I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Irish diaspora in Britain.
Lá fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh, a Leas-Chean Comhairle. Happy St Patrick’s day to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to everyone. That is the hard bit of my speech done. It is worth recording that, while there are around 600,000 people who declare themselves to be Irish living in Great Britain, the true figure, if we look at those who are first and second generation, is probably something like 10% of the population of this country—some 6 million people. There should be 60-plus MPs here today on that basis. Alas, there are not. In fact, there are proportionally more Britons living in Ireland than there are Irish living in Britain, which is an interesting statistic. I say that because we have a very complicated relationship between our two islands, and a complicated history that has been interwoven over not just a few hundred years but thousands of years, from St Patrick travelling one way and St Columba travelling another way.
Those of us who have some claim to an Irish background are very proud of that background. I grew up in the very Irish city of Manchester, and in an Irish part of that city, listening to Radio Eireann at breakfast every morning. It is instructive that I knew as much about the tallyman’s projections for an Irish election, and that I knew, long before it had been declared, that the last seat in Donegal would go Fianna Fáil, as it virtually always did. Even better, I knew at least the advertised prescription for worming cows.
I never used that piece of information but, nevertheless, it has held me in good stead.
Manchester was a very Irish city, and the Irish were everywhere. One of the players who died in the Munich air crash, Billy Whelan, was Irish, and one of the heroes was Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who dragged people—Bobby Charlton among them—from the ruins of the plane, for which he became a legend. He was a legend on the football field, too, because a few months previously he had helped Northern Ireland to defeat England. Northern Ireland went on to play in the 1958 World cup.
When Manchester United won the European cup in 1968, slightly after Celtic—that team was partly Irish, too—four of its players, Shay Brennan, Tony Dunne, the very Scottish but very Irish Pat Crerand and, of course, the great George Best claimed Irish origins. The Irish in Manchester could not be ignored.
The image of the Irish in those days was of builders and nurses, which was true to a degree. My good friend John Kennedy, who is known to many hon. Members, came from County Mayo with nothing in his pocket and built a business that has allowed him, as an older man, to be a philanthropist. My equally good friend Rita Maher—God rest her soul—probably nursed more people back to life, and towards the end of their life, than I had mugs of tea in her kitchen.
They are the archetypal working-class Irish, but it would be a mistake to see the Irish as just that, even though there are 200,000 Irish people working in our NHS—the Irish are much more than that. Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, was Irish-born but lived long parts of his life in England. Britain’s greatest general and the victor at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, was Dublin-born. The Brontë sisters are famed Yorkshire women writers, but their father was from Northern Ireland. Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw had Irish backgrounds and contributed to British society. I am proud to say that Denis Healey and Jim Callaghan were both of Irish origins. More recently, Danny Boyle, Caroline Aherne and Professor Teresa Lambe, one of the co-creators of the AstraZeneca vaccine, are all from Irish backgrounds.
The contribution is much wider than the image of builders and nurses. “McAlpine’s Fusiliers” declares:
“As down the glen came McAlpine’s men
With their shovels slung behind them”.
Nevertheless, we have doctors, lawyers, accountants and academics, everything the Irish contribute to this country. It is great to be able to record that.
These two islands have a complicated history that has caused problems. Although there is no doubt that the north of Ireland suffered most during the troubles, no part of these two islands did not suffer—my own city was bombed by the IRA in the late 1990s. The Good Friday agreement was a triumph not just for Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, although their perseverance was instrumental in making it work, but for the many others who brought it into being. It was so important because it was not just about peace or even reconciliation; it was about a very different way of living together. It was about mutual respect between the people of these two islands, which is worth recording because the Good Friday agreement has taken a knock in recent years.
This is not the right time to rerun the Brexit debate, but Brexit has confounded and confused the relationship between these two countries. It has had an impact on the Irish living in Britain. We have to get back to getting it right. We owe it not simply to the Irish in Britain or to Britons in Ireland; we owe it to all our people to get it right once again. That is the big prize we have to pursue because, in the end, mutual respect is what we should be about.
Brian Dalton of Irish in Britain, who is alas stricken with covid—good luck to you, Brian—would say that the challenges facing the Irish in Britain are, of course, about making sure we live well together, but we face some challenges in common, such as dementia in an ageing Irish population and heart conditions in an Irish population whose diet in their youth probably was not always good. We face these things together.
It is about recognising Irish heritage and what it means in modern society, but there is something more important. 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.
I am proud to be part of the hand-me-down Irish diaspora, and I am proud that colleagues are here to speak on this tremendously important issue. I am proud because the Irish in Britain represent the best of modern Britain, as do all those who weave the tapestry of what we are as a nation.
May the blessings of St Patrick be with us all this day, and may the blessings of St Patrick—I say this wearing a shamrock and a Ukraine badge on my lapel—be with the people of Ukraine, too. The peace we want between these two islands is the peace we want around the world.
It is a pleasure to follow my near constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd). I agree with every word he said.
To be bluntly honest, when I thought about what I wanted to say in this debate I was thinking about my dad and my memories of him. When we talk about the Irish diaspora in Britain, we do not see ourselves as different. The Irish diaspora is part of our everyday life. An estimated 6 million people in the UK have an Irish grandparent, which means people will probably have some form of relationship with somebody with an Irish grandparent—they will see them in the shops or at their place of work. We see the Irish diaspora, Irish history and Irish culture every single day.
I could not be prouder of coming from an Irish Catholic background. On my dad’s side, I have two Irish grandparents, Frank and Molly, who came to this country in the 1920s. My dad and his sisters would tell me stories of their early experiences in Lockwood when they first came to live in Huddersfield as native Gaelic speakers. They vividly remembered the abuse, the insults and how they were treated. My dad always told me the story of how his mum once had a bucket of water poured over her head from a house window while she walked down the street. Those early pioneers, certainly in my family, had to go through terribly difficult times, and I am very proud of everything they achieved. The fact that they took the step to come over here to find a job or to make a better life means that I am stood here, and my cousins are all over the country doing whatever they are doing in their lives. I am pleased to say they are all positive, lovely people, and their Irish heritage touches every person they meet, which is a wonderful thing.
On my mum’s side, my great-grandfather John was born in Athlone in Westmeath. He came over here, to Bradford, in the 1870s, so this migration is not just from the ‘20s to the ‘50s; it goes back over many years. He married a Yorkshire lady. Again, without those roots and without people being brave enough to come over here to a place and a country they did not know, without friends, in many circumstances, many of us would not be able to have the lives we have today. When I look at the contribution of the Irish diaspora in Britain, I think it is everything; there are no negatives and there is nothing else to say. Every part of our life as a nation has a little bit of Irish heritage and history within it, because we are all part of a wider story.
Sometimes the best way to elicit and highlight a point in this place is not by going on Google to find out facts, but by speaking from personal experience about the things that people have been through and how they shape the country that we are and the one we want to be. In my youth, I always used to hear stories in my family about Gerald Paddy Slavin—I am looking at the hon. Member for Rochdale, as he may not know this—who came over to Huddersfield, to Longwood, in the 1930s. He is my great uncle—the brother of my grandma—and was born in Aughnacloy. He came across, got a job, worked hard, got married and looked after his family. He served on HMS Nelson during the second world war as a gunner. He was a true hero and a man who served the nations of Great Britain and Ireland in every possible way.
