Historical Background

The Irish diaspora in Britain

Throughout the conflict in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998, the Irish comprised the largest immigrant community in Britain. According to the 1991 census, the Irish-born formed 1.5 percent of Britain’s population. Research suggests that when the second-generation Irish are included, the Irish account for some 4.6 percent of the populace, and as much as 11.5 percent in Greater London.

By 1971, Britain was home to more than 950,000 Irish emigrants. A further 1.3 million claimed their heritage through Irish-born parents. As Britain’s largest migrant community, the Irish initiated emigrant networks. The Irish Post, a diaspora newspaper, was founded in 1970. Just three years later, the Federation of Irish Societies formed to galvanise the community centres and organisations appearing across Britain.

The Northern Ireland conflict

Meanwhile, a conflict was intensifying across the Irish Sea. When Ireland was partitioned in 1921, Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom. From the early 1970s, Irish republicans – who aspired to an independent, united Ireland – waged what they considered an ‘anti-imperialist’ guerrilla campaign against British rule. More than 3,500 people died during the ensuing conflict – often called ‘The Troubles’ – over the next three decades.

The Troubles and Irish emigrants in Britain

The Northern Ireland conflict provoked a range of responses among the Irish diaspora in Britain. Some emigrant organisations – especially Irish clubs and associations aligned with the Federation of Irish Societies – publicly condemned the IRA campaign, and pledged to contribute positively to public life in Britain.

Belfast interface Jason Jones/Flickr 

By contrast, more militant diaspora activists – such as those who formed the Irish in Britain Representation Group in 1981 – took a very different position. Endorsing republican aspirations, these radical emigrants argued that British ‘imperialism’ caused the conflict in Northern Ireland. Their critique of the British state also informed their campaigns against the discrimination and marginalisation which afflicted many Irish people in Britain.


The Quayside, Newcastle, c.1971 (Newcastle Libraries)

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