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.
Senator Billy Lawless today sought government assurances that Irish emigrants in the UK would not lose their access to RTE radio, a vital link to home.
In a commencement debate in Seanad Éireann today, 2nd February, Senator Lawless outlined the fears of older Irish people in Britain over the threat that they would soon lose RTE radio on the long wave band, and highlighted that this generation cannot be forgotten or disregarded as the digital age bypasses their generation.
Joe McHugh, Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Trade visited the Upper House to debate this issue with Senator Lawless, Taoiseach’s nominee to Seanad Éireann in 2016.
While the retention of the long wave service is ultimately a matter for RTE, Senator Lawless reminded the house of RTE’s public service remit, citing a recent study into emigrants use of long wave which found that 92% of respondents indicated that they listened daily to RTE on the service at home or in the car, not via digital platforms.
Minister McHugh committed that his Department is working closely with RTE to ensure that the views of this elderly vulnerable community are heard in the imminent decision making process.
Broadcasting Service Provision
Senator Billy Lawless: I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this matter. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe McHugh, to the House to discuss this important issue.
I take my appointment as Ireland’s first emigrant Senator seriously. That mandate not only extends to the US diaspora, with which I am more familiar, but to the entire diaspora across the globe. One issue which comes up time and again with elderly members of the UK’s Irish diaspora is the continued access to RTE long wave radio service which is set to be abolished at some point in 2017. There may be many young or more digitally orientated people in RTE management who may scoff at the notion of retaining for what for them may be a feature of bygone era. However, this narrow thinking does not understand the richness RTE provides for the tens of thousands of listeners in the UK who tune into RTE long wave every single day.
There are more than 600,000 Irish-born emigrants living in the UK, with many of its older members forced out of Ireland in the 1950s with little education and no prospects of work at home. In January 2016, the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex University London, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, conducted a study into some of those emigrants’ usage of RTE long wave. Up to 92% of respondents to the survey stated they listen every day or most days, with 44% listening to it in the car or another vehicle. Less than half the respondents had used a television or some form of digital device to access the radio. Unsurprisingly, it was the so-called older age groups who did not access the service on digital radio platforms on a laptop or digital TV.
Will the Minister of State consider this survey, given it was funded by the previous Government, and implore RTE management to reconsider this ageist and discriminatory cut to RTE long wave planned for 2017? Nobody is trying to halt the digitalisation of our media or impede RTE in its process of modernisation. However, RTE must be reminded of its public service remit.
The historic first state visit of Uachtarán na hÉireann to the United Kingdom in 2014 was an incredible moment for the Irish UK community, particularly the elderly who have been through difficult times for the Irish in the UK during the Troubles. Anyone watching the concerts and events held around the President’s visit could see for themselves that they reconnected many Irish men and women of humble economic and social backgrounds in a way that had not been felt for many generations. This was an extremely proud moment, not just for those immigrants, but for the global Irish diaspora. It showed that this nation is taller than its borders. I ask the Minister of State what kind of message is sent to those people when three years later we turn the switch off on RTE radio, which is the daily, and perhaps only, link to home here in Ireland for so many. Thankfully, we have exited the period of austerity. It seems an extremely harsh and unfair decision for RTE to directly target some of the most elderly and vulnerable people who use the station’s services. This is not what public service broadcasting is supposed to be about.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Joe McHugh): Go raibh maith agat a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an gceist tábhachtach seo a chur faoin tseirbhís thar a bheith tábhachtach ar son muintir na hÉireann sa Bhreatain.
By way of background on this matter, in September 2014, RTE announced plans to shut down its long wave 252 service, which enables RTE Radio 1 to be broadcast into Britain. While the initial plan was for the long wave service to close on 27 October 2014, this was further deferred until 19 January 2015. On 18 December 2014, a decision was taken to continue long wave radio services until 2017.
