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Historic debate on the Irish diaspora in Britain

On St Patrick's Day in 2022 MPs took part in a debate on ‘The Irish diaspora in Britain’ in the House of Commons. Members from across the chamber made this a historic event celebrating Britain’s oldest migrant community.

This stirring cross-party debate on the history and contribution of the Irish diaspora was only the second such debate on the Irish migrant contributions to Britain in the House of Commons. Convened on St Patrick’s Day, it marked an important moment of recognition of the Irish community’s long history and place within British society and culture.

Opening the session debate sponsor Tony Lloyd MP said, “Most of us will have some Irish roots in our heritage. It is not uncommon, and it is something we are all proud of. The Irish who came here contributed to our society in more ways than we can possibly cover. I am pleased that we have this debate today to give it recognition.”

MPs from across the political spectrum participated and spoke of the arc and breadth of achievements of the Irish community in Britain. The strong diaspora influence in Westminster was evident as many discussed not only the community's contributions to the fabric of their local constituencies but their own familial relations to the island of Ireland.

Kim Johnson Labour MP for Liverpool stated, “The contribution of Irish working-class communities is immeasurable and has fundamentally shaped the soul of our great city into what it is today, from politics, to art, music, our unique sense of humour and life and soul of the party spirit".

MPs pointed to several Irish community organisations who have made lasting contributions including the Irish Pensioners Forum of East London, Irish Community Care, Irish Heritage, the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester, Irish Post, Irish World, Irish Cultural Centre, and Gaelic Athletic Association clubs.

The history of the Irish community in Britain is one of civic pride, resilience and evolution. Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Patricia Gibson, encapsulated this scope stating, "Irish emigration, especially to the UK, has been a feature of Ireland's society for hundreds of years, so it is no surprise that the influence of the Irish diaspora is woven into the very fabric of life in every part of the UK, as well as further afield".

Frontline workers

Many MPs took the chance to champion the contributions of the thousands of Irish frontline workers made during the pandemic. Conor McGinn MP said “Perhaps the last two years have shown more than ever the role of Irish people in every part of society here as we have come through the pandemic together. I am thinking of the thousands of nurses, doctors, clinicians, porters and cleaners in our National Health Service. I also think of the academics who researched and created the vaccine, who included an Irishwoman, Professor Tess Lambe, and of the first person to receive it—Margaret Keenan, another Irishwoman.”

Other MPs reflected on the historical milestones that have mapped the profile of the community to today. Margaret Ferrier Independent MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said “the contributions of the Irish span every corner of Britain and every industry, so it is easy to forget the anti-Irish sentiment that was rife throughout even recent history, despite two former British Prime Ministers being born in Ireland. Even today, the Irish are not always painted in a positive light in the media. They are often portrayed comically as an outdated stereotype. It is shameful. Shameful too is the continuing and prevalent prejudice and racism aimed at the Irish Traveller community."

Several other MPs also commented on the enduring prejudice the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community faces in Britain and within the Irish community. Martin Docherty-Hughes, MP for West Dunbartonshire said "It is not always a great story. As the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, I have to be mindful of the fact that for an Irish Traveller, St Patrick's day is tinged with sadness, and of the challenges that the Irish Traveller community face across these islands in terms of their ethnicity and lived experience." Andy Slaughter, Conor McGinn, and Tony Lloyd also commented on this dynamic.

The debate brought together political opponents, united in respect and recognition for the work and risks taken for peace and stability and the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement.

Maria Caufield MP said, “When there are celebrations of the peace agreement, we celebrate the hard work of people such as David Trimble, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, but we never mention my absolute heroine, Mo Mowlam. She did so much to bring those parties together—people who just would not get in a room and talk—throwing her wig on the table and banging heads together. I want to pay tribute to her, because she is the unsung heroine of the peace process, and her legacy definitely lives on.”

What has changed since the last debate?

In the 24 years since the last debate on the Irish diaspora took place in 1998, we have experienced many political, social and cultural changes. This includes the passing of the Good Friday Agreement, significant demographic shifts, the Brexit vote and latterly the Covid-19 pandemic. The Irish in Britain have also witnessed profound change in their homeland, driven by progressive social developments that have shaped Ireland through referenda and constitutional change. The social and economic changes across these islands have created space for new voices and constituencies. Karin Smyth MP spoke movingly on the influence of the women's movement for equality and participation:

I want to highlight briefly one area of particular importance that is joyful for me, which is women’s rights.