When he was in the Army, he decided, or it may have been decided for him, that boxing was the thing for him, so a man who had worked in the mills of Huddersfield and brought up a family—a respectable man—in 1948 fought in Belfast for the heavyweight title of Ireland. He became the heavyweight champion of Ireland, and went on to fight Don Cockell, Brian London and various other people. Within my family and my personal experience of people who have come over to this country and been part of a wider story, here was not only a heavyweight champion, a man who fought the great boxers of the era, but a man who was a respectable, kind, caring father—a good man. Those qualities sum up my experience of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The Irish community where I grew up in Huddersfield, who were a central part of that town’s identity, could tell endless stories about what things were like in Huddersfield and I am sure that there are similarities with what was happening in Manchester.
I could not be more proud of the contribution made by Irish people, over many hundreds of years and continuing to this day. I am lucky enough to have that heritage, and these opportunities, from my relatives who came over from Westmeath in the 1870s. To my grandad Frank, the idea that he would have a Conservative MP as his grandson would be mind-blowing. When they are all looking down, I hope that when they see me, my cousins and all the rest of the family—this applies to everyone, all over the country, who is lucky enough to have Irish heritage—they will say that there was a complicated history, which we could talk about forever, and there were challenges and some awful times, but the sacrifices they made created opportunities for us, which we are enjoying today. I will be forever grateful.
Like all Members, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate, which is possibly the first Backbench Business debate in this Chamber to focus specifically on the Irish in Britain. I have known him for more than 25 years and am acutely aware of his political skills, but to secure this debate on St Patrick’s Day, in the middle of the Cheltenham festival, which is promising another greenwash of wins for Irish trainers, and following the biggest Irish victory in Twickenham history says something about his tacit political skills of timing; it is an extraordinary gift and we appreciate it today, with this debate. On acknowledgments, I should also stress the role of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), whom I know will be immensely proud to be replying for our party this afternoon. He performs incalculable work on behalf of the Irish in Britain today and wider UK-Irish relations. He does a great job, and long may it continue.
This is undoubtedly an important debate, allowing us to demonstrate our support for the Irish in Britain, and how the Irish are recognised and valued as a core part of British society, fundamental to its economic and cultural life. As has been said, that cannot be expressed simply in a numbers game of Irish nationals in the UK, given the countless millions of second and third-generation Irish who have shaped the character of this country, informed by their family identity, culture and heritage. Yet the importance of this debate goes beyond general statements of support, partly because it is more personal for those children of Irish immigrants, brought up within Irish families in this country, who have become Members of this Parliament. Let me give full disclosure: my family come from Donegal. My wife sits in the other place, and her family come from Mayo and Galway. They all came over in the 1950s, for reasons of work. Many of us also represent communities with very strong Irish traditions and cultures.
Much debate of this debate might well focus in on the needs of the Irish community in this country. Undoubtedly that is correct, given that, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, an estimated 10,000 Irish in England may be suffering from dementia and that death by suicide is disproportionately high in this community, as are some of the effects of cancer-related diseases. Those are all vital issues, but today is also an opportunity to highlight not just the community’s needs, but the fundamental contribution of the Irish in creating and shaping Britain’s economy and society over many decades. That extends throughout Britain and throughout this city—it is not confined to Brent, Camden and Islington. Dagenham, 13 miles from our debate, is a good example of that. For it is impossible to understand Dagenham without an intimate appreciation of patterns of Irish migration in the creation of community, which is a story played out over many decades and one that is still strong today.
I am fortunate to be writing a history of my community, and 7 November 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of modern Dagenham. Exactly 100 years earlier, the first house was completed on the Becontree estate; 27,000 new homes, containing over 100,000 residents and spread over 4 square miles of marshland, would follow by 1935; this was the largest council estate in the world. In 1931, the Ford Motor Company relocated from Manchester’s Trafford Park to Dagenham. The site offered deep-water port access, allowing for bulk coal and steel shipments on a much larger scale than the Manchester Ship Canal did. The 475 acre riverside site became Europe’s largest car plant, with 4 million square feet of floor space. By 1953, it employed 40,000 direct workers, and 11 million vehicles and over 40 million engines have rolled off the line.
I raise that because when the plant first opened in 1931 so many men from Leeside in Cork got work there that some oral histories suggest that the county accent predominated on the factory floor. Later in the ‘30s, when tractor manufacturing in Cork was terminated and transferred to Dagenham, thousands more followed. When these Cork migrants returned for a holiday, with their trendy clothes and money, they were affectionately known as “Dagenham Yanks”. It was the beginning of a link between the two places that remains as strong today—it is an industrial link that uprooted Irish villages and planted them into what was then Europe’s largest factory and on to its largest estate. That pattern of migration continued throughout the whole of the last century; estimates suggest that well over 10,000 Irish migrants have worked for Ford in Dagenham over the years, laying down strong local roots and family connections.
One of the few private estates in Dagenham, the Rylands estate, just opposite the factory gates, was literally built to house thousands of Cork Ford workers. In the 1940s and 1950s, thousands more Dagenham Yanks were attracted to the expanding assembly plants. When the engine plant that Ford retained with Dunlop in Cork closed in 1983, many thousands more came across the water throughout the ‘80s. The social impact of this migration has been immense not least in the promotion of Irish culture and heritage. In the local pubs and drinking clubs, such as O’Gradys, the Casa and, right outside the plant gates, the Mill House Social Club, Dagenham was known as Little Cork, a place of tripe and drisheen, spiced beef, Beamish and Murphy’s. The term “Murfia” was coined to describe the Corkonian-controlled network of work and political connections, patterns of family and kinship, and extensive cultural, sporting and faith-based communities.
Local Gaelic Athletic Association clubs flourished, and there was a deep-rooted connection between the Ford paint shop and Tomas McCurtain’s GAA club. This was partly the product of an Offaly man named Bill Flanagan, who supervised paint contractors and was always eager to hire good hurlers and footballers for McCurtain’s. Many of them originated from Dromina in County Cork, through the influence of the legendary Timmy O’Sullivan, a main contractor who relocated half the village. Sadly, he died in 2014, but he is still a legendary figure. He even convinced the Cork hurling team, including Christy Ring, to travel over to play McCurtain’s in the ’60s, and Bertie Ahern regularly came down to present jerseys.
The wider character of Dagenham was informed by the GAA, the pipe bands, the Irish language classes, the music and the dancing, and they have remained enduring features of the Dagenham culture for decades. I make these points not out of some sense of romantic nostalgia but to acknowledge the extraordinary economic, social and cultural contribution of the Irish community in Dagenham and its wider role in powering manufacturing across this city and the manufacturing economy of the country over many decades. The Irish were indispensable in the creation of our community in Dagenham, which has helped to define the industrial history of this country and this city.
Locally, things have changed—car assembly finished in the early 2000s—but this debate speaks to what is being made in Dagenham today, with new industries emerging that promise once again to strengthen the economic links between the two countries. For instance, Hackman Capital Partners—the owner of what will be the largest film and TV studio in London when it opens in Dagenham in a few years—has just acquired two Irish film studios, in Wicklow and Limerick.
In recent years, Irish migration has slowed, yet the community retains a strong Irish identity, with extraordinary numbers of second and third-generation Irish alongside a healthy number of older Irish residents, who are well represented in the churches, the union branches and groups such as the Irish Pensioners Forum of East London, a social and cultural group for older Irish people partly funded by the Emigrant Support Programme, which does some fantastic work for communities up and down this country. Such networks of support, advice and kinship—in the local clubs, societies and groups—have been critical in the response to covid. The sense of fraternity that is the hallmark of the Irish in Dagenham has really been a blessing for us.