Following this announcement, the Government’s emigrant support programme, which is administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, supported research into the listenership figures in Britain for the RTE long wave service. The purpose of this research was to obtain concrete data on the current listenership and also to explore the possibility of continuing the service using alternate technologies. The research was conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex University, which was appointed following a competitive tender process run by Irish in Britain, the national representative organisation for the Irish community in England, Scotland and Wales. Information was gathered through individual submissions, group submissions and focus groups. Overseeing the research was a consultative group of key stakeholders composed of representatives of RTE, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials based in Dublin and at the Embassy of Ireland in London, and representatives of the Irish community in Britain.
The figures show that out of 3,191 people who completed the individual surveys, 72% of those who responded were over 60, while 68% of respondents were born in Ireland and 62% were retired. For the majority of respondents, long wave was seen as a lifeline to Ireland, helping them to maintain a sense of Irishness and to keep up with events back home. The majority of listeners in the focus groups preferred the familiar, analogue service as opposed to digital platforms, computers, laptops and smartphones. The Government recognises the special value placed on RTE’s long wave 252 service by some Irish citizens in the Britain, especially the elderly, and my Department is working closely with RTE to ensure that the views of this community are heard in any decision-making process.
While any decision on the future of long wave services in Britain is ultimately an operational matter for RTE, it can, as a result of the study, now be informed by awareness of the role that the service plays in preserving and enhancing links with Ireland and keeping our people in Britain informed of important events and developments, such as the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and the Irish Government’s position. A meeting of the consultative group will take place in London next week in order to discuss the next steps, explore possible ways forward In the context of maintaining the link with audiences in Britain, and of keeping the Irish community involved in decision-making. I am hopeful that a positive outcome can be achieved.
Senator Billy Lawless: I thank the Minister of State. That is very encouraging and I am sure my colleagues will be more than happy with his response. It is vital that we look after our elderly, not just in the UK, but also in the United States. Our Irish emigrant population is getting older and they need these links.
Senator Catherine Noone: Hear, hear.
Senator Billy Lawless: I am delighted to hear the Minister of State’s response.
While he is here, will the Minister of State indicate if a decision has been taken in respect of the undocumented Irish. This matter is close to my heart and, of course, to the Minister of State’s as well. Will he provide an update with regard to what has happened in the past ten days in the United States?
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: That is a separate matter. If the Minister of State wishes to respond, I will call on him.
Deputy Joe McHugh: Out of respect to the Senator’s global reach, which is not just confined to the UK, I wish to state for the record that there is an intensive effort going in to continuing the dialogue and conversation with all our front-line services in America. It also continues at a political level in the US Senate and House of Representatives. The Senator is involved in that effort. He took part in a very important meeting in America on 12 January. Those meetings with the consulates and the embassy are so important. In the context of what we can control in terms of budget, in last year’s programme €2.3 million was allocated to the emigrant support service. We support many emigrant support services, be it in San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, New York or whatever part of America, and we need to continue that.
We also need to continue work on our strong relationship with the US. When the Taoiseach travels to the White House on 17 March, it is going to be about that relationship. Foremost in the minds of every politician, including my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, who is in the US this week, is the undocumented. That is a top priority and it will continue to be. It was my priority when I was in San Francisco, New York and Boston. I am going again – the Senator will be joining me- to visit the the east coast and we have to make it a priority because there are people feeling vulnerable at the moment. We have to ensure that the relationship that was always there between Ireland and the United States continues, in a similar vein to the Senator’s comments on the relationship with the United Kingdom. They are two separate issues but one and the same in terms of keeping the relationships strong.
Senator Billy Lawless: I thank the Minister of State.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I thank the Minister of State. That was very nice.
Interview on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show, 31st January. Senator Lawless talks about rally to protest against Trump’s immigration order at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and current situation of undocumented Irish in US.
Press Release 30th January, 2017
On Friday January, 27th 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order that halted refugee resettlement from seven muslim-majority countries for 90 days. The executive order also included legal permanent residents and dual citizens holding a passport from any of the seven countries listed.
The result was confusion and fear among immigrant and refugee communities across the United States and at its major airports. “Yesterday I stood as Senator for the global Irish in solidarity with immigrant and refugee community groups at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport”, said Senator Lawless. Over 5,000 people turned out in an impromptu show of force and defiance to denounce president Trump’s Executive Orders. They were joined by similar protests in New York, Boston, Denver and 33 other airports across the United States.
