Case Study of Irish-born People Living in England' by Ms Liz O'Donnell, Minister of State
Dublin, 28 June 2000
It is a pleasure to be here to launch Nessa Winston's Report ‘Between Two Places: A Case Study of Irish-Born People Living in England'. A worthy project for support by the European Cultural Foundation. This Report not only challenges us to look afresh at the reasons for emigration and how successfully or otherwise, Irish people have integrated into British society but it places these issues in the EU context of the right to freedom of movement and its corollary, the right to integration in the host country.
There were two major waves operating in Irish emigration to Britain over the past fifty years: the first in the 1950s and the second in the 1980s. This research looks at the differences between the experiences of these two distinct groups and interestingly points to some remarkable similarities.
Many might assume that the experience of those young, Irish people who arrived in the eighties, given their general high level of education and often middle-class background in some way protected them from difficult issues of self-identification so common to the Irish in Britain. But this research indicate that a higher percentage of those who came in the eighties encountered discrimination that those who came during the first wave. And in trying to understand why this is, we must look at the phenomenal changes which have occurred in Ireland politically, economically, socially. The peace process in Northern Ireland, the ongoing economic boom, international recognition and celebration of all forms of Irish art and culture - are largely phenomena of the 1990s. Those who left Ireland only a few years earlier experienced many negative stereotypes of the Irish. What is very encouraging though, from the Report, is that the majority of those interviewed from the 1950's wave and the 1980's group say that things have changed, that it is now easier to retain a positive ethnic Irish identity within British society than it has been heretofore.
The changing political landscape on the two islands is creating a space in which the Irish community in England can reclaim their right to a positive Irish identity while fully integrated into British society. Prime Minister Blair's speech to the joint Houses of the Oireachtas in November 1998 recognised the benefits to this generation and previous generations which the Irish community in Britain has made to Britain as their host country and their home.
And in recognition of the unique experience of the Irish community, of the need to collecting data on their needs, of providing them with culturally sensitive services; the Irish government welcomed Jack Straw's decision, to include the Irish as a separate ethnic category in the 2001 British census. This will enable policymakers to get a picture not only of the 845,000 Irish-born people living in Britain, which the 1991 census gave us, but of the estimated three million people who identify themselves as Irish.
However positive these developments, we are concerned about the welfare of our community in Britain. There are strong indications from this study and previous research that the Irish in Britain have higher mortality rates and a higher incidence of ill-health than the native population. Many of our people in Britain are elderly, living in isolation, in poor health and in substandard accommodation. These are the hard facts and these are the challenges.
Last year the Interdepartmental Committee on Emigration, chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs, set up a special sub-committee to consider action and whether further study is needed, perhaps jointly with the British authorities, to address the special health and social problems of Irish people in Britain. Irish and British officials are working towards special remedial action in the context of policies to combat social exclusion.
The recent changes to Article 2 of the Constitution for the first time states ‘the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage'. In practical recognition of this special affinity and in responding to the changing needs of the older and newer Irish community in Britain, unprepared for working and living in Britain, the Tánaiste recently announced an increase of IR£250,000 in funding in 2000 to the Díon Committee, the Government's advisory committee on the welfare of the Irish in Britain. Minister of State Noel Davern was in London yesterday presenting grants to Irish voluntary agencies working with marginalised members of our community in Britain. On Saturday President McAleese was in Birmingham, a city which has the second-largest concentration of Irish people after London on the occasion of the Annual Congress of the Federation of Irish Societies the foremost umbrella group for Irish organisations in Britain. The Tánaiste's announcement and the visit of the President are indicative of the priority which is attached to reaching out to the Irish community in Britain.
The Government's Programme for Prosperity and Fairness sets an objective: "to address the special needs of those Irish emigrants abroad who are particularly marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion". A Task Force is to be set up under the chairmanship of the Department of Foreign Affairs and comprising of social partners and other relevant interests, to develop a coherent long-term approach to Irish emigrants and their needs, building on the initiatives already being undertaken by that Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
I welcome this report as it is a timely contribution to the debate on measures need to help our community in Britain who have felt disinherited struggling with dual British/Irish identities, who have found themselves "Between Two Places". We must ensure that those who make their home in Britain in the future can have‘a foot in both camps' – able to retain a positive Irish identity while embracing fully their host society.