Today’s debate gives me the opportunity to acknowledge, in Dagenham’s 100th year, the role of the Irish in the creation and sustaining of Dagenham. They remain a cornerstone of the local community. I have told just one story to illustrate the indispensable quality of the Irish community in this country, which we can honour and treasure today.
I am grateful to be called, Leas-Cheann Comhairle—Madam Deputy Speaker—and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for not only securing the debate but stealing my thunder: his Gaelic pronunciation is a wee bit better than mine. As a vice-chair of the all-party group on Ireland and the Irish in Britain, I am delighted to be here. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, are also a member of the group and that you work with its chair, the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn).
As someone with probably one of the longest Irish names in history—Máirtín Seán O’Dochartaigh-Aodha—it would have been remiss of me not to have participated in this debate. I am a grandchild of Irish immigrants on my father’s side and have Irish great-grandparents on my mother’s side. Sarah Timlin—a very uncommon name in Mayo, if not in the whole of Ireland—was from Ballinglen in County Mayo, and John Doherty was from Stralongford, which is literally a big long road between Letterkenny and Convoy in County Donegal. A strange and complex family, just like the story of our heritage across these islands. Sarah and John met in Scotland and married back in County Mayo. Further back, Sarah’s big brother fell on the western front the week before the armistice was signed.
John’s family from Donegal—well, that is a completely different matter altogether. Let me say something about the complexity of John’s life when he came to Scotland. He was brought up by a single parent. His mother Ellen had 15 children and was designated in the 1901 census as illiterate—a stigma—because she only ever spoke Irish. Although she may have been illiterate in English, which she never spoke, she was able to bring up 15 children singlehandedly on a farm in the middle of Donegal in the early 1900s. Most of her children survived birth—unlike a lot of children at the time—and many went to the United States. I now have a lot of family around Philadelphia and in New York. Luckily for me, my relatives made their life in Clydebank.
I wish to say a few words about the heritage and sporting activity of the Irish diaspora not only in my community but across these islands, and specifically in Scotland. This year, the Gaelic Athletic Association celebrates 125 years of existence in Scotland. It is now based in the Clydebank community sports hub in Whitecrook, which has a rather large Irish diaspora. I was delighted that Minister Seán Fleming TD from the Dáil Eireann came from the Oireachtas yesterday to visit the GAA in Scotland, although I was sadly not able to attend myself.
I am grateful that on St Patrick’s day back in 2016 the House highlighted and supported my recognition of St Patrick as a guy fae West Dunbartonshire. At least as far back as the 13th century, Jocelyn of Furness wrote in his stories of the Celtic saints about Patrick being born in what we now know was a Roman fort in the village of Old Kilpatrick, where the well was reopened in the 1930s. Sadly, it is not like Knock these days—there are not thousands of folk coming for a shrine—but Members are more than welcome to come to Old Kilpatrick and taste the waters.
In modern times, there is Irish heritage through the industrial revolution not only in Dumbarton but throughout the shipbuilding in Clydebank. The Twitter feed of West Dunbartonshire Arts and Heritage reminded me today that the ships the Carrowdore, the Clarecastle and the Clareisland were all built in Scots shipyards in the village of Bowling by the Guinness family, for one reason: to ship Guinness fae Dublin straight to the heart of Glasgow and across the whole of Scotland.
Only last week, we commemorated the 81st anniversary of the worst aerial bombardment in the history of these islands: the Clydebank blitz of March 1941. The Irish diaspora were very much part of the rebuilding of Clydebank and the fight against national socialism, which crossed all communities, even in the difficulties of the 1940s. It was a very proud moment.
I am mindful that in the past five years the West Dunbartonshire Council administration took the unusual but welcome step to recognise the connections between West Dunbartonshire and Letterkenny, with the signing of the first ever friendship agreement between a Scottish local authority and an Irish local authority. I was delighted to be there to welcome the then mayor of Letterkenny—who was related, which was great.
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. I hope the Minister will take cognisance of that.
In summing up, let me perhaps ask a question of the Minister. It is appropriate that we mention today the complexity and history of these islands, which is an opportunity to build on the strength of diversity and for Governments across these islands to work together, as was noted in the St Andrew’s agreement. When the Minister sums up, will she give the House an idea of progress on an Irish language Act in the context of the new deal, and of opportunities to support and promote the Irish language in Northern Ireland?
Perhaps there is something to learn from Scotland, where the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act was introduced in 2005 by the then Labour Administration in Holyrood and unanimously supported. My own Government in Holyrood are now bringing forward a Scots language plan to develop a guid Scots leid. There is also an opportunity when it comes to Ulster Scots. The diversity of language is a great opportunity for the whole island of Ireland and, of course, the whole of these islands, to recognise the strength of diversity in language and culture.
I again thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for securing this debate.
I rise proudly to speak as the vice-chair of both the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the all-party group on Ireland and the Irish in Britain. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate.
In 2018, I spoke in one of the Brexit debates on the eve of St Patrick’s Day. I said then that, although we did not know where St Patrick was from, we knew that he was probably not Irish, but he did wander and roam across much of these islands. I also talked then about the Bristol merchants who, under Henry II, went to Dublin in 1171 to defend Dublin castle and were rewarded with the establishment of trading posts between Bristol and Dublin. The point is that the movement of people, trading to deliver economic prosperity, is what has fashioned our political relationships across these islands for centuries, and today is no different. In so many other respects, though, today is so very different and thank goodness for that.
My own parents were part of the post-war ’50s exodus of young people from rural Ireland to London. Their older siblings had to come, but my parents came for the craic, because, frankly, it was a lot more fun here than it was in rural Mayo or Cavan. We all know that they faced some challenges, but what fantastic opportunities England gave to them and has given to us, no more so than, in one generation, my being elected here as an English MP, of which the entire family is enormously proud.
Here in Britain, that post-war community established support networks. Since the 1970s, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale, the work of Irish in Britain, as an umbrella organisation, has supported individuals and groups throughout the country. Colleagues can check on its website, but, on average, there are at least 1,000 Irish people in each of our constituencies. The charity supports culture, heritage and health. I and the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is in her place, proudly supported the Green Hearts campaign a couple of years ago.
The post-war exodus was facilitated by the common travel area—loosely defined, securing centuries-old exports of Ireland’s youth to the powering of Britain’s economy between the then separated countries in 1922. Covid has highlighted for most of us many, many difficulties, but, for me, effectively losing the common travel area was particularly difficult. Trying to visit my older family members, some in care homes, across the border in Cavan and in Northern Ireland with different rules, added needless bureaucracy, cost and stress to thousands of families. We were an afterthought for the Government in Dublin, and it took them a long time to listen to the pressure from us here and through the embassy here in London as they tried to balance their responsibilities to their greatest and oldest neighbour with their responsibilities within the European Union. This will continue to be difficult—we understand that. As we heard last week, Ministers mistakenly suggested that Ireland and the common travel area is an unchecked backdoor to Britain; it is not. None the less, 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.
Ireland has changed beyond recognition with membership of the European Union. 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. Indeed, although much divides Unionists and nationalists, as the dust started to settle, there was one thing on which they could all agree and that was keeping women in the home. That is where I learned my formative politics: watching and listening to Irish women; learning that what was said in public was not the same as what was said in private.