“America is a nation of laws but it is also a nation of values. It has always been outward-looking and welcoming to immigrants of all faiths and lands,” “These Executive Orders do not reflect the spirit of the American people or the country’s leadership role in the world,” Senator Lawless expressed.
Senator Lawless has called on the Trump Administration to rescind this Executive Order and follow the words of Pope Francis who admonishes us to welcome the stranger and those fleeing suffering or persecution.
Yesterday I joined a young man from the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society in Chicago who’s parents are both green card holders from Iraq, where they had spent 10 years working for American NGOs helping to rebuild a ravaged country. Othman Al Ani’s mother travelled to Egypt recently to visit a son she had not seen for 8 years but as of yesterday she remained trapped in Egypt unable to return home as a result of this ban.
“In this climate the 50,000 Irish undocumented in the United States are watching closely with fear and trepidation for their future. I stand ready to work with the Irish government to represent the interests of our most vulnerable citizens living abroad and I will encourage the Taoiseach to continue to raise this issue at the highest levels of the US government” Senator Lawless confirmed.
Speech on Order of Business, Tuesday, 31st January, 2017
On Friday, January 27th 2017 President Trump signed an executive order that halted the entire refugee programme for Syria for 4 months.
Citizens from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen are blocked for 3 months.
The executive order also included legal permanent residents and dual citizens holding a passport from any of the countries listed.
The result was confusion and fear among immigrant and refugee communities across the United States and at its major airports.
The reaction by ordinary American citizens to this un-American act however, has been nothing short of extraordinary.
On Sunday, I stood as Senator for the global Irish in solidarity with immigrant and refugee community groups at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Over 5,000 people turned out in an impromptu show of force and defiance to denounce president Trump’s executive orders.
They were joined by similar protests in New York, Boston, Denver and 33 other airports across the United States.
More than 50 people at O’Hare airport alone were detained.
Citizens and Green Card holders with valid visas were detained by customs and border control agents.
New York Federal Judge, Anne Donnelly, a good Irish-American, granted a stay on any deportations and eventually anyone detained was released.
On Sunday, I met a young man from the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society in Chicago, who’s parents are both green card holders from Iraq, where they had spent 10 years working for American Non-Government Organisations, helping to rebuild a ravaged country.
Othman Al Ani’s mother travelled to Egypt recently to visit a son she had not seen for 8 years but as of Sunday, she remained trapped in Egypt, unable to return home as a result of this ban.
America is a nation of laws but it is also a nation of values. It has always been outward-looking and welcoming to immigrants of all faiths and lands.
These executive orders do not reflect the spirit of the American people or the country’s leadership role in the world.
Senator Billy Lawless.
-Independent Senators secure Taoiseach’s support for BREXIT Seanad Inquiry
Speaking at the announcement of an all-party Seanad inquiry on BREXIT, to take place in the New Year, Group Leader Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell welcomed the Taoiseach’s support for their proposal.
“As a group of Independent Senators, we have been working behind the scenes to secure the support across all parties, as well as the Taoiseach, to turn the Seanad Chamber into a BREXIT chamber of inquiry.
The House of Lords this week has shown the influence parliament can play in shaping the BREXIT discussions from a UK perspective, our aim is have the same effect, but with Ireland’s interest at heart.”
Senator Michael McDowell emphasised the constitutional implications that BREXIT may bring to these shores.
For instance, the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Constitution confer the right to Irish citizenship to people born in Northern Ireland. That means that people born in one part of the United Kingdom may be regarded as EU Citizens even though the United Kingdom as such has ceased to be part of the EU.
The notification by the UK of Article 50 before the end of March next year could have immediate impact on the Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish people amended Ireland’s constitution to allow this state to be bound by the Good Friday agreement. Depending on the extent of any changes to the Good Friday agreement, there could be constitutional issues for this state .
Senator Gerard Craughwell said there were many workers across the Irish economy who could suffer quite dramatically from the consequences of BREXIT unless necessary measures were taken.
