Forgotten Irish in UK deserve recognition

Next year, rather embarrassingly, those perfidious Brits will pull another of their nasty tricks

Next year, rather embarrassingly, those perfidious Brits will pull another of their nasty tricks. For the first time in recent years, the 2001 census in England and Wales will include "Irish" as one of the ethnic categories through which people living in those countries can choose to identify themselves.

In answer to the question "what is your ethnic group?" the census form will offer under the heading "white", the sub-categories of "British", "Irish" or "any other white background". Though the term "white" is inherently problematic, this will almost certainly produce a very interesting response. It will also provide an awkward reminder of a reality with which this State has never really come to terms.

On many levels, the relationship between Ireland and Britain is becoming less neurotic. The Belfast Agreement, for all its short-term difficulties, has provided an intellectual and political framework within which conflicts over sovereignty and identity can be negotiated.

The Irish economic boom, which has pushed disposable incomes in the Republic to UK levels and beyond, has banished the old inferiority complex and social developments on both islands have taken much of the sting out of the cultural divide between Catholicism and Protestantism. But there is still one huge historic overhang, obscured by amnesia and evasion: the position of the Irish in Britain.

Right now, there is both the opportunity and the responsibility to deal with it.

Whatever the 2001 census in England and Wales throws up, we already know there are about 850,000 Irish-born people living in Britain, about 600,000 of them from the Republic. In addition, there are probably around 2.5 million British-born people with at least one Irish-born parent. In Greater London, at least 10 per cent of the population is first or second-generation Irish.

One of the things that tends to make the British Irish less visible is that they have not lived up to the stereotype of a clannish, tightly-knit religious or ethnic group. There is still a perception in Ireland that people who left here for Britain tended to hang around together in the same pubs and clubs, to socialise among themselves and to marry each other.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The 1991 UK census showed that in only a fifth of the households in which one partner was born in Ireland was the other partner also Irish-born. The vast majority of the Irish in Britain, in other words, marry or live with people of other nationalities.

There are all sorts of reasons why we should pay more attention to the Irish in Britain, not the least of which is the useful corrective they provide to the increasing tendency to see "Irish" and "immigrant" as opposed categories of humanity. But the most important and the most urgent is a question of moral justice. Over the next decade, those of us who live within the State are about to benefit directly from the misery of the most deprived group of the Irish in Britain.

LEAVING aside whatever the unpredictable cycles of boom and bust may have in store for us, there is no doubt that one particular factor will make people in the Republic richer than they would otherwise have been over the next decade. Our population structure will contain far fewer old people than almost all of our European neighbours. As a result, those at work will be supporting fewer people than they would have been.

And one of the principal reasons for this is, by a rather grotesque irony, mass emigration to Britain in the 1950s. Many people in their 70s and 80s, who should be in the care of this State, are instead in the care of Her Majesty's government.

About a third of the current Irish-born population in Britain can be traced back to the population drain of the 1950s. While the well-educated and often successful younger emigrants earned themselves their very own acronym, Nipples (New Irish Professional People Living in England), the 1950s exiles were on the whole poorly educated.

The women were heavily concentrated in the service and catering industries, the men as labourers and as factory workers. For every Roy Keane, Graham Norton and Anna Nolan, there are thousands of Irish pensioners living on the breadline after a life of hard work.

Many of them are the very bottom of the social pile. Mary Hickman and Bronwen Walter, in their 1997 report for the Commission for Racial Equality, Discrimination and the Irish in Britain, pointed out that while 11.5 per cent of Black African women in Britain are in the lowest social class, 14 per cent of Irish women are. The figures for men are 8.4 per cent of Black Africans and 12 per cent of Irish.

Among the most destitute, those sleeping rough on the streets of British cities, the Irish are vastly over-represented. Poor housing, poor health and high mortality rates are strong features of the lives of the older Irish in Britain.

No one would suggest that the present Irish State can simply undo the sins of the 1950s, or that Britain does not owe a debt of its own to people who gave it their labour for decades. But if Charlie McCreevy is looking for a non-inflationary way to spend some of his vast surplus revenue, what about creating a fund to top-up the pensions of Irish-born people in Britain? It would mean a lot to them, both materially and psychologically.

But it would mean even more to us - a sign that we have matured enough as a society to acknowledge the complex human reality behind that elusive place that is now called, for want of a better phrase, "these islands".

fotoole@irish-times.ie