My nan, sat by her peat fire in Mayo—I can still smell it—and the women would call round. She sat there talking. My Mum carried on this tradition in London, with women coming round for a chat. After a long night of talk on every conceivable subject, my mum passed on to me what she had heard at home, saying, “up the chimney with that now”. Up the chimneys and around the tables of thousands of Irish homes, women talked differently than they did in the public sphere from which they were effectively barred. It ill behoves any politician who does not know what goes up the chimney.
Once in the EU, Ireland, like the UK, had to accept the social change along with economic support: equal pay, maternity rights, non-discrimination on marital status, and finally those votes on divorce and abortion. 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.
Today, I have my slightly wilting shamrock and my British-Irish parliamentary brooch. As a child, I was sent to school with the shamrock, but I did not often wear it on St Patrick’s Day through the ’80s. That was due in part to my moving away from my childhood, seeking an identity of my own, and in part due to the fact that being Irish here in the late ’70s and ’80 was hard. We were expected to have a view and to take a side in the constant struggles, but we did not often have a side. I knew that there were many sides, and I knew that I had a stake in them all. The 1980s changed the narrative of having sides. That decade allowed us to have many sides, and we all wanted the same thing: to live in peace and prosperity.
The 1998 Good Friday agreement was not just about Northern Ireland, Ireland, or a border; it was about the freedom of movement of people across these islands, about our deep roots, about mutual interest and respect, and about shared security and prosperity. Our duty now is to build upon it in full.
Finally, one of my predecessors as a Bristol MP is Edmund Burke. I think he was Bristol’s last Irish MP, whose statue still stands proudly in the centre of our city—a city he apparently visited only twice. He lasted six years, which is a milestone that I have only recently passed. During that time, he had a somewhat acrimonious time with the Bristol Merchant Venturers whose patronage was needed in those days in order to be able to hold office. Burke, as is befitting the father of modern conservatism, recognised that restrictions on people—as with the anti-Catholic legislation at the time—and restrictions on trade from Ireland meant an ever-impoverished Ireland, and that, he felt, was economically unwise for England. His riposte to the anti-Irish protectionism of the Bristol merchants should be heeded by us all today:
“England and Ireland may flourish together. The world is large enough for us both. Let it be our care not to make ourselves too little for it.”
I am very grateful for this opportunity to take part in a debate to celebrate the contribution of the Irish in Britain and the very deep bonds of friendship and neighbourliness between our two islands. The other quote I remember from Edmund Burke was when he said that, for most English people, their ambition about Ireland was to hear no more about it, but I thank all the Members participating today for having a much wider ambition.
It is a pleasure to follow Members from across the House who have done so much to honour and deepen the contribution of the Irish to the fabric of Britain. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate and the others who have spoken. I also thank the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) who played such a key role in events yesterday and who has exemplified and represented the Irish in Britain for many years with inclusivity, practicality, confidence, wit—lots of wit—and stories, and we are very proud of him for it.
It was not always an easy landing for Irish people in Britain. We know that many faced discrimination and isolation, but Britain, and England in particular, provided refuge, acceptance and opportunities for people who, in many cases, had been rejected by Ireland. Perhaps that was because they were pregnant, because they were gay, because they were different in some way or because there was no work for them. Ireland, to our great shame now, pushed out many unwanted people to England, who then found acceptance, solace and opportunity here, and for that we are very, very thankful.
Irish people and their descendants have not only found a good home in Britain; they have helped to make it a good home for other people. The work of Irish people across all classes of work, skills, vocations, talents, enterprise, creativity and service is rightly a source of pride—from roads and buildings in decades past to those at the very top of industry and the creative sectors today, and throughout many decades and very much during covid’s curtailments, within the National Health Service. It was lovely to see that represented and celebrated in the parade at the weekend.
As a result of that contribution and mutual support, I have no doubt that the Irish centres and networks in Britain will be stepping forward to offer support, service and space to Ukrainian refugees in their time of need. While the common travel area privileges the Irish in Britain and the British in Ireland, as befits our close neighbourly relationship, the Irish stand in solidarity with others across the world who have had to leave their homes because their home was not safe or because they could not make a life there. We know how it feels to be cast at times as a suspect community, and to be at the bottom of the pile. That experience is reflected in the internationalism of the Irish community and the support that they offer to migrants and minorities from elsewhere.
The deep integration of Irish people on this island has not come at the expense of pursuing distinctive Irish sports, traditions and arts, which, as others have mentioned are flourishing. Indeed, in many parts, British TV presenters and journalists frequently claim some of Irish people as their own. The only surprise is that our current Home Secretary has not spotted British citizenship being conferred on people and come down on it like a house of bricks.
Fosta, Seo Seachtáin na Gaeilge, coicís go deimhin, agus tá imeachtái ar fud an tír, agus ar fud an domhain a thugann faillí dúinn cultúr, teanga agus oidhreacht na hÉireann a cheiliúradh. Indeed, what better opportunity than this to celebrate Seachtáin na Gaeilge, Irish Language Week, which is taking place now and is an opportunity to celebrate Irish language and culture across the island and across the world.
Irish people in Britain are a strong thread in British-Irish relations and a critical part of the ethos and architecture of the Good Friday agreement. John Hume always saw, and the Social Democratic and Labour party to this day have always seen, those three strands of the agreement as interdependent, indivisible and mutually reinforcing. Cherishing and nurturing the strand 3 relationship is core to the role of SDLP MPs taking up our mandated place in this House. That is something we take very seriously.
As others have said, the conflict playing out in Ukraine reinforces the need to protect what has been the most successful peace and reconciliation project in generations. It is a fact that the violence and at times the depravity of the troubles—all of it, and all that went before it—drove a wedge between people that has been difficult to bridge, but it is precisely because of those painful aspects of our history that we must continue to work to deepen and maintain friendship, co-operation and reconciliation, to put that cycle of mistrust in the past and to realise the reciprocal benefits of cultural, personal and trade ties. It is a statement of fact that a strong, pluralist Britain is in Ireland’s interests and vice versa. Nothing will change that.
Thanks to the Good Friday agreement, Irish people here have been able to step forward even more. We encourage them to keep doing that and not to be afraid to lead in British-Irish relationships at the many cultural, social, business and sectoral levels where they provide a natural nexus.
We live in the shadow and the shelter of each other, as President Michael D. Higgins acknowledged during his historic state visit and address here in 2014. Confident in our relationship as equals and with mutual interest, we can
“embrace the best versions of each other”.
The Irish in Britain are doing so every day; many are moving on from the traditional binaries of the past and embracing the “or both” part of the Good Friday agreement, not feeling that they have to decide between being British and Irish if they do not wish to do so. The tensions of the past five years, as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, are probably a topic for another day—indeed, we probably do talk about them every other day of the year, so I am happy to park them for today.
Though our relationship has been turbulent in the longer past and in the recent past, it can and should be mutually beneficial, warm and reconciled. I say thank you to the Irish people in Britain and the British people in Britain and in Ireland who make that so and wish everyone a happy St Patrick’s Day.
Go raibh maith agat, Madam Deputy Speaker —thank you very much. I, too, wish all right hon. and hon. Members and also all my constituents across Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill a very happy St Patrick’s day.
