Numbers of Irish in UK set to rise with proposed census change


ALTERATIONS TO next year’s United Kingdom census rules could allow several million people of Irish decent to declare themselves as Irish – even if they were not born in Ireland, or carry Irish passports.

The changes, which followed tough negotiations between the Federation of Irish Societies and others and the UK Office of National Statistics, could strengthen the lobbying power of Irish community organisations. This could be particularly so in battles to win local authority funding for health and welfare services.

In the 2001 census, 670,000 living in the UK declared themselves as Irish-born. But the numbers of second-generation, and subsequent generations who consider themselves Irish were not counted.

A question was asked that would have allowed many more to declare themselves of Irish ethnicity. But this information was subsequently included in the “white British” category, following Welsh objections when a similar option was not afforded them.

The government order for the census questions was put before a House of Commons committee yesterday by minister for the third sector Angela Smith and it will go for final approval to a House of Lords committee tomorrow.

The Federation of Irish Societies intends to make Irish communities aware of the fact that they can list themselves as of Irish ethnicity before the census. The census will be held in March.

“This will make the world of difference,” said Jennie McShannon, chief executive of the federation, “because spending on services is decided locally by councils and this is the only source of data”. Irish parents living in the UK are often confused about whether to list their children as Irish or not. “Sometimes they say, ‘my children were born here’. But ethnicity doesn’t change, nationality can,” said Ms McShannon.

The questions to be put to UK residents will include one – which followed representations from the European Commission – that will ask which passport they hold: UK, Irish or other.

People will be also asked to describe their “national identity” as English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British, or other. On ethnicity, they will be able to list themselves as one of the categories mentioned, or as Irish, or gypsy/Irish Traveller.

“The versions we have now are as good as we are likely to get, and substantial improvements on what was originally proposed, although we have questioned the inclusion of ‘Northern Irish’ and the conjoining of ‘gypsy’ and ‘Irish Traveller’, ” the federation said.

Welcoming the inclusion of Irish as a separate ethnicity, Martin Collins of the Agreed Ireland Forum said it was “a breath-taking achievement” that reflected the success of the Federation and the Irish community pulling together.

“For the first time the Irish will be counted whatever their religion, whatever passport they hold and whatever their place of birth,” Mr Collins told The Irish Times.

Former Labour MP Kevin McNamara recalled the 1980s controversy that surrounded “ethnic minority” status when many people of Irish background “feared the consequences of being identified as Irish”.

Manchester-based Labour MP Jim Dobbin said the census question would be a great boost for Irish community organisations. “Being properly counted in the census means that the needs of the most vulnerable members of our community can get addressed by the authorities, wherever they are.”

The Office of National Statistics said it had faced “significant demand” for a question about national identity during consultations in 2005 and 2007 from local and regional authorities which base their activities on census information.

People of Irish ancestry, but of mixed ethnicity, will also have the opportunity to declare themselves as being of “mixed/multiple ethnic background” – an issue on which the federation has also campaigned since 2001.

“In the census campaign leading up to the taking of the census, agencies and the organised Irish community really need to make it clear to as wide a public as possible that this opportunity exists,” it noted.