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31 January 2008 Edition

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Irish hardship in Britain

By Laura Friel







A RECENT meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body heard a report on the Irish community in Britain which described the appalling vista of discrimination, ill-health and poverty which has characterised the experience of Irish people living Britain for decades.
Sinn Féin MLA Barry McElduff, who attended the inter-parliamentary meeting with party colleague Arthur Morgan TD, spoke to An Phoblacht about the issues.
Irish people have been moving to Britain in significant numbers for over two centuries and the Irish in Britain are currently the largest migrant minority in Western Europe. The report estimates that there are currently two million Irish citizens living in Britain with a further four million second and third generation.
Yet despite their long history and significance in terms of numbers, Barry said, Irish people, most particularly Irish men, remain the only immigrant group whose life expectancy worsens on emigration to England.
“This shameful state of affairs has not only been allowed to continue unaddressed for decades, it has remained largely unacknowledged. Outside the dedicated work of voluntary support groups like the London Irish Centre, Camden Elderly Irish Network and the mental health charity MIND, the plight of Irish people in Britain has mostly been ignored.”
However, the Peace Process has created a new impetus, a willingness to address many of the issues affecting Irish people in Britain. Last November, a two-day meeting in Oxford of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body endorsed a report by the Environment and Social Committee.
“I want to commend the work of the committee that produced this report,” Barry McElduff said. “My party colleague, Arthur Morgan TD, made a very substantive contribution and, to be fair, British MP Alf Dubbs and other MPs and TDs across party lines have put huge energy into this report.”
The report acknowledges that support for the Irish community in Britain tends to be through self-help community groups, mostly in large cities like London, Leeds and Manchester. It says:
“Most Irish community groups are supported financially by the Irish Government and the communities themselves. At best, there is inconsistency and a lack of coherence in support provided to the Irish community by the British authorities and in many instances no support is provided at all.”
The experience of Irish people in Britain stands in stark contrast to their experience of other countries, like America and Australia, where Irish immigrants have achieved significant social mobility and increasing prosperity. Barry McElDuff said:
“It would be easy to identify this anomaly as the result of wilful neglect by a state with a long history of anti-Irish racism, but while this clearly continues to play a part in the experience of Irish people living in Britain, the problem is also rooted in a misplaced liberal view in which Irish integration into British society is seen as unproblematic.
“Arguably, the failure to recognise and acknowledge mechanisms of discrimination and disadvantage experienced by Irish people in Britain has resulted in as much harm as actual racism itself.”
The traditional understanding of racism in Britain has been in terms of a black/white dichotomy. This notion has been more recently challenged as new patterns of immigration, mainly from Eastern Europe, have highlighted problems of other white ethnic groups. However, this has yet to significantly impact on the treatment of Irish people in Britain.
Irish-born people living in Britain are more likely to be socially disadvantaged. Figures show that Irish people are twice as likely to be unemployed and more likely to be involved in manual, unskilled and personal service employment.
Although there is an emerging trend towards more skilled and graduate emigration from Ireland to Britain, traditionally a high proportion of Irish men who migrate to Britain are unskilled workers and seek employment in the building industry, where employment is erratic and conditions unhealthy.
“Because many have not paid insurance contributions they often end up without pensions in their old age or when ill,” Barry observed. “In other words, Irish men are significantly more prone to destitution with the advance of age or onset of serious illness or disability.
“Given the levels of poverty and disadvantage endured by many Irish people living in Britain, it is hardly surprising that they also suffer higher levels of ill-health, both physical and psychiatric, and long-term disability. In Britain, suicide rates are highest within the Irish community.”
Irish people are far more likely to live in private rented accommodation, often shared and in poor condition. A third of all hostel places in inner London are occupied by Irish people and a quarter in outer London.
Irish people living in Britain also experience high levels of homelessness. A survey of housing in London showed that 36 per cent of residents in short-stay hostel accommodation and a third of homeless people encountered on the streets were Irish.
“The big story behind this report is the story of health inequalities, social isolation and discrimination faced by Irish people living in Britain,” Barry said. “Governments and agencies urgently need to act on the recommendations of this report.”
But the experience of life in Britain for Irish people has largely been ignored by the authorities. Most ethnic monitoring programmes do not include a category for Irish people. As a result, the Irish community continues to be excluded from attempts to tackle discrimination in Britain.
“The statistical invisibility of the Irish in Britain remains one of the greatest barriers in addressing the difficulties they experience” Barry McElduff pointed out. “Lack of statistical information undermines planning and provision which continues to disregard the needs of the Irish community.”
The report recognises that “on the British side there is a lack of consistency in the recognition, support and financial assistance provided to Irish communities in Britain from British authorities both at national and local levels”.
The report acknowledges “an obligation to keep and monitor statistics on all identified ethnic minorities, including the Irish” by the relevant British authorities, both national and local, as well as monitoring future compliance.
The report highlights the need to investigate and monitor the serious health inequalities experienced by Irish people in Britain. It also calls for particular attention and funding to vulnerable groups such as the elderly Irish, travelling and homeless community.
The media in Britain, particularly the BBC in light of its public broadcasting remit, should evaluate “how best to represent the Irish community in Britain”, says the report. In line with this, Sinn Féin has forwarded copies of the report to Peter Johnston, BBC Controller in Belfast.
“The BBC could do a lot more in terms of joint programming with RTÉ aimed at addressing the needs of the Irish community in Britain,” Barry McElduff argued. “I have also contacted GAA President Nicky Brennan in relation to the report. The GAA is already doing excellent work in terms of developing its strategy for addressing the needs of members in Britain.
“Clearly this report has relevance to many agencies and organisations like the GAA. This report and its many recommendations are compelling and they should be instructive for both the British and Irish governments.”

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