Call for Irish in Britain to exert more political power

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THE IRISH community living in Britain has failed to match the political influence of its Irish-American counterpart and must develop it quickly, a conference in London was told.

The declarations were made at a conference on the prospects for Irish unity organised by Sinn Féin on Saturday, which heard that unification “within a meaningful time-scale” is both “realistic and feasible”.

However, an afternoon workshop attended by 100 Irish emigrants and second-generation Irish, many of them influential in their own communities, was instead dominated by discussion of the need for the Irish to wield more power in British politics.

“The Irish community in the US has a lot of political clout. Why is it that the Irish in Britain has much less? It really should have more political influence,” Lord Alf Dubs, a former Labour Northern Ireland Office minister, said.

In the 2001 UK census, 642,000 people living in England and Wales listed their ethnicity as Irish – including 220,000 who were born outside the Republic of Ireland – though this is a gross under-recording of the actual numbers of Irish there.

Changes to the regulations governing the next census, due in March 2011, mean the numbers will rise significantly – particularly if backed by an information campaign, thus increasing Irish lobbying power over local authority spending, in particular.

The Federation of Irish Societies has already begun work to draft an “Irish in Britain manifesto” for this election, and is shortly to seek submissions from Irish organisations based there.

The lack of a political profile by the Irish was blamed by a number of speakers on the Troubles, and the effects of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, particularly after the Birmingham Six and other miscarriages of justice.

The chairman of the Irish Council of County Associations in London, John Connolly, said the county bodies had not been political, but “the young are no longer terribly interested in them”.

Tipperary-born Gus Casey of the Irish Council of County Associations said he had “watched with amazement” the progress of the Irish community since he went to London in the 1950s.

However, he said he believed the Irish should have a stronger voice. “We need to be able to put our case here. The Irish community should have representation where it matters.”

London-based Unite trade union official Jim Kelly, whose parents come from Mayo and Kerry, said there is no “political organisation to take forward political ambitions. It is no longer Labour”.

Nora Kellett of the Luton Irish Forum said the Irish community in Britain has too often “looked inwards, not outwards, and needs to engage more with other immigrant communities, particularly Muslims”.

Pointing to the Irish experience of the Prevention of Terrorism Act during the Troubles, she said: “We are the template for [the Muslims]. Now it is happening to them. We’ve been there.”

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who has long been vocal on Irish issues, said traditional Irish communities are falling in size, as the next generation moves away in search of jobs and cheaper housing.

The conference was to have heard speeches from Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Mitchel McLaughlin and Michelle Gildernew, but they were unable to get to London because of problems with an Aer Lingus aircraft in Belfast.

In his speech, Pat Doherty said the Irish community “has the potential to directly influence a British government and to persuade British political leaders of the imperative of facilitating Irish reunification . . . And we have to persuade unionists – or at least a section of unionism – that such a development makes political, social and economic sense – that it serves their self-interest,” he told the gathering.

“Within the current British system, unionists make up less than 2 per cent of the population. They are a tiny minority presence on the margins of a British system which doesn’t really understand or care about them. They have no significant influence within the political system. In a new Ireland, unionists would make up 20 per cent of the population and be able to exercise real authority and real power and real influence,” he said.

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