Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ray Burke, to Reps. of Irish Community Organisations, London
Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ray Burke T.D. ,to Representatives of Irish Community Organisations, London 11 July 1997
I want to say how pleased I am to be here today and to meet you, the representatives of bodies and organisations serving the needs of the Irish community in Britain.
When I was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs I thought it right that one of my first visits outside of Ireland should be here to Britain to speak to people like yourselves who are working directly with our community and on its behalf.
There were several reasons why I wanted to come.
Principally, I wanted, on behalf to the Irish Government, to thank you personally for the work you have done and continue to do, especially with those who experience difficulty in adapting to living in Britain or who encounter problems in caring for themselves.
But I also wanted to listen - to hear directly from you about the situation of our community, about its successes and its problems, about what you are doing and your plans for the future, and about how the Irish Government might help.
And I wanted to say that as Minister for Foreign Affairs I will work to strengthen the links between the Government and our community here.
We Irish have been coming to Britain for many hundreds of years. Most settle here and enjoy success in their professions, their careers and their businesses. In Ireland we are proud of success of the Irish in Britain, of the achievements of our community, and the contribution they have made to the civic, cultural and economic life of the country.
It is, I believe, important to recognise that contribution. The Irish Government certainly does so. And I am pleased that, in his recent statement on the Famine, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also spoke about and acknowledged the contribution that people of Irish origin have made to this country across the whole spectrum of political, economic, and social life.
We are here in significant numbers. Because of the way the census is taken we do not have accurate figures on the total size of our community. We do know, however, that the total number of Irish born people, from North and South, is almost 850,000. And a recent estimate calculates that over 11% of the population of Britain - that is approximately 6 million people - is first, second or third generation Irish.
So we are here in numbers. We are also widely spread. Although Irish emigrants have tended to gravitate towards the great cities in the South East, the North West and the Midlands I would venture to say that there is hardly a city or town anywhere in Britain that does not have Irish people living in it.
I know, from my own visits here in Government and Opposition, of the close links that Irish people maintain with home, of the pride they take in our native culture, and of the efforts they make to maintain and promote that culture and to transmit it to future generations. In Irish Centres and Clubs throughout the land there has always been a powerful commitment to teaching the Irish language, to fostering a love of Irish music and dance and to promoting Irish literature and Irish sport.
I am heartened by this and I want to encourage and support it in whatever way I can. I want to pay tribute too to the many organisations throughout Britain and to the many thousands of people who give voluntarily of their time and energies to foster a love of Ireland and all things Irish.
But we cannot forget, even if Ireland is now prospering as never before, and if Irish people abroad are achieving success and influence and recognition as never before, that there are still significant numbers of our fellow country men and women who need help and attention.
For the fact is that the profile of the Irish community here still shows significant patterns of disadvantage. You have no need for me to tell you this. You see it every day, and your own valuable research has demonstrated it:
Irish people are over represented amongst the street homeless.
Irish people have an older age profile and are more likely to live alone.
There are more Irish people amongst the ranks of the unemployed than
their English counterparts.
Irish people are more likely to encounter problems with the criminal justice system.
The health of the Irish deteriorates on arrival in Britain, the only migrant group to do so.
Irish people in Britain die younger than in Ireland, and the level of long- term disability is higher than the norm.
The incidence of mental health admissions is double the national average.
These patterns of disadvantage have been highlighted in the recently published Report of the Commission for Racial Equality which examined discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain. I have to say that the findings of the Report are disquieting. I hope that it will be examined by Government agencies and statutory bodies whose activities and responsibilities impinge on the welfare and interests of the Irish community. In this connection I welcome the undertaking by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, that he will ensure that the concerns which the Report raises will be given proper attention in his review of Britain's community relations strategy.
I know that all these are the issues that you who work with the Irish community encounter on a daily basis. What is important is that you are addressing these needs in a culturally sensitive way. A young person who is homeless, or an older person who requires help with their benefits, or someone who is suffering from mental health problems or AIDS needs assistance in a way that understands their culture and background, and this is perhaps one of the most valuable things that you do.
I have been talking today to members of the Dion Committee which is the principal advisory committee to the Irish Government on the position of Irish emigrants in Britain. I am happy to acknowledge the fact that the previous Irish Government increased the annual grant to Dion by £100,000 to £600,000 for 1997. I very much welcome that decision, and I want to say that this Government will continue to support Dion as the principal channel for Government funding to organisations working on behalf of our community here.
But I know that Dion is not the only channel of financial support for your work. That is why I am happy to see here today representatives from Cooperation Ireland, the Ireland Fund and the Irish Youth Foundation, who work tirelessly throughout the year to raise much needed funds for the activities of Irish welfare, support and advice organisations throughout the country. Your contribution is very much appreciated.