We all know that Ireland is Scotland’s closest neighbour and relation, and our often shared heritage and our historical bond run as deep today as the Rivers Clyde and Liffey combined. We in Scotland value immensely the relationship between us and our Irish brothers and sisters, and our bond remains ever strong.
The histories of the peoples of Ireland and Scotland are closely intertwined, with our stories of migration taking many forms at different times over the centuries. Whether Scottish or Irish, chances are we are all immigrants. Place names and family names and our traditions across both our lands are an ever-present reminder of our interlocked Gaelic past and, more importantly, our shared futures together.
My own family surname comes from an Irish heritage, and my roots can be traced back to County Donegal, itself an Irish county with its own unique story, being geographically in the north of Ireland but part of the 26 counties that make up the rest of the island. Today, my ties to Ireland allow me to visit frequently; just last week I was fortunate enough to be in the town of Drogheda, County Louth. The reason for that trip was to partake in one of those old Scottish and Irish traditions we share, wetting the baby’s head, as we welcomed Finn Martin Murphy into this world—born of a Scottish mother and an Irish father, so it is safe to say the connections between our families and countries are safe for at least another generation.
While there, I took the opportunity to visit the site of the Battle of the Boyne in Drogheda—a truly historic place that can be appreciated regardless of faith, creed or political persuasion. The profound consequences of the battle reverberate to this day in the to-ing and fro-ing over the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, but it is always worth remembering there is far more that unites us than separates us. I was also able to indulge in Ireland’s greatest export, Guinness. I extend my gratitude to those kind persons of the St Laurence’s Club at McHughs for their warm hospitality. As they say in Ireland, the craic was 90.
Both Scotland and Ireland are nations who have stood strong through both glory and tragedy, from the creation of Saint Columba’s monastery on the Isle of Iona—the Irish saint also lends his name to my local parish in my constituency—to the tragedies of the Scottish highland clearances and an Gorta Mór, the great famine in Ireland, which saw so many perish and thousands of Scots and Irish move between these lands. Millions of people worldwide today can trace their descendants back to these tough, resilient Irish and Scottish survivors.
The 2011 Scottish census revealed that almost 11,000 Irish citizens were living in Scotland, and Coatbridge in my constituency is long renowned in both Scotland and Ireland for its Irish diaspora. By the same token, many of my countrypeople live across the Irish sea—15,000 in the north of Ireland alone, based on the same 2011 census. A further 57,600 people were recorded as speaking an Gaeilge, so it is no surprise that our relationship across the sea remains vibrant and is vital to Scots and Irish alike.
With the current census in Scotland ongoing, and the ramifications of Brexit never far from the minds of the Scots or the Irish, I am entirely confident that the number of Irish passport holders in Scotland will have increased sharply over the past couple of years. Such drastic impacts on our identities and outlooks as Brexit will have a profound effect on the eventual make-up of these shared islands. Despite our no longer sharing membership of the European Union, the strong and enduring foundation of the common travel area and the structures created by the Good Friday agreement provide a stable foundation for the continued development of good relations between our peoples.
Ireland has a long tradition of diaspora engagement around the world, which was reinforced by the Department of Foreign Affairs appointing its first Minister for diaspora affairs in 2014. Scotland engages her global diaspora through GlobalScot, a worldwide network of almost 800 entrepreneurial and inspirational business leaders and experts. The Scottish Government will continue that good work with Irish colleagues on common issues and shared goals, particularly on diaspora affairs, to assess where lessons can be drawn from Ireland’s experience.
There is also scope for increased exchange and partnerships between different diaspora organisations. That is something I am eager to encourage, in the hope that it will allow us to provide greater support to Irish community organisations across Scotland—a community that, it cannot go unsaid, has not always been fully accepted into Scots society by all.
However, today is about celebration—the celebration of the feast of St Patrick—and we are all a wee bit Irish today, are we not? Together across this House we celebrate our shared heritage, our music, our traditions and our culture.
As the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) said, we are all a bit Irish today. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to speak in this debate because this is a subject that is important to me for many reasons. I would like to acknowledge all the Members here today who were either born in Ireland or are of Irish extraction, whatever party they represent. Of course, I salute all my constituents, everyone in this country and everyone around the world who is celebrating St Patrick’s day today.
I would like to pay a special tribute to our former Labour colleague and Member of this House, Jack Dromey, who sadly died earlier this year. I knew Jack long before he was an MP—in fact, when he was a firebrand trade unionist energetically involved in the Grunwick dispute. That dispute engaged Jack because it was about mainly Asian women striking against their extreme exploitation, low wages and terrible conditions in their factory, which led to them being sacked when they tried to form a union. As a proud Irishman, Jack was vehemently opposed to any idea that these women could not be unionised, and he was determined to fight for those mainly migrant workers.
That brings me to my first substantial point, which is why we, as immigrants or the children of immigrants, came to be here in the first place—because of course we are, all of us, descendants of the children of empire. It is a great credit to the people of Ireland that they have the honour of having set in motion the end of colonialism and the end of empire. I know that is a controversial view in some parts of this House, but my starting point is the position of a colonised people. My concern is not for the nostalgia and relics of the past, but the truth is that the people of India are only now recovering their former wealth and place in the world after the raj, and the people of China are recovering from having been effectively carved up by foreign powers. The people of Ireland now have a greater per capita GDP than this country. Yet before independence all these countries lived in abject poverty. I say that not to disparage anyone, but it confirms my view that no people can prosper while they are not free. In the approximately 100 years of British rule in India, the population fell substantially. We know that the Irish fared even worse. So all around the world there is a special place of pride reserved for the Irish, who began the end of empire, and there is a certain pride and a certain outlook that is conferred on many Irish people and people of Irish descent as a result.
I would like to convey my own personal experience of growing up in a part of west London not too far from where Jack Dromey did—Kilburn, which had, when I was a child, a very large Irish community. Others who migrated to this country came from the east and settled in the east end of London, but Irish—and, to a great degree, the West Indians—came to west London. The infamous sign, “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”, came from that time and place. I grew up in that part of London when it was famous for its so-called race riots, but they were not race riots at all; they were rampages by white racist gangs and fascists. One even called itself the White Defence League, showing that it was continuing to play the same old tired songs.
My mother never tired of telling me about a time when one of those white fascist gangs came rampaging down our street knocking on doors to find out if black people owned the houses. Although our house, which was in Paddington, was a three-storey house, we only lived in one room—the rest of the house was occupied by tenants. That is how my parents could afford to pay the mortgage. In the basement was an Irish family headed by my Uncle Jimmy. The white racists were going up the street knocking on doors. Uncle Jimmy thought the absolute world of me; he adored me. I was a little baby. My mother used to give me breakfast and then she would take me down to Uncle Jimmy’s, and he would give me another breakfast. When he heard the white racists rampaging up the street, he said to my mother, “They’re not going to get our Diane”. He went up the stairs and opened the front door, and when the racists saw a white man there, they assumed he owned the house and went away. I suppose the pride and self-confidence that comes from slaying colonialism works its way down to the individual level, so even those rampaging white racists and white supremacists cannot frighten you. I will of course always be grateful to my Uncle Jimmy.
For 20 years before 1998, as some Members have mentioned, there were what were known as the troubles. To some of us observing at the time, it felt like low-level warfare, and l think the participants on all sides regarded it the same way. One of the features of war in general is that there is hardly ever a participant who looks back on it fondly. There is nearly always regret and sorrow, and I think that regret is true for the vast majority of the combatants in the troubles on every side, whether they were loyalists, republicans or part of the forces of the state. One of the reasons it took so long to get to the Good Friday agreement in 1998 was how the conflict was portrayed, including Britain’s own role in it. Many argue that there was a refusal to understand the Unionist population and their feelings, a denial of Britain’s role and a determination to demonise rather than understand Irish republicanism.
