now out of step with the majority of it’s EU neighbours, and 130 other democracies around the world, that already allow their emigrants to vote.
In my opinion, our voting laws and regulations are no longer fit for purpose. Emigration has vastly changed. The relationship between Irish emigrants and Ireland has also changed dramatically. Emigrants come and go, and they are totally tuned into what is happening here in Ireland.
I believe this current 3 tier system of citizenship is undemocratic, unequal and does not meet the inclusive principles of equality that define the Irish Constitution.
And the ultimate problem with this 3 tier system is this, – if you don’t vote – you don’t count – and if you don’t count, you have no influence on the policies that have a direct impact, on the millions of emigrants living overseas, including those that create real roadblocks for those who want to come home.
In my opinion if you’re a citizen, you’re a citizen.
So I was very pleased when the Constitutional Convention recommended, that all Irish citizens be allowed to vote in the future, for the President of Ireland. And I was very pleased, that the Taoiseach took the next step, and called for a Constitutional referendum.
So now we have to give our best advice to the government on the wording of the Constitution.
I believe very strongly, that we need to put forward a Constitutional Amendment that is inclusive, and reflects recommendations of the Constitutional Convention.
In my opinion Option 2.2.1 is the best option – it reflects my opinion, that if you’re a citizen – you’re a citizen. You’re not a half citizen, a second class citizen or a third class citizen. And the most basic right and duty of a citizen, is to vote and that’s what we want to do.
Now, this is not going to be easy. We only have one shot at getting this across the line, to get the support of Irish voters. There is no guarantee. Referendums are historically a dicey thing here in Ireland.
We need to reassure and bring Irish public opinion along, and I will need your help to do that. You have to mobilize the Irish emigrant community, to use all of their connections back home, to win the vote.
We need to build on the work of groups around the world, like VICA and #Gettheboat2vote, that have worked so hard to secure the vote over the last few years.
The 1.73 million emigrants overseas all have families and friends here at home, and who need to vote YES on Referendum Day.
So we need a world-wide grass roots campaign. We need emigrants calling home, and emigrants coming home by the thousands, to help us WIN this referendum. We can make this happen with your help.
I am also greatly concerned, that 240,000 young Irish citizens that left Ireland because of the recession, are becoming another lost generation of voters. Let’s get these young people back, and let’s get them voting.
It’s time for Ireland to catch up with our E.U. neighbours, and the rest of the world’s democracies, and modernize our voting system. It’s time to give us the vote.
Next year will be the centenary of women getting the right to vote in 1918 – for expanding the franchise. I look forward to celebrating that centenary but let’s also celebrate winning this referendum as well.
Last night we saw a wonderful video on Ireland’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The video ended stating “Ireland is ready for the World”.
So my question is this – Is Ireland ready for us emigrant citizens?
So let me conclude. I listen to all my colleagues in the Dáil and the Seanad, and I always hear them complaining about the apathy of voters when they go door to door.
Well, my constituents – all l.73 million of them – are Irish, where ever they are, and they are passionate about gaining the vote. They care about Ireland. They love Ireland. They want the best for Ireland’s future, just like all of you.
So to the emigrants of Ireland, whether you’re in London, New York or off in Australia, now is the time to come together and get organized.
Now is the time, to at long last become first class citizens by winning this referendum.
And to the people of Ireland we say;
Tabhair dúinn an vóta – Give us the Vote.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.
1.73 million Irish citizens denied opportunity to vote by outdated election laws
VotingRights.ie, a global coalition of Irish emigrant groups and citizens seeking to secure the vote for the 1.73 million Irish citizens now living overseas, will release a policy paper and reform agenda on emigrant voting next week. The group will hold a press conference to launch the paper at Buswell’s Hotel (Georgian Suite) at 27 Molesworth Street, Dublin on Wednesday, 3 May at 3 pm.
The paper highlights the fact that about one third of all Irish citizens are currently disenfranchised. Senator Billy Lawless, one of the three co-founders of VotingRights.ie. stated “We appreciate the fact that the Taoiseach, the Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan and the Minister of the Diaspora Joe McHugh T.D. have made a consistent effort to engage Irish emigrants and the greater Diaspora. It’s greatly appreciated.” Lawless went on “but we think the pace of change is too slow.”
VotingRights.ie is releasing its ten-point reform agenda on the eve of the second Global Irish Civic Forum organized by the Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Forum is scheduled to take up the government’s Options paper released in March in light of the decision by the Taoiseach and the Cabinet to approve a national referendum on whether Irish citizens residing outside the state can vote in future Presidential elections.
Noreen Bowden, the policy director for VotingRights.ie stated, “Ireland’s current voting regulations do not meet current E.U. or global norms. We’re up to around 130 nations that now allow emigrants to vote. Ireland, unfortunately, is not one of them. Citizens abroad are now treated like second-class citizens, with no ability to exercise their most fundamental right as citizens because Ireland lacks an absentee ballot process.” Bowden continued, “Ireland has a choice to either expand the franchise and meet the norms of a 21st-century democracy or continue to accept a status quo that over time will make the nation less democratic, less equal and more insular.”
VotingRights.ie believes that Ireland now has a third historic opportunity to expand the franchise if the nation will adopt the proposed reform agenda. Speakers at the press conference will include,
• Senator Billy Lawless, Independent Senator for the Global Irish and co-founder of VotingRights.ie
• Senator Michael McDowell, former Attorney General (1999 to 2002) Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform( 2002- 2007) and Tánaiste (2006- 2007)
• Senator Catherine Noone, Deputy Leader of the Seanad and Fine Gael Seanad Spokesperson on Children.
• Senator Mark Daly, Fianna Fail Seanad Deputy Group Leader and Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs
• Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile, Sinn Féin, former Lord Mayor of Belfast
Link to Options paper: http://www.housing.gov.ie/sites/default/files/publications/files/voting_at_presidential_elections_by_citizens_resident_outside_the_state_-_options_paper_-_22_march_2017.pdf
Senator Billy Lawless today welcomed the announcement by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny that a Referendum is to be held regarding voting rights for Irish citizens abroad and in Northern Ireland in Irish Presidential elections.
As the first Senator for the Global Irish and a co-founder of Votingrights.ie – a coalition of groups and individuals dedicated to advancing the cause of emigrant voting rights – Senator Lawless has wholeheartedly embraced the announcement stating, “Ireland, with over 1 million emigrants living across the globe, has one of the most restrictive voting policies of any State. If 25 of the 28 EU nations can afford their citizens abroad the right to vote then why can’t we?”
“This core issue transcends normal partisan politics and speaks to the very nature of Irish citizenship in a nation whose very constitution under Article 2 states: it is the entitlement and birth right of every person born on the Island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation,” he said.
The nation as whole benefits when the diaspora is welcomed more fully into our body politic and the wider Irish family across the world is united in welcoming today’s move by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
“I look forward to discussing the details of the Referendum at the upcoming Global Irish Civic Forum in May and commit to campaigning for a positive result”, said Senator Lawless.