John McDonnell: a voice for Irish in UK for nearly two decades

New shadow chancellor has highlighted issues of discrimination Irish immigrants face

 New shadow chancellor in Britain John McDonnell:  was involved in the campaign to secure the Irish in London their first St Patrick’s Day festival in 1999. Photograph:  Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

New shadow chancellor in Britain John McDonnell: was involved in the campaign to secure the Irish in London their first St Patrick’s Day festival in 1999. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

 

The new shadow chancellor in Britain, John McDonnell, has been among the most active MPs on Irish affairs in the House of Commons.

Mr McDonnell, who is Liverpool-Irish, was one of the founders of the Irish in Britain Parliamentary Group in 1998.

He founded the group following a groundbreaking report in 1997 which highlighted disadvantages in health, education and housing among the Irish in Britain. Mr McDonnell lists Irish affairs among his principal interests as an MP.

He was involved in the campaign to secure the Irish in London their first St Patrick’s Day festival in 1999 and to secure the Irish a separate category in the British census which was eventually granted in 2001.

Speaking in the House of Commons in 1998, Mr McDonnell described the parliamentary neglect of the Irish in Britain, for a long time Britain’s biggest ethnic minority, as “astounding”.

He said many Irish people in the past in Britain had been subjected to a “powerful sense of hurt and unjustified exclusion from an equal place in British society”.

Irish people had poorer physical and mental health compared with the host population but also poorer health in comparison with the Irish at home, he pointed out.

Mr McDonnell has also been critical in the past of the role of the Irish Government and its neglect of emigrants.

He told the Parnell Summer School in the past that Irish society had turned its back on Irish emigrants in Britain who had suffered discrimination.

The Irish “are the only migrants to Britain whose life expectancy falls”, he said, because they “lived and still live in some of the worst housing conditions in Britain”; “worked and still work in some of the hardest manual jobs”; and “experienced and still experience isolation and extremes of poverty, especially in old age.

“The question for many of us is that when all this was happening to the Irish in Britain, where was the Irish homeland? In particular, where was the Irish State, and indeed where is it now?”

Mr McDonnell was involved in many Irish miscarriages of justice campaigns in the UK including the Guildford Four and the Irish jump jockey Christy McGrath who was jailed for murder. However, his best known interventions on Irish issues have been in relation to the Troubles. In 2003, he caused outrage when he praised the “bravery and sacrifice” of the IRA at an event to honour hunger striker Bobby Sands.

He said: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.”

Later in the Guardian, he clarified his remarks by stating that Irish republicans had to “face the fact that the use of violence has resulted in unforgivable atrocities. No cause is worth the loss of a child’s life.

“No amount of political theory will justify what has been perpetrated on the victims of the bombing campaigns. Above all else, republicans need to accept that the time for violence has gone. Only the political process offers the real prospect of a united Ireland at peace with itself.”

Mr McDonnell went on to suggest, however, that it was violence that made the British grant independence to the Irish Free State and it was violence that brought about the Good Friday Agreement.