Well, we have come a long way. Irish republicans, such as Gerry Adams and his departed comrade Martin McGuinness, have both been invited to No. 10 many more times than most Members of this House. There is a reason for that. People may not like it, but Irish republicanism represents an ideal that harks back to at least the 18th century, based on ideas of anti-feudalism and national democracy. It was conditioned by the partial defeat of empire 100 years ago and transformed by the emergence of the civil rights movement. These were ideas with mass popular support, but successive Governments refused to see that or accept it, even after Bloody Sunday. Finally there has been an official apology for Bloody Sunday, but no prosecutions.
As we celebrate St Patrick’s day in this debate, I express my concern about the dangers to the Northern Ireland protocol from current political debate. It is as if some people have learned nothing and are determined to repeat their mistakes. This time it is different. In the words of the great Robert Emmet, Ireland has survived to take its place among the nations of the earth, and everyone who values freedom should rejoice in that.
Happy St Patrick’s day to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to colleagues across the Chamber and to friends of Ireland around the world. I give a big thank you to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate. Anyone questioning the potency of outward-looking, culturally rich states with, by global standards, relatively small populations and their ability to penetrate the highest offices of the global system in Brussels and Washington need look no further than the Irish to see what can be done. It is great to celebrate the sons and daughters of Ireland in this Chamber, even though some of us would like to ply our political trade elsewhere. When I got elected two years ago, I was pretty confident that I would be the first double-o Doogan MP in this place, but sadly not. It turns out that in the late 19th century there was a chap from County Monaghan who beat me to it, but that is one for the record books.
I am Scottish. As you may have established over the past two years, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am very proud and motivated by that fact. However, I am of Irish stock, and I wear that complementary characteristic with great pride also, and this year I will take delivery of my Irish passport to underscore that I will not be stripped of my European citizenship, and I will also get through the airport quicker.
My family hail from Donegal, Ireland’s premier and most picturesque county with the tallest mountains, the finest golden beaches, the sweetest turf smoke and the wettest bogs. It is the Irish county against which all others are judged. My mother and father came to Scotland separately working in service and in agriculture respectively, settling in Perth to raise six children. It was a rich childhood experience being part of the Perth community and the Perth Irish community and being pals with the kids who lived around about, but also with the kids who went with me to the Catholic school across town.
My mum raised us with the heavily repeated expectation of “We could do well for ourselves”—that we could do better than those who went before us with the opportunities of employment and education that we had. As kids and young adults, we were repeatedly told, “You have the ability.” This immigrant ideology of ambition and betterment is not unique to the Irish diaspora—far from it—but it stood generations of us, the product of Irish immigration, in good stead.
Slightly contradictory, however, was the equal but opposite message that we also got from our parents, which was, “Don’t get too big for your boots or somebody will cut you down to size”—life could often be complex at home. Perhaps because of that advice from my mum and her contemporaries, the sons and daughters of the four families who I grew up with in Perth—sons and daughters of the Irish in Scotland—have gone on to Spain, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, the US, England, Colombia, Bahrain and the Netherlands and back to Ireland. That is limiting it just to my first cousins; I am sure there are more that I cannot recall. The bulk of us remain on these islands in Scotland and England, however, which I know is not uncommon.
My dad was an agricultural and building contractor who came to Scotland to work the land as a teenager in 1938. He stayed in Great Britain for most of the second world war, during which time he was employed harvesting sugar beet and constructing the new runway at Biggin Hill airport in Bromley, which became a key RAF location in the battle of Britain. In half a century of contracting across Angus, Perthshire, Clackmannanshire and Fife, he created wealth, employment and capital, as did thousands of other Irishmen through industry based on their labour and their business acumen. These enterprises, the length and breadth of Britain, changed the face of our streets, building sites, agricultural production, pub trade, literature, professional football and energy production in the hydro schemes in Scotland.
Right hon. and hon. Members have touched on the prejudice faced by the Irish in some quarters. That was a real and ugly struggle faced by the Irish community and others. I will not dwell on that except to note that the Tunnel Tigers are a legendary Irish tunnelling corps, many of whom hailed from Arranmore island off the coast of Donegal. They have been tunnelling their way under Great Britain for the last 75 years or more. They were a key component of the hydro schemes and dams in Scotland and of the tube lines in London, but strangely they received no mention in Scottish Hydro’s official social historiography of the tunnel projects in the central highlands of Scotland. I am grateful to my friend John O’Donnell for campaigning on the issue and to my colleague Annabelle Ewing MSP for raising it in the Scottish Parliament.
Here on the western shores of Europe, Scotland has many close friends and neighbours, all of whom, bar our friends in England and Wales, are across the sea. Of those, Ireland is our closest and that closeness extends well beyond the realm of geography. The symbiosis of Ireland and Scotland goes back more than 1,000 years with the Gaels and their culture reaching across the channel to the western isles and into almost the entirety of the Scottish mainland. Although Gaelic culture may have been forcefully driven out of Scotland to great effect, we value the Scotland-Ireland relationship very highly.
Scotland’s bonds with Ireland remain deep and strong. Ireland and Scotland are steeped in the tradition of education and shared learning that dates back to the time of St Colmcille, whose monastery on Iona provided the first centre of literacy in the region. For more than a millennium and a half, Ireland has been influencing life in Britain and I do not see any end to the positive influence of this proud independent nation.
I speak for many of those celebrating the feast of St Patrick today when I say that we share the values embodied by his story—solidarity, care, kindness and compassion. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they struggle to protect their right to live in freedom and peace.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this important debate to celebrate the strong cultural, political and business ties between Britain and Ireland and the immense contribution of the Irish diaspora in Britain. As he knows, as my local MP growing up, the contribution of the Irish community in Greater Manchester, of which we are both part, is immense. My mum is from Galway and my dad is from Belfast.
We await the most recent census data, but at the 2011 census, more than 430,000 people living in Britain identified themselves as Irish-born. That is only part of the picture: Bronwen Walter, emerita professor of Irish diaspora studies at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, estimated some years ago that the true figure for those with at least one Irish parent or grandparent was roughly 5 million. As we have heard today, the figure has now increased to 6 million. It is also said that, if someone’s family has lived in Salford or Manchester for more than a generation, the chances are that they have Irish ancestry.
The huge Irish diaspora across the north of England has been recognised by the Irish Government, who have opened the consulate general of Ireland for the north of England. Its establishment reflects a strong commitment to developing the British-Irish relationship and it will strengthen the political, commercial, community and cultural ties between Ireland and the north of England.
Niall Gallagher, chairman of Irish Heritage, described the contribution of the Irish to cultural life in Britain as incalculable. On the contribution of the Irish community in Greater Manchester, Irish President Michael Higgins said that it had given the area countless talented footballers, vibrant cultural festivals, and talented students, writers and businesspeople. Indeed in Salford, it is asserted that it was the Irish community who contributed to the creation of Salford as a city in its own right. During the mid-19th century, there was huge migration of Irish people into the Salford area, partly due to the great hunger in Ireland, and in 1848 Salford Roman Catholic cathedral was consecrated, reflecting Salford’s huge Irish population at the time.
