Skip to main content

Irish Communities in Britain

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2011

First, I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on the Irish in Britain, which seeks to raise awareness and to represent within Parliament the interests and concerns of the Irish community in Britain. The group works closely with the Federation of Irish Societies, which is an umbrella organisation serving the community in England and Wales. The federation also provides the able secretariat for the group. The all-party group is a genuine cross-party enterprise, reflecting the rich and diverse Irish community in the UK. Indeed, I would hope that you would be a member of the group, Mr Robertson, because you represent a Scottish community with Irish connections.

I am immensely proud of my Welsh heritage. My children were born in Rhyl, the same town where their father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were born. They are fluent Welsh speakers. In 1997, I set up the first Welsh language lessons in Parliament for MPs, their staff and journalists. I was also informed by the Eisteddfod committee that I helped to raise more private sector funding for the Eisteddfod than any other MP when it met in Denbigh in my constituency 10 years ago.

I am, however, a Welshman of half Irish descent. My father, Michael Ruane, was from a little village called Carnmore, near Oranmore in the County Galway, as the song goes. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and women who crossed the Irish sea to Britain in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s to help to rebuild Britain after the devastation of the blitz and a six-year-long war in which 700,000 young British people—mainly males—lost their lives. He helped to build the roads, dig the tunnels and lay the telephone wires. More than half his siblings followed him. His sisters Mary and Norah worked as nurses in the NHS in Birmingham, and his other sister Sally, a Carmelite nun—Sister Columbanus —taught children with special educational needs in Worcester. They were not alone. The emigration in the 1940s was almost as great as that of the 1840s after the famine.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In Newcastle, which is where my Irish ancestors settled, that combined pride in Irish heritage and regional identity is very strong, as is exemplified by the Tyneside Irish centre, which is in my constituency and which campaigns and raises money for our local charities.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and I pay tribute to her work for our all-party group. Indeed, I believe she was present on the night we re-founded it last year.

I am proud of my Irish roots. I helped to set up the North Wales Irish Society more than 20 years ago, along with Tom Noone, Patsy Scahill, Tom Wilkie, Angela and Stuart McDonald, and many others. I joined the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly more than 10 years ago, and last year I re-established, along with Lord Dubs, the all-party group on the Irish in Britain. As a mark of my joint loyalties to Wales and Ireland, I named my first daughter Seren, which is Welsh for a star in the heavens, and my second daughter Mairead, which is Irish for Margaret.

Turning from my personal past to the political present, we pray that the contemptible murder of the Police Service of Northern Ireland constable, Ronan Kerr, earlier this month will not turn back the clock, that the light of peace and political progress is undimmed, and that war is over. We share a weighty responsibility to ensure that the process continues to offer hope, and to resist any move to untangle the intricate latticework of political agreement that has emerged over the past 20 years. Strong British-Irish links are essential to build on the peace in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), not only for the role that he played in the peace process as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but for his role as co-chair of BIPA and as a founder member of the all-party group on the Irish in Britain.

Looking around, I see a new generation of Irish, and a new generation of Irish in Britain. In the absence of fear and the consequences of the troubles, the community is less isolated, more diverse and more optimistic than ever. People are proud of their Irishness like never before, and I include in their number the many MPs of Irish origin, a number of whom are present today.

The coalition Government’s response to the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday set a strong moral tone that was welcomed by the Irish community here. We are all stronger as a result and more able to deal with the past and to move on. I give particular credit to the Prime Minister for his role in replying to the Saville inquiry. His response convinced many sceptics that he was serious about continuing the good work of the peace process in a positive, non-sectarian and non-party political way, and about building the bonds between the UK and Ireland.

Times are not easy, however. There are few left to brag about the invincible rise of the Celtic tiger. The effects of the global economic crisis that is wreaking havoc on this country are also devastating Ireland. The Irish in Britain share a sense of uncertainty for the future. For too many there is real fear. The so-called forgotten Irish—the elderly, the poor, the homeless and Irish Travellers threatened with eviction—benefited from the generosity of the Irish Government during the boom years, but their situation remains vulnerable.

The all-party group is working to encourage recognition of the Irish in Britain, to support the Federation of Irish Societies, to stimulate dialogue and co-operation on Irish affairs, to promote Irish culture and sports and, importantly, to raise awareness of the needs of the vulnerable Irish and those at risk. Again, I give full credit to the Prime Minister—I am giving him a lot of credit today—for his big society initiative, which I support fully if it is about inclusivity and if it includes the most vulnerable, in which group I include Irish Travellers and Gypsies. Of all ethnic groups in the United Kingdom, Irish Travellers in Britain face the worst prejudice and experience the worst rates of infant mortality and lowest life expectancy. It is a community on the edge. It is a community with a real fear that Government policies may fuel worsened social exclusion and deterioration in community relations, compounded by a dramatic new accommodation crisis and a situation in which education and health needs go unaddressed. Government at all levels—the UK Government, devolved Administrations and local government—should ensure that there is ongoing dialogue and consultation with the Traveller community on issues that affect it.

