Diaspora and Ethnic Minorities

IBRG activists Kevin Hayes and Maurice Moore lobby Labour Party Northern Ireland spokesperson Mo Mowlam to include a census option for 'Irish' as an ethnic minority, 1995

Credit: Irish Post/Bernadette Hyland







Declaring London an ‘anti-racist zone’ in 1984, the GLC primarily offered financial support to grassroots organisations representing African, Asian, and Caribbean community groups combating racism. But the GLC’s anti-racist taxonomy also included ‘a wider range of ethnic groups both black and white’. In this framework, ethnic minorities were defined by the extent to which they suffered ‘racial disadvantage’ as ‘victims of racism in Britain’: the GLC included the Irish in these numbers. Ethnic minority status considerably enhanced diaspora activists’ access to public funding: between 1983 and 1985, the GLC provided £3m in grant aid for Irish community projects. The GLC policy reanimated passionate debate among the Irish across Britain. Did Irish immigrants in Britain represent an ethnic minority? Did their social, political, and cultural challenges resemble those of, for example, African, Arab, or Caribbean communities? In July 1985, Manchester City Council – responding to a major submission from the IBRG on housing, culture, social services, and education – became the first local authority outside of London to recognise the Irish community as an ethnic minority.

According to the census, by 1991, the Irish comprised 1.5 percent of the British population – rising to 4.6 percent (approximately 3 million people) when the second-generation Irish were included. But diaspora activists differed in how they defined and positioned the Irish in Britain. Were the Irish an integral part of the British populace? How compatible were Britishness and Irishness? Did the Irish constitute a distinct ethnic community? These unresolved questions were braided throughout Irish diaspora politics and activism.

During the 1980s and 1990s, diaspora activists’ interactions with the British state pivoted upon a debate around whether the Irish represented an ‘ethnic minority’ in Britain. The controversy originated in race relations politics at the Greater London Council (GLC), but quickly pervaded Irish diaspora organisations across the country. Under the maverick leadership of Labour left-winger Ken Livingstone, the GLC allocated public funding to community groups representing ‘ethnic minorities’. Effectively, migrant and diaspora groups across the capital were encouraged to distinguish themselves as the tribunes of an ethnic community.

The ethnic minority issue necessarily impacted Irish activists’ interactions with groups representing other diasporic communities. Ardently defining the Irish as an ethnic minority, activists in the IBRG, for example, likened their history to those of African and Caribbean communities with comparable experiences of British colonisation. Concomitantly, the IBRG held that the Irish in Britain should both resist coercive pressures to ‘assimilate’ and engage with the wider anti-racist struggle. Simultaneously, IBRG activists complained when they perceived the Irish being excluded from progressive race relations policies. In 1984, at an IBRG conference on the topic of the British welfare system, Gearoid MacGearailt castigated social security officials who upheld ‘ethnic minority’ rights and entitlement but tended to ‘only recognise Black people in that context… As the largest and oldest ethnic minority group in Britain we have contributed significantly to the development of this country and its welfare state… we are entitled to a return on our investment’. Claiming ethnic minority status meant challenging prevailing liberal race relations concepts. In 1994, for example, after attending a conference on social exclusion, a disillusioned Sheffield Irish Peoples Forum activist wrote to Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) chair Herman Ouseley to complain of feeling ‘let down, extremely disappointed and oppressed’ since the CRE had not included the Irish among its ethnic communities.

The question of ethnic minority status also divided the Irish diaspora. After the census of 1991, the IBRG campaigned for a separate Irish ethnic category. They argued that the lack of such an option on the census erased the Irish in Britain, breached the Race Relations Act, and disadvantaged Irish immigrants seeking housing, health, or employment benefits.

The FIS agreed that the second- and third-generation Irish should be able to express their identity on the census – but in the early 1990s they did not regard the Irish as an ethnic minority in Britain. For FIS chair Seamus McGarry, ‘ethnic minority’ status unhelpfully implied that the Irish were neither integrated nor engaged with British society. McGarry claimed that many Irish diaspora activists in Britain were ‘uncomfortable with the “ethnic minority” tag’. Some community representatives actively opposed calls for ethnic minority status. Writing in 1996, an activist in south London argued that the Irish in Britain did not face the degree of social exclusion or economic disadvantage which afflicted diaspora communities from other parts of the world: ‘I do not want to be in a separate category, or, indeed, to be considered an ethnic minority… There are ethnic minorities in this country and their needs require urgent attention’.

Nevertheless, by the turn of the millennium, considering themselves an ethnic minority represented an orthodoxy among diaspora activists. In 1999, for example, when the Labour Party selected no Irish candidates for London council elections – party strategist David Wilkinson said that the Irish were not an ‘obvious ethnic minority in the same way that the black and Asian communities are’ – activists from a range of Irish groups, including the IBRG, FIS, and London Irish Centre, joined senior Labour MP Kevin McNamara in protest. Later that year, Home Secretary Jack Straw eventually announced that ‘Irish’ would be an ethnic minority on the census of 2001.

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