It was also a huge proportion of the Irish community who built the Manchester ship canal, which spurred on the industrial revolution in Greater Manchester. Indeed, the same is true of the railways, the roads and even the channel tunnel. From the early days of industry to the present day housing estates and skyscrapers we see today, the immense contribution of the Irish diaspora to construction in Britain is undeniable. In our NHS, as of September 2021, there were 13,971 members of NHS staff in England reporting their nationality as Irish, including just under 2,500 doctors and 4,500 nurses.
The Irish diaspora has made its mark on culture, too. In Salford, from renowned playwright Shelagh Delaney, a pioneer in women’s writing, who challenged the accepted views of race, gender and class at the time, all the way through to Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays, the list of those with Irish ancestry who have made their mark is endless. Interestingly, it is also said that the famous song about Salford, “Dirty Old Town”, that many will be singing in the pub tonight, written by Salfordian Ewan MacColl, has all but taken on its own Irish citizenship. It is a staple favourite tune not just in Salford but in St Patrick’s night celebrations across the world.
In political life, as we can see today from Members of Parliament who are representing the Irish diaspora, Salfordians and Mancunians with Irish ancestry are found in abundance across our political and council chambers, transforming lives in our communities. One of my favourite historical figures is a lady called Eva Gore-Booth, a famous Salfordian suffragette who was instrumental in the creation of the trade union movement, which spurred on the creation of the Labour party.
In business, commercial ties between Britain and Ireland are stronger than ever. When President Michael Higgins came to Manchester 10 years ago, he said that over 55,000 directors who are Irish sit on the boards of British companies. Irish people are present in nearly all the listed occupations of the census in Britain. They have risen to distinction in all professions. That number is of course even greater now.
But leaving all of these achievements aside, it is the everyday actions of people within the wider Irish community that I am so proud of—those who seek to care, nurture and build relationships within their wider community. We have so many amazing charitable and social organisations, such as Irish in Britain, Irish Community Care, Irish Heritage, the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester, Irish societies and clubs right across the UK, sports clubs, radio stations, dance and music groups, festivals and even welfare advice services. Of course special mention must go to The Irish Post and The Irish World newspapers, which have been keeping the Irish community in Britain connected for decades—and I was forced to read them on a weekly basis by my mother to find out what was going on. So it is clear that the contribution of the Irish diaspora to all aspects of life in the UK is indeed incalculable, and that the warm connections between Ireland and the UK are going from strength to strength. As President Higgins himself said:
“The closeness and warmth that we laud today was founded to a large extent upon the lives and sacrifices of generations of Irish emigrants who settled in this country—generations of Irish people who came here and contributed so positively to nearly every aspect of British society, who did so much to make Britain what it is today while at the same time fostering understanding, tolerance and co-operation between our two countries.”
Long may this strong bond continue, and Lá fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh—happy St Patrick’s day.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate and wish everybody a happy St Patrick’s day. I am very proud of my Irish heritage. My nan Mary Higgins was born in Dublin before she travelled across the Irish sea to the greatest city in the world, Liverpool. I am privileged to represent Liverpool, the city where I was born and raised. I am a very proud Scouser because we are a world in one city, with communities hailing from all corners of the world. Three quarters of Liverpool’s population has Irish roots and it is not for nothing that Liverpool is often referred to as the 33rd county.
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. Many, of course, came to Liverpool in the great famine of the 1840s. 1.5 million passed through the port. Most were en route to America, but many settled, choosing to make Liverpool their new home and joining an already established Irish community. By 1851, the Irish-born population already made up nearly a quarter of the population. Those who came built much of the Liverpool docks and the canal system, while others staffed the shipping lines and worked on the quayside. The trade unionist and socialist James Larkin, Liverpool born of Irish immigrant parents, was pivotal to the 1913 Dublin lockout.
On every street corner, more evidence lies of the Irish community’s footprint on the fabric of our great city. The beautiful Walker Art Gallery and the Liverpool World Museum were built by Ballymena-born William Brown and are now situated on the street named after him. Irishman Michael Whitty was the founder of the Liverpool police and later the fire service. The renowned Agnes Jones from County Donegal was the first trained nursing superintendent of the Liverpool workhouse infirmary. Famed for her work ethic, Agnes died tragically at the age of 35 from typhus. Florence Nightingale described her as
“one of the most valuable lives in England.”
Before her came Kitty Wilkinson, an Irish immigrant from Derry, nicknamed Liverpool’s saint of the slums because of her educational campaigning to teach the public about health and hygiene. As the only person in her Liverpool neighbourhood to own a boiler in the 1832 cholera epidemic, she invited all those with infected bedding and clothing to use it, saving countless lives. Soon after, she opened the first public wash house in Liverpool.
The Irish contribution to our Liverpool health service continued with Irish nurses targeted for recruitment to work in the new NHS. By 1971, it was estimated that 12% of all UK NHS nurses were Irish. John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison all hail from Irish ancestry, and the Irish still contribute massively to Liverpool and British culture: think of Roger McGough and Jimmy McGovern, to name just a couple, not to mention our two great football clubs, both of which employed Irishmen as their first managers.
Liverpool is a city that marches to the beat of its own drum, and we owe so much of our rhythm and spirit to the Irish settlers and their descendants over the centuries. We are proud to celebrate with them today on St Patrick’s day.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate, which is an excellent opportunity to pay tribute to our friends from the island of Ireland and recognise their valuable contributions to mainland Britain.
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. The reasons behind those issues are for another debate on another day. I would like to keep my speech positive and celebratory, but I felt it was important to give that acknowledgement.
I start with contributions to the arts and ballet. Dame Ninette de Valois was born as Edris Stannus in County Wicklow, the garden of Ireland, in 1898. In 1905, she moved to Kent, England to live with her grandmother. At 10, she began to take ballet lessons. Her love for dance was apparent early on at a party with other children. Having watched another little girl dance, she demanded that she be allowed to perform an Irish jig. Edris took the name Ninette de Valois at the age of 13 as she began her professional training and made her debut in the west end. The name change reflected a public expectation of the kind of exotic name a dancer should have. In 1919, at just 21, she became the principal dancer for the Beecham Opera, which was at the time the resident company at the Royal Opera House. At 23, she joined the Russian Ballet, where she mentored Alicia Markova who would go on to become prima ballerina assoluta and one of the most famous British dancers of her time.
Ninette became the driving force behind ballet in Britain, establishing dance schools in London and Dublin. In 1956, they were granted the royal charter, so the schools became the royal ballet. She also, quite surprisingly, became very influential in the development of Turkish ballet and helped to establish the Turkish state ballet at the invitation of Turkey’s Government. Ninette is known as the mother of English ballet, despite her Irish nationality. She died in 2001 at the grand old age of 102 and with a legacy most dancers could only dream of.
Another woman who offered much to Britain, although in a different field, is Mary Morris. She left Ireland at 18 to come to London to train as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital in 1939. Mary was a prolific diarist and in her diary recorded much of the war. She dated the “real war” as starting on 31 May 1940, when ambulances came filled with dirty and wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. Mary witnessed the battle of Britain in the sky, and nursed the wounds of pilots hurt in the battle. She also tended to the German prisoners of war.
It was during her time as a nurse that she met a Frenchman named Pierre, whom she described in her diary as
“slim and dark, with beautiful brown eyes and masses of Gallic charm”.