A few worrying signs are coming from elements in the new coalition. I am concerned about other vulnerable groups, such as the unemployed, those with drug and alcohol problems, single mothers and—this is an old-fashioned term that is being given new credence—the “undeserving poor”. A truly big society would recognise that all members deserve to be included and helped. To vilify those groups, as was done in the past with Lilley’s famous list, will not result in a big society and a better Britain, but in a beg society and a bitter Britain.

I want to say a few words about the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It was set up more than 20 years ago to help improve east-west relationships between politicians in Ireland and the UK. Its membership extends to the devolved Governments of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as to the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. It has achieved its aim of improving relationships between the political classes. Politicians as diverse as Arthur Morgan from Sinn Fein—a former Teachda Dala—and the former Conservative MP Michael Mates have been listened to with respect by all sides of the assembly, which meets once a year in the UK and once a year in Ireland.

The assembly has four committees that look at various aspects of UK-Ireland issues. Committee D, which is ably chaired by my friend Lord Dubs has twice looked at the issue of the Irish in Britain, including at our most recent report last year. One of its strongest recommendations to both the Irish and British Governments was not to see the Irish community in Britain as an option for easy cuts. Those cautionary words were immediately welcomed by the Irish community. The Federation of Irish Societies chief executive, Jennie McShannon, said:

“If the better off are uncertain for the future; the less well off have cause to be fearful. I am certain that recovery will not be accelerated by ignoring the needs of those most in need of help. Even in a tough climate, hard-won progress on equalities cannot be lost.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this extremely important debate at a timely period in our Parliament. Unfortunately, I cannot claim to have any Irish ancestry. Does he agree that the Irish experience in Britain has sometimes equalled the Jewish experience? Secondly, and more importantly, will he pay tribute to those organisations that make such a contribution to the welfare of Irish people in Britain, such as Leeds Irish Health and Homes, the Leeds Irish community and Irish centre, and many other organisations of a similar ilk up and down the country?

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about how the Irish were treated in the UK many years ago. Over the past 20 or 30 years, that has been put right. I pay tribute to the work of the organisations he mentioned in Leeds and across the UK to bring the Irish together and protect Irish communities.

What assurance can the Government offer to vulnerable groups that the axe will not fall unfairly on their heads and that the dignity of minorities will continue to be recognised and respected? The reports I have mentioned highlighted the specific health needs of the elderly Irish. My father’s generation, which helped to rebuild this country out of the ruins of war, helped to staff the hospitals and the NHS. That generation is now elderly and in need of help themselves. Does the Minister agree that elders in our big society should be valued and protected, that all available means should be employed to identify and measure the disadvantage faced by specific groups, and that steps should be taken to provide a remedy?

Our recent report also recognised the role played by Irish centres in the cultural and social care needs of local communities. Given the importance of the flagship Irish cultural centre in Hammersmith, the assembly accepted our recommendations and considered that the threat of closure that has resulted from the council’s decision to terminate the lease and put the premises on the market represents a tragic blow to the Irish community not just in Hammersmith, but across the whole of the UK.

I thank my hon. Friend not only for securing the debate and his comments about the Irish cultural centre, but for everything that the all-party group—along with the embassy, the Irish Government and the Irish community—is doing to try to save that centre, because it is valued internationally and nationally. It is a terrible shame that the Conservative council is holding the centre to ransom and demanding £2 million. If it does not get that money, it will sell the centre to a property developer. I ask all hon. Members who are here, including the Minister, to join the “Wear your hearts for Irish arts” campaign and save the Irish cultural centre in Hammersmith, which is doing something for our country, not just for my constituency.

I concur entirely with my hon. Friend. Hammersmith is known for promoting Irish talent and encouraging Irish philanthropy throughout the whole of the UK.

The fact that cross-generational talents have been harnessed and closer relations with local business developed shows the potential of the community as a long-term investment in the development of community and community values. We are talking about the big society in action. Does the Minister agree that local councils have a responsibility to the community in all its diversity, and that all parties should in good faith work together to find a viable solution for Hammersmith and all other centres under threat?