Women were at the heart of Irish politics and culture throughout the battles for home rule and independence, but the consolidation of the Irish state, with the dominance of the Church, meant that very quickly women were relegated to the private sphere.

“What I learned from the private conversations around the chimney I also learned from women here in the British Labour Party: individuals in private do not change the world. Women have to occupy the public space. Women have to have political power to secure our rights to equality with men and to change the laws that dictate the private sphere, and all legislators across these islands have a long way to go. It has been a privilege to be part of the solidarity among the women of these islands—north, south, east and west—and we still have much work to do.”

From the Federation of Irish Societies to Irish in Britain

The political landscape in Britain, as well as profound changes within Irish community demographics shown in the Censuses of 2011 and 2021, has driven new priorities within our Irish community network. Irish in Britain has evolved its role and representation, adapting as an organisation to respond to our changing membership base and the wider Irish community. Acting as the Federation for Irish Societies at the time of the last debate, Irish in Britain now leads a network of diverse organisations, interests and stakeholders.

We have developed our organisation as a resource for connecting the Irish community and organisations to their political representatives. We also continue to advocate for culturally sensitive support and services. Our campaigns promote community connectivity and health awareness, for example on vaccine uptake and championing issues from dementia to mental health.

Census

Irish in Britain has worked with the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for several decades to ensure the Irish community is profiled, understood and its specific needs acknowledged within policy research. As members of the Diversity Advisory Group, we have successfully lobbied for the addition of several adjustments to the census forms over the years, to capture new interpretations of identity and place in Britain, notably the expression of national identity.

Irish in Britain was appointed as formal secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ireland and the Irish in Britain in 2021, building upon our long involvement in this grouping. The APPG builds an active link between the Irish community, the Irish Embassy and Parliamentarians as we advocate for our members and wider community interests. In the lead up to the diaspora debate Irish in Britain developed personalised briefings for MPs and Peers on constituency data and updates on our members’ activities. This information helped inform MPs’ statements in the debate and is part of our wider engagement activity across Westminster.

The journey to a post-Brexit settlement and impact on British/Irish relations undoubtedly remains uncertain and often fraught – the debate’s sponsor Tony Lloyd acknowledged the legacy and work of so many for peace and stability:

“The 6 million people of Irish origins are the template for this mongrel nation of ours. I say that with pride, because we are a mongrel nation brought together from many different strands. It is the template for how we treat and respect each other. If we can use the Irish in Britain as the template for how we respect heritage and how we respect each other, we will achieve something important for modern Britain and for the relationship between our two islands.”

Consistent among many speakers was the need for a recommitment to the Good Friday Agreement, supporting the Common Travel Area (CTA), and the recovery from the pandemic.

Conor McGinn MP said,

“The first thing to say is, like British citizens in Ireland, the Irish in Britain have a special status. That has benefited us greatly, and although paths diverged when the UK left the EU, the maintenance of that unique arrangement is very welcome.”

Karin Smyth also commented on the CTA saying: “As we heard last week, Ministers mistakenly suggested that Ireland and the Common Travel Area is an unchecked backdoor to Britain; it is not. Nonetheless, we say to both Governments that, as the diaspora, we will continue to roam freely across these islands, and both Governments need to learn from our experience the social, political and economic benefits of the CTA.”

Wrapping up the debate on behalf of the Conservative Party Maria Caulfield pointed to the future saying: “As someone who has seen in my lifetime the changes and challenges faced by the Irish community, in my parents’ generation, my generation and the generation who are coming through right now, I see a bright future for British-Irish relationships and their going from strength to strength. We have shown how, together, we can get through the challenges of the past, and how today we have shared values and connected communities and the aspiration for future peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland.”


You can link to full transcript of the debate in Hansard HERE.

You can watch the full debate on parliament TV HERE or watch individual MP's speeches via links below (in the order they spoke in the debate).


Mapping the Irish in Britain

Our interactive map shows how many people were Irish born in constituencies in Britain (and in English and Welsh constituencies those who held an Irish passport) at the time of the last census. This will be updated with results of latest census when figures are available. You can search for your MP or constituency on the side tab.

Access map HERE.