Pierre invited Mary out to dinner and, despite strict rules around the fraternisation with patients, she accepted. She was reprimanded by her matron, but that did not stop Mary from spending more and more time with Pierre, visiting London and witnessing air raids. In 1944, Mary joined thousands of her fellow Irish nurses as a volunteer for the armed forces, where she was posted to Normandy and treated the wounded soldiers of the D-day landings. She described her ward as a
“multi-national microcosm of a Europe at war”.
When the war was over, she settled in Britain with her husband.
Ninette and Mary were two very different women, with two very different stories but a common thread. What they offered to Britain, through their services to the arts or to the war effort, helped form the Britain we live in today.
A little closer to home, the migration of Irish workers to Glasgow and the surrounding towns changed our corner of Scotland substantially. Even before the great famine, fares to Glasgow from Ireland were cheap and there was a lot of work and jobs to be filled: labour jobs, mining jobs and a thriving shipbuilding industry. There were also jobs for skilled workers, too, such as in the handloom weaving industry. The Irish workers were right at the forefront of trade union activity, something often forgotten. The contributions of those workers shaped the city and areas like Lanarkshire where my constituency sits, and that should be recognised.
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. There is no day more fitting than today, and I wish everyone a happy St Patrick’s day.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for initiating the debate and I look forward to the closing speech from my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who has so often represented the diaspora in this country and done so very well indeed. I am proud to represent one of the largest and longest-settled Irish communities in Britain. The Irish presence in Shepherds Bush, Hammersmith and Fulham goes back many years before the 60 years that I have lived there, so it is not only first and second generation, but third and fourth generation Irish people who continue to make their home in that part of west London.
It goes without saying that despite the difficult times rightly mentioned by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), this has overall been an enriching and successful coming together of the British and Irish communities, and not just those communities but many other migrant communities. I often feel that the Irish presence in Britain was a pioneer and acted as somewhat of a glue and an enabler of integration across many different cultures. That is certainly true where I am.
I want briefly to highlight two organisations that have not featured much in the debate so far, but they are key to the success of the diaspora. One is the network of community, cultural and social centres across the country and the other is the Government of Ireland and the embassy here. In Hammersmith Broadway, I have the Irish Cultural Centre, which is
“the premier centre in the UK dedicated to the promotion and welfare of Irish art and culture abroad”
“the home of its best cultural events and Irish performances, films, music and theatre”,
and I know that is true because I read it on the front of its website only a few moments ago—those are the centre’s words, before Members start intervening on me.
Getting a building as prestigious and beautiful as that was a long struggle for the Irish community and their supporters. It goes back to the mid-1990s—we celebrated the 25th anniversary recently—and the foresight of my predecessor as MP and leader of the council, Iain Coleman, and Councillor Sean Reddin, who put together the funding. They built it, we enjoyed it for 10 years and then we did it all over again because a different council wanted to knock it down and sell off the land for profit. It was only through the intervention of the Shepherds Bush Housing Association, which put up the money for a housing development, that the centre was rebuilt bigger and better than it was before. It has been a huge success as a result of an alliance between the wider community, the council, others and the embassy, with the Government of Ireland putting in money at a time when money was extremely short during the financial crisis.
Above all, it has all been about the local Irish community. I am tempting fate by naming individuals, as inevitably one forgets someone, but there have been many heroes in establishing and keeping that centre and bringing it to life. I must mention Jim O’Hara, who chaired the trustees through many difficult years, and his successor, Peter Power-Hynes, the vice-chair Michael Kingston, Seamus McGarry, Ivan Gibbons and the wonderful centre managers we have had, the cultural director Ros Scanlon, and David O’Keefe who sadly died too young and was replaced by William Foote, who stepped into the breach as the manager. I should also mention—I am namedropping in a big way—that among the patrons of the Irish Cultural Centre are Adrian Dunbar, Fergal Keane, Edna O’Brien, Dara Ó Briain, the noble Lord Dubs and the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. That is not a bad list for a local centre, but indeed it is not just a local centre.
Of course, built on the beauty and success of the centre and what it has to offer, we have had a whole procession of Taoisigh and Tánaistí and Government Ministers from both sides as visitors over the years, but something a bit special happened this week when His Royal Highness Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall came to visit. I do not often recommend the Daily Mail website, but if Members go to the website they will see the heir to the throne trying out his hand at Irish dancing, drum playing and drinking a pint of Guinness. That is well worth going to see.
The centre is a great success, but let us pay tribute to all those who have made it a success over many years. I have mentioned the Irish Government, and of course one of the visitors we had for Their Royal Highnesses was Adrian O’Neill, the current ambassador, who is sadly ending his five-year posting quite soon. He and his predecessors, Daniel Mulhall and Bobby McDonagh, have been huge supporters, not just in their presence—Irish diplomats are in a different league, which is one reason why Ireland punches so much above its weight; it has the most brilliant representatives abroad who really engage in that way—but in practical and financial support and encouragement, which has been fantastic over that time.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) quite rightly mentioned the Irish Traveller community, and he does a very good job chairing the all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. Unfortunately, we have seen in recent legislation, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, that the Government wish to make things more difficult for Gypsies and Travellers in this country, which is shameful.
By contrast, the Irish embassy supports the Traveller community, by inviting them to the embassy and visiting them around the country. Some years ago, I went on a visit to the Dale Farm site with a secretary from the Irish embassy. I cannot imagine many other countries doing that and extending their hand in that way. The Irish embassy is making sure that the entire Irish population in this country, whatever its roots, is dealt with in that way.
I thank everybody who has come together to make the Irish community in Hammersmith such a success, most of all the community members themselves. Let us not forget those who have enabled and supported them in doing so, including people outside the community, the Irish Government and the Irish embassy. We are grateful for all that they continue to do.
I begin by thanking and congratulating the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) on bringing this debate forward, about which we had an interesting chat in the Tea Room. I am delighted to lead for the Scottish National Party on this debate on the Irish in Britain. I lead as a person born in Scotland of two Irish parents, although both now sadly deceased. I am proud of my Irish heritage and of the fact that I am first-generation Scottish.
Like others who have spoken in this debate, I was reflecting beforehand on the huge and often overlooked influence of the good people of Ireland on the UK. As Irish immigration echoes through the generations, there are a huge number of distinguished people who have Irish ancestry. It is really quite impressive when we think of people such as Daniel Day Lewis, A J Cronin, Matt Busby, Lorraine Kelly and Jim Kerr from the band Simple Minds. There are also people such as the late Sean Connery, Gerard Butler, Tom Conti, Susan Boyle and even Billy Connolly.
There is an impressive list of those who have found success in their respective fields in the UK who, like me, have two Irish parents, such as the singer Morrissey and the late Caroline Aherne, or those who have one Irish parent, such as Steve Coogan, Paul Merton, Julie Walters and Boy George. The list could go on and on. The UK would be a very different place without the contribution of so much Irish influence in a range of important fields. The depth and range of that talent is truly remarkable.
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. We can see that influence has been hugely positive because of the lists of names that I and others have read out today. We can see it in the fields of singing and song writing, literature, cinema and even, dare I say it, politics.
Many Members of the House have spoken of their pride in their Irish roots. Ireland has suffered the loss of some of its brightest and best to emigration, a sad feature of Scottish society as well. However, emigration from Ireland has reduced. Increasingly we see Ireland becoming an attractive place for immigrants and its population has been