Where the Irish are not quite `white' white

Race is a hot topic in Ireland these days

Race is a hot topic in Ireland these days. As more and more foreign nationals come looking to ride the Celtic Tiger, resentment of ethnic minorities has grown in some sectors of Irish society. But those who find themselves leaning towards intolerance might do well to remember that we, too, are an ethnic minority.

This fact was brought home to me recently in the aftermath of the Brick Lane bombing, at a time when there was widespread speculation that the Irish would be the next community attacked. I was discussing race relations with a friend who was telling me why, as an Asian, she found it "difficult to trust white people". When I pointed out that I was white, she exclaimed: "You're not white, you're Irish".

"I'm both," said I.

"No, it's not the same. I'm talking about people who are `white' white - it's different."

This assertion came not from someone ignorant of the issues involved. Sara is a lawyer specialising in immigration disputes. And she was right - we are "different", although we seem to be slow to accept the fact.

In Ireland it may be difficult to relate to the idea of being from a minority, but representatives of ethnic communities here are in little doubt of our status. Ash Goswarmi of the Ethnic Community Organisation told me that an increasing number of Irish people are coming to his organisation for help. "We give advice on victimisation to all sections of the community . . . Not all Irish people consider themselves as `ethnic' but a growing number are coming to us for advice."

Chris Myant of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRER) says: "In a way, the Irish are the largest ethnic minority here." And he is not alone in considering us atypical - the British government does, too. Indeed, people of Irish birth are, for the first time, to be classified as a distinct ethnic category at the next census here in April 2001.

Other ethnic communities in England have been well aware of their disadvantaged status for many years - and have been dealing with it proactively. Mr Myant feels that Irish people here are faced with a unique problem, however - that they do not fully realise their own ethnicity.

"Fewer Irish people feel able to combat discrimination than, say, blacks or Asians. A black person who encounters a racial slur at work might respond quite robustly; an Irish person, it seems, would be less likely to do so. . .

"There's a growing number [of Irish people] coming to us concerning discrimination - particularly at work. Some of these cases concern racial abuse, some of them are very unpleasant . . ."

The Irish may find it difficult to identify with the problems experienced by what the Metropolitan Police calls "visually identifiable ethnic minority members". But as they do, "more and more are realising that they can use the Race Relations Act to combat the problem", according to Mr Myant.

It seems the Irish themselves may be the last to realise their minority status, despite the fact that they face all the same disadvantages, intolerance and resentment as other minorities. The grim proof is in the figures presented by sociological studies of the Irish community here.

Unemployment rates are higher for men born in the Republic of Ireland, with a figure of 20 per cent being roughly comparable to that for other minority ethnic groups.

The percentage of Irish-headed households lacking housing amenities or not owning a car is also well above the average for all white people. Irish households are likewise far more likely to live in public sector rented property than other sectors of the community.

And it seems to be immigrants from the Republic who are facing the brunt of the problem. The CRER reports that the Northern Ireland-born fare markedly better in the labour market than those from the Republic. The Northern Irish are also far more likely to work in white-collar jobs.

We are also in poor physical shape by comparison with other white peoples in Britain. The last census concluded that "the percentage of Irish-born people with a limiting long-term illness is well above the average for all white people". The CRER asserts that the figures regarding `limiting long-term illness' can be taken as a reliable representation of the general level of health of the population.

As the Celtic Tiger storms onward at home, the image the rest of the world has of Ireland is changing. But while we may be feeling prosperous and secure within our own shores, we are coming to different realisations abroad. Economic prosperity has brought many things to Ireland, including - for the first time - immigrants. And while we see the resulting rise in racial intolerance at home, Mr Myant for one thinks we would do well to remember "there are far more Irish people living as strangers in foreign lands than there are living at home in Ireland."