“The Department of Finance have already calculated that almost 100,000 workers are in BREXIT exposed sectors. We hope that this all party inquiry will help assist in formulating concrete proposals for an industrial policy that will protect these jobs.
Across the education sector, there are also consequences that have not been widely considered. There is significant concern that the 10,905 Irish students currently studying in UK colleges and universities could return to Ireland, causing further funding difficulties within third level education.”
This is certainly a day of debate on justice and equality issues. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is very welcome. I commend Senator Mark Daly for bringing the Bill before the House again. It is clear that he has shown great commitment to this most important cause. The Bill is primarily about equality, ensuring equal opportunities for all citizens and I will lend it my full support. Recognition of Irish Sign Language by the State is something that should have occurred many years ago. Irish Sign Language is recognised in Northern Ireland but not in the Republic. The lack of recognition impacts on members of the deaf community in almost all of their interactions with the State, in education, health care provision and even the justice system, ultimately marginalising them.
This is a matter which affects almost 40,000 citizens. Irish Sign Language is used by deaf people, their families, friends and colleagues. Members of the deaf community do not have the same access to public services as other citizens. Lack of access to Irish Sign Language in education, in particular, is a source of great concern. It impacts further on the employability of members of the deaf community. As such, many members of the deaf community feel marginalised, economically and socially. This important legislation should provide improved access for members of the deaf community to education services, benefiting, in particular, the youth and, I hope, reducing their sense of marginalisation. Within the justice system, excluding criminal court proceedings, there is no automatic right of deaf people to an Irish Sign Language interpreter. This is available in Northern Ireland but not here in the Republic. As a State, we need to be able to afford this to our citizens as a basic right. Without the protections in law inscribed in this Bill, deaf people will continue to face these barriers throughout their lives. I am voting in favour of the Bill as I hope it will bring about real change and equality for the deaf community in Ireland.
Billy Lawless Speech 12th October 2016
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.
Former Chief Counsel to Senator Orinn Hatch- the former Chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee in the US Senate – addressed An Seanad Eireann on Wednesday October 5th. Mr Cooney runs a successful political consulting firm in Washington D.C. and is an expert on immigration reform, missing and exploited children and the undocumented Irish. He is the only American citizen to address the chamber in recent times.
He has provided his expertise and pro bono assistance to Irish community groups in the USA as they seek immigration reform for the estimated 50.000 Irish undocumented living in the USA. Mr Cooney himself an Irish American stated: “It is a huge honor to be invited to address An Seanad Eireann and I look forward to continuing to pursue the issue of immigration reform, in particular for the undocumented Irish”.
I thank Mr. Cooney for being with us today to share his insights and expertise and for all his work on comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. As he knows, 50,000 undocumented Irish have been living in the United States for well over a decade now. In Illinois, many of them worked hard and paid taxes and yet none of them had a driver’s licence, which put them in grave danger, as Mr. Cooney knows, of deportation. A campaign was started 12 years ago to secure temporary driving licences for all the uninsured, undocumented drivers in Illinois. I am happy to say that, after building a broad coalition of immigrant rights groups, faith institutions, unions, businesses and cross-party bipartisan support, Republican and Democratic, the Bill that provided relief to over 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois was passed. That model of co-operation among diverse sectors and across the political divide solved the problem that bedevilled the Irish undocumented and hundreds of thousands of others.
In addition, 11 other states and two territories followed suit with similar legislation that would affect millions. We took the decision after the 2013 Senate Bill to work locally and try to influence local states, and our bipartisanship models have worked. I am a firm believer in building consensus on core issues that affect broader society and the type of bipartisan efforts we witnessed in Illinois. Harking back to a not-too-distant time in Washington, two great Irish-American politicians, President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, reached across the aisle to find common-sense solutions to problems besetting the United States.