Our report on the Irish in Britain recognised the need to make sure that there is a full and accurate count of the number of Irish in Britain through the national census. We campaigned for a national tick box for the Irish, and I give full credit to the Federation of Irish Societies, which launched a public awareness campaign in the build-up to the 2011 national census to tackle persistent undercounting of the Irish community. It did so with the full co-operation of parliamentarians from all parties in both Houses. In fact, the launch of the campaign took place just 20 yards away from here in the Jubilee Room last year. The ethnicity box on the 2011 census attempts to make clear that it is about Irish roots and identity, not about someone’s passport or place of birth.

Irish community groups campaigned to make the census inclusive and to try to prevent anyone from being excluded. Census statistics inform millions of decisions made by public authorities and businesses that are trying to meet demand for goods and services, and to distribute resources fairly. An underestimation means that the needs of the weak and vulnerable in our community are overlooked. The assembly agreed that the problems facing the Irish community could not be properly addressed unless they were assessed on the basis of full, reliable data. It called on public authorities in Britain to make it standard practice to keep and monitor data on the Irish as an ethnic community, and for them to use those data to inform policy. What assurances can the Minister offer that the data collected in the course of the census will be analysed thoroughly and that information on all ethnic groups, specifically including the Irish, will be used to inform and direct public policy in the years ahead?

Obviously I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said, but may I make a plea through him? I gather that one in 10 census forms have not yet been returned and that people were told that they could return them in six weeks. I make a final plea to the Irish community to do just what he and the campaign called for: ensure that the forms get in. The number of Irish in Britain is currently recorded as around 900,000, but some of us believe that the realistic figure is more like 2 million than just under 1 million.

I concur entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. The 10% of people who have not registered are likely to be the most poor and vulnerable, many of whom are illiterate or semi-literate. It is incumbent on the Government to find out exactly who those people are and to make sure that they are registered so that they receive the services that they deserve.

I shall conclude so that the Minister has time to respond. We of Irish heritage are proud of our community and believe in pulling our weight—I have lots of it. The recognition of the Irish in Britain extends beyond the collection and use of census data. A strong and confident community organisation has benefits for all. Groups such as the Federation of Irish Societies are already working in partnership with the Irish Government on their global emigrant strategy.

The term “the forgotten Irish” has great resonance within the Irish community in the UK. I feel that their contribution to the rebuilding of the UK after the war and to the successful establishment of the NHS has been unsung and under-recognised. Their story has largely been untold. Perhaps that was because of their reticence within the community and a natural rural shyness, or perhaps it is because there was not a willing audience to listen. My father had only one picture taken in his time over here, which was at his wedding, and he was not too happy with that.

With the picture—cheeky!

Many of the memories of the forgotten Irish were not committed to film, or to video or audio recording. The chance to capture their memories is fast fading as many die off. The Irish TV station RTE has produced the fascinating series “The Forgotten Irish”. What can the Government do to help to promote similar interest on this side of the Irish sea? The BBC and others have taken initiatives to capture the thoughts and memories of the ex-soldiers and key workers of the two world wars, as well as the peacetime triumphs of other key groups within society. Will the Minister consult his colleagues to see whether greater recognition can be given to the contribution of that post-war Irish cohort who did so much to improve this country? As Sir Alfred McAlpine said,

“the contribution of the Irish to the construction industry in the UK was immeasurable”.

Where are the statues and plaques to these people who did so much?

A great deal of effort has gone into the report on the Irish in Britain. What assurance can the Minister give that his Government value the contribution of the Irish in Britain? Will he undertake to study the recommendations of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and address its concerns, and will he agree to meet a small delegation representing the Irish in Britain to take this agenda forward?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Robertson, and to have the opportunity to respond to what is an important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on giving me the opportunity to do that and, on the way, to establish why some of the questions he has asked are rather difficult to answer. He very properly drew attention to his own mixed heritage and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and others spoke in the same vein. Until somebody tests my DNA, I do not think I have any Irish in me, but it would be surprising if there were not some somewhere in there. One of the realities of Britain—which we should glory in rather than be embarrassed about—is that we are all mongrels in our heritage and culture, and we rightly value and treasure that. I thank the all-party group for the work it does in ensuring that the two Houses of Parliament and the Government are kept fully apprised of the concerns and the needs of the Irish community. We welcome the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly report and the work of the all-party group in Westminster on behalf of the Irish community.