I said earlier that I wanted to thank you for what you are doing, and to listen. I also want to develop the links between the Government and the Irish community here to supplement the work that is being done through Dion and the Ambassador's regular contacts with you and his meetings with the Federation of Irish Societies.
I want to make clear today that I, and my colleagues in Government, are committed to meeting with representatives of the Irish community in Britain on a regular basis to discuss in a structured way the issues that are of concern to you.
I want also the message to go out that the welfare and interests of the Irish community in Britain are matters of concern to the Irish Government and that they are part of the British-Irish agenda.
Before I finish, I would like to want to say a few words about the current situation in Northern Ireland.
We have all, of course, been particularly concerned about the events surrounding the Orange parade on the Garvaghy Road last weekend. The Taoiseach and I made our views known to the British Government and throughout the past few days we have sought to encourage calm and restraint.
Up to yesterday evening the North of Ireland faced another tense weekend. As a result of the enlightened decisions taken overnight by the Orange Order and a number of its local lodges both communities there can now hope that the weekend will pass off peacefully.
I welcome the decisions taken by the Orange Order. They pull the situation back from the brink and give space for all sides to consider how this whole issue can be handled on a basis of respect for the rights of all, the Orange Order and the wider community alike.
As the Taoiseach made clear in Dáil Éireann this week, the Irish Government will stand up for and speak for the rights of nationalists in Northern Ireland but we have no wish to do so at the expense of the legitimate rights of unionists.
I hope that in the case of other contested parades this weekend both sides will now take a lead from the decisions announced last night. It is a time for reciprocal gestures and mutual confidence building to ensure a fair balance between the right to march and the responsibility to exercise that right with due regard for the rights of others. There are victories to be won from generosity far greater than can ever be found in confrontation.
In the new Irish Government's Action Programme for the Millennium we have stated that the priority will be to create a lasting peace on the island of Ireland based on justice, friendship and co-operation between people of different traditions.
We will enter the substantive negotiations which are to begin next September seeking a genuinely new political dispensation, based on equality, parity of esteem, respect for human rights and the principle of consent. New structures must be based on partnership: between the communities in Northern Ireland, between North and South, and indeed between Britain and Ireland. The outlines of a settlement are reasonably clear, and will broadly correspond to the lines set out in the Framework Document.
Immediately, we wish to secure a final and lasting cessation of violence, through the unequivocal restoration of the IRA cease-fire. We have always
resolutely opposed violence, from all sources. There is and can be no justification for it. It is completely and utterly inimical to the values and interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of both Ireland and
Britain. I know the particular difficulties it causes for the Irish Community here.
Equally, however, we have long recognised the need to construct a path out of violence and into democratic politics for those who might come to see at last the futility of the violent path . The Joint Declaration created the basis for a definitive movement in that direction. The present political negotiations in Belfast offer the best chance in at least a generation for meaningful and comprehensive dialogue on the many issues which face us.
We want to see Sinn Féin take their place at the table, and represent the views of those who support them. But they know exactly what must happen if they are to join us.
A fair and reasonable set of assurances has been offered to them as regards their entry to the negotiations, and as regards the seriousness and honesty of the two Governments' approach. Any reasonable clarification sought is being given.
We are also actively working for further progress on confidence building measures, including the humanitarian dimension of the treatment of Irish republican prisoners in Britain, particularly those confined in the so-called Special Secure Units.
In the respite I hope we have now gained as regards the marching season, the Republican Movement should seize the opportunity to participate with the rest of us in the construction of a political settlement without further delay or equivocation.
It is also vital that we now move ahead into serious and substantive negotiations. The issues under discussion have been sensitive and highly difficult. Nevertheless, the prize we seek - of lasting peace, agreement and reconciliation - is so great that it would be tragic and inexcusable, were we to fail to address the real political questions we know have to be resolved.
The problem of Northern Ireland and the vital interests of both communities there can only be addressed in co-operation between the two sovereign Governments in these islands. The Anglo-Irish Summit meeting earlier this month a sound basis for future co-operation was laid. I shall be following up on this intensive pattern of contacts with a meeting of the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference on Friday next.
I am confident that the two new Governments in these islands, led by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair, will succeed in developing that new quality in British-Irish relations which will provide the context for a solution of the Northern Ireland problem.
Let me finish by saying that I am conscious of the close interest your organisations taken in the problem of Northern Ireland and we are grateful for the support you give to the Irish Government's efforts to promote peace and reconciliation. I very much appreciate this opportunity to meet with representatives of the Irish community early in my term as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I look forward to pursuing our dialogue in the future. Top