As Mr. Cooney knows, we took that spirit of co-operation to Washington DC to try to achieve a comprehensive immigration reform that would legalise 11 million undocumented workers, including the Irish. In 2013, we came very close with the gang of eight Senate bipartisan Bill which included a provision granting 10,500 visas for the Irish. When the Bill was in the throes of debate, I went to Luis Gutierrez, who is our championing Democratic leader for Hispanics and immigration reform. I told him there was a small Bill for the Irish for some visas. He asked me how many was a few, and I told him it was 10,500. He told me that was nothing. There was no objection to the main group that was in there with us.
Our hopes were dashed when the negotiations fell apart and the Bill died in the House. Since then, pundits have argued that immigration reform is a third rail and should be avoided by both parties in Washington. Advocates, like Mr. Cooney and many others, continue to keep the pressure on and the dream alive. Albert Einstein once said only those who attempt the absurd achieve the impossible.
My question has been asked already. When does Mr. Cooney think it will be appropriate to start lobbying the new Administration when the next President takes office? How does he rate the chances of immigration reform? He more or less answered that question in his contribution. Would an immigration Bill be piecemeal or comprehensive? Does he think that the political will exists on both sides to include an Irish E3 Visa, as we secured in the 2013 Bill? I again thank him for addressing the House.
Michigan’s Lt. Governor made a stop at the the historic Shelbourne Hotel beside the Irish parliament on Thursday, September 29th where he met with the Leader of the Senate and Ireland’s Senator for the Diaspora. The hotel witnessed the signing of the Irish Proclamation in 1916, which gave rise to the modern Irish Republic.
Pictured left to right: Senator Jerry Buttimer-Leader of An Seanad, Lt. Governor Calley, Senator Lawless
I welcome the Taoiseach. Irish people who live abroad are delighted that he appointed a Senator with a specific brief to advocate for their concerns, particularly with regard to the undocumented status of many of them. Two weeks ago, I attended the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Harp and Shamrock Society in San Antonio. I stayed directly across from the Alamo, where many Irish people died. Twelve of those who died there were born in Ireland and a further 20 were of Irish descent. Thirty of the 300 people who attended the event a fortnight ago were born in Ireland. This shows how diverse the Irish community in that region is. The same thing can be said of every state in the US.
As the Taoiseach knows, the United States is less than 40 days away from a presidential election, the result of which will be as close as any in recent memory. The Irish and immigrant rights community in the US is watching the race extremely closely, as opinions on immigration expressed by the two candidates could not be further apart in substance or tone. I was in New York last week with the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. We met representatives of Irish community and immigration advocacy groups. I assure the Taoiseach that they are already planning their responses to either a Trump or a Clinton victory in the forthcoming election and are preparing their strategies for the first 100 days of the next Presidency.
The Irish community leaders I met in Ireland House asked me and the Irish Government to petition the next President of the US and the US Congress for new visas for the Irish. They made the case that Ireland lost 18,000 visas a year under the 1965 immigration law, which today results in fewer than 350 green cards being issued to Irish people I feel that the political will exists in Congress. Irish people punch way above our weight. Given that 10,500 visas were secured in a 2013 Senate Bill, I believe an Irish visa Bill could pass if the Irish Government joined forces with legislative allies on Capitol Hill and Irish community groups to make a major push.
Irish companies now employ more Americans in the US than American companies employ here in Ireland. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is very proud of his Irish roots and is a major advocate of immigration reform. Will the Taoiseach, through his Ministers and the ambassador, make contact with the next President, whoever he or she may be, to ensure a visa Bill for the Irish is initiated? I suggest that any visa Bill should also provide for a path for the undocumented Irish, who would not be averse to coming back to Ireland to secure such a visa at the US Embassy here if it were guaranteed that they could return to the US.
I thank the Taoiseach for his commitment to the diaspora and to the issue of voting rights for immigrants abroad. As the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, alongside Ambassador Anderson, noted in New York, we have a constitutional obligation to the Irish diaspora under the Good Friday Agreement. This statement was wholeheartedly appreciated by the community leaders we met in America. They also wondered about the Government’s stance on the voting rights issue. Can we expect that a referendum on this matter will be held and the result implemented in time for the 2018 Irish Presidential election? The subject of immigration reform and the plight of the undocumented Irish are of relevance to the process of Seanad reform that is currently under discussion.