The report makes some interesting observations. I want to pick up three themes, each of which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd also brought into his discourse. Time will be short: if I leave out points, I hope that he will remind me afterwards. I will be happy to respond more fully to some of his more arcane points.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in acknowledging that the coalition Government have continued to invest energy in securing a full, comprehensive and successful resolution of the difficulties in Northern Ireland. I share his condemnation of the incidents and the murder, which are obviously designed to disrupt that process. I am sure that all parties share an utter determination to ensure that attempts at disruption are unsuccessful.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the importance of delivering services to the Irish Traveller community, which is one of my personal ministerial responsibilities. Both I and the Secretary of State have made it clear that this problem must be dealt with. The indicators for Gypsies and Travellers—including Irish Travellers—are not good. With regard to education, there are currently 4,000 Travellers of Irish heritage registered in English primary, secondary and special schools. They are, unfortunately, among the lowest-achieving pupil groups at every key stage of education. At key stage 2, just over 26% of Travellers of Irish heritage achieve level 4, compared to the 73.5% of all pupils. At key stage 4, 21.8% of Travellers of Irish heritage achieve five or more A* to C GCSE grades, compared to the national average of 54.8%—less than half the level of achievement.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, there is a strong link between deprivation and under-achievement. Some 43% of all pupils registered as Gypsy, Roma or Irish Traveller are eligible for free school meals—an indication of the deprivation that so many of those households suffer.

With other members of the all-party group for Gypsy Roma Travellers, I had the opportunity to visit Dale Farm last Thursday. The Minister will be aware, because of his responsibility, of the particular problems of Dale Farm. Ignoring the legal and other history, will he acknowledge that in relation to Dale Farm, mass eviction is not the answer? Will he meet members of the all-party group to discuss other ways to resolve the issues there, without contemplating perhaps the largest ever eviction of a Gypsy and Traveller community, most of whom are Irish Travellers?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to use my remaining six minutes on an issue that is not at the core of this debate. Of course, I would be happy to meet the group to discuss matters of mutual interest, whenever it is appropriate.

I spoke about the educational disadvantages facing Irish Travellers. Health indicators are also bad: 22% of Gypsies and 34% of Travellers report asthma or chest pain, compared to 5% and 22% of the general population. There is a national health inclusion programme designed to reach those people. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) made the point about accommodation. Of course, there is a statutory requirement for local authorities to assess Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs. The Government have secured £60 million of funding, for the comprehensive spending review period, for the provision of new Traveller pitches and the refurbishment of existing ones. Under the new homes bonus scheme, local authorities will be given cash incentives to deliver new homes, which does include new Traveller sites.

I could elaborate on other matters, but I should press on. The Secretary of State has set up a cross-Government ministerial working group to address the inequalities faced by Gypsies and Travellers. I am a member of that group, which has met a number of times. We are looking at addressing the range of issues: educational attainment, health outcomes, employment, access to financial products, and unlawful denial of access to commercial premises. The group’s agenda has been set in consultation with members of the Gypsy and Traveller community. We are moving ahead with that, and further information and progress will be reported to the House in due course.

Turning to data collection, I heard the plea from the chairman and the deputy chairman of the all-party group for the census forms to be filled in, with the Irish tickbox used. I am not sure that describing it as the Irish tickbox does it justice. I understand the plea, but I ask the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd—bearing in mind his introductory remarks—whether he ticked the Irish box, the Welsh box or the British box. The alleged or stated under-recording of the Irish is part of the much broader question of what it means to be British and to be a member of society here. How people self-identify is surely the way to go. The hon. Gentleman can perhaps tell me later whether he ticked the Irish box.

The Minister is well known for his support for minority communities and for the disadvantaged. Following the invitation from the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), is the Minister willing some time in the summer to meet not just the all-party group, but the Irish ambassador, if willing, and the Federation of Irish Societies? It would be very significant for the communities Minister to have a meeting with representatives of the Irish community in Britain.

I am strongly inclined to say yes. However, the Foreign Secretary might have a point of view about that. The Government are willing to meet at the appropriate level; if that is me, I am happy to be that person. I do not want to pre-empt the whole of Government on to my shoulders.

I would like to squeeze one point into my last 90 seconds. In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd raised fears that the Government were not focusing properly on ensuring that discrimination was eliminated in our society. I remind him that the public sector equality duty came into force on 5 April. That places a duty on public bodies to consider the needs of all the individuals they serve when they are developing policy, in delivering services and in relation to their employees. The Government believe that local providers are best placed to decide which data are needed to inform their local priorities and monitoring. If they choose to do so, they are in a good position.

With regard to the centre in Hammersmith, the Government hope that the parties involved can work together to achieve a satisfactory outcome. However, it is not the job of the Government to intervene in that discussion.

Sitting suspended.