Irish played part in atrocities against Aboriginal people - Australian MP

First indigenous woman elected to parliament points to historical role of the Irish

The first Aboriginal woman to be elected to Australia’s House of Representatives has said that it must be acknowledged that the Irish were among the colonists who committed atrocities against Aboriginal people.

Linda Burney MP, speaking days after President Michael D Higgins recognised during a speech in Western Australia the role the Irish in injustices against the Aboriginal people, said that Irish were among those who maltreated the country's indigenous people during Australia's colonial period.

"I don't think a lot of people make that connection," she told The Irish Times ahead of a reception in Canberra's Parliament House yesterday for Mr Higgins as part of his State visit to Australia.

“There’s the British, the Scottish, the Irish were all part of and participated in massacres and many other atrocities against Aboriginal people.”


She spoke too about “the warm relationship” between the Irish and Aboriginal people now, pointing to the number of Aboriginal people who carry an Irish surname, including members of parliament.

"There is that recognition of similar stories in terms of invasion, being under a foreign power – those kinds of things. But you can't walk away from the fact that the Irish did participate in some of the atrocities," she said before a reception for Mr Higgins hosted by the Australian-Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group.

The Labour MP made history last year when she was elected to the lower house of the Australian parliament. As part of her maiden speech in August 2016, the former school teacher was sung to her seat by her Wiradjuri sister Lynette Riley and wore a kangaroo-skin cloak when she made her remarks.

She told the parliament that she was born at a time “when the Australian government knew how many sheep there were but not how many Aboriginal people” and that she was a “non-citizen” for her first decade.

Asked about President Higgins’s push for “ethical commemoration” of the past and whether Australians have gone far enough to address the injustices against Aboriginal people, she said: “Not far enough but much further than ever in the past and certainly getting there.”

Next February marks the 10th anniversary of former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people and “the stolen generations”, which, she said, was “a watershed moment”.

“Whilst there has been great steps forward in terms of remembering, in terms of understanding the concept and the practice of the truth telling, there is still a long way to go,” she said.

Social justice for Aboriginal people was “absolutely appalling”, she said, referring to the high incarceration, shorter life expectancy and high homicide and suicide rates for Aboriginal people.

“It is hard to explain to an international audience how a first world nation like Australia can have third-world conditions for the original people,” she said.

“It is a dichotomy really. We are much better as a nation at truth telling and acknowledgement but there are still enormous gaps in the social justice outcomes for Aboriginal people.”

Ms Burney said that her speech last year had inspired indigenous people and helped raise further awareness for Aboriginal people, introducing native cultural protocol into the parliament for the first time.

She plans to visit Ireland next year.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent