Irish in Britain can help show how difference should be celebrated, not feared
Brexit has induced a toxic ‘them’ and ‘us’ narrative that must be challenged
‘By making our own cultural offerings open to everyone, such as our St Patrick’s Day celebrations, we can also help the city show difference (in whatever form) as something to be celebrated and enjoyed, not feared.’
The only certainty in the UK at the moment is that everything is uncertain.
Advice from those with a positive view of the break from Europe see “golden opportunities” ahead without European interference. These were the people that promised untold millions per week for the NHS post March 2019. We know that’s not going to happen.
Those people with a negative view cite the need to prep against food and medicine shortages and worry that civil unrest will hit the streets pretty soon after the ‘deal’ goes through. But they were the people who said that the world would collapse if the referendum voted Leave. Recently full employment figures were announced in the UK.
Either way, I am pretty certain that, as has happened with austerity, if you’re rich you’re going to get richer and if you’re poor the inequality gap is going to grow.
Leeds Irish Health and Homes (lihh.org) has been providing support for vulnerable Irish people since its inception in 1996. I have had the great honour of seeing it through its developmental stage into the professional and exceptional support service to the Irish community it is today.
Providing a wide range of services, we help people find the routes out of homelessness and substance misuse, live more fulfilled lives when coping with dementia or the isolation and loneliness that can be a consequence of getting older or just enjoying the get togethers at social and cultural activities such as luncheon clubs and tea dances where old friendships are renewed and new ones are made. It so often doesn’t feel like work; it feels like taking care of kith and kin. A gift for this second-generation Wexford man.
For most of the community here, emigration has been a very positive experience, laying life’s foundations for the next generations to thrive. But for a disproportionate number of the community, their emigration experiences (No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish) and for some, existing vulnerabilities when they left home, have meant that legacies of poor mental health, higher rates of cancers, coronary heart disease, smoking, alcohol misuse and, now, propensity to dementia have been created.
LIHH was developed to offer culturally sensitive support to those Irish people who found themselves needing help to overcome adversity. We’ve been told that our support has literally saved people’s lives. Endorsement doesn’t come any greater than that.
We currently provide support to some 200 people each week (600+ individuals per year). 87 per cent of them are from the 10 per cent most deprived postcodes in Leeds; 84 per cent live alone; 80 per cent are over 55 years of age; 67 per cent of our referrals are self-referrals or from friends and family which indicates the trust the community have in us; 54 per cent self-identify with a disability (mental or physical) and often have a number of different conditions which impact their health and well-being.
Many of our service users would not see anyone from one end of the week to the other, were it not for the support they get from us.
LIHH proudly stands on three tenets: care, culture and community. It is what drives us to do the best for whomever seeks our support, without judgement and without prejudice. And it will continue well after March 29th comes and goes, because the contribution from and inclusion of our community is part of what makes Leeds a great place to live and settle in for Irish people.
Them and us
Brexit has induced a toxic “them” and “us” narrative. Irish people here have always been proud to be Leeds Irish or Yorkshire Irish. It was and is at one and the same time, inclusive and exclusive. Proud of where you live and equally exultant about where you’ve come from.
Ask any migrant about their homeland and they will elucidate its positives, alongside its strictures, but they will equally invest themselves in their new place because of their desire to make better lives for them and their families. The contribution of the Irish to the betterment of Leeds is found in the civic, financial, hospitality, legal, health, business, construction and education sectors to name a few.
Standing alongside migrant (and other marginalised) communities who contribute to the vibrancy of our city is very important to us. By making our own cultural offerings open to everyone, such as our St Patrick’s Day celebrations, we can also help the city show difference (in whatever form) as something to be celebrated and enjoyed, not feared. If you’re Irish or not, come into our parlour!
At LIHH, our experience is that the Brexit word is often said in hushed tones alongside meaningful looks, rather than well-articulated concerns. This may be to do with how the Irish deal with uncertainty and threats; part of the “Keep your head down and your mouth shut and maybe it will all work out ..” approach to life.
But there has been a significant rise in requests for Irish passport applications and for help in completing them. And indeed, for help in getting British passports by people born in the six counties.
And, let’s not forget, many people from the Irish community in Britain voted Leave.
We remain determined to open our doors to anyone who wants to avail of our support; we will contribute to the fabric of the city by including everyone in our celebrations. Last year we held events with the Jamaican Society, the South Asian community, and the Leeds Jewish community.
History repeats itself as we know. We must prepare to meet it with shared understanding, friendship, good humour but moreover strong leadership, for the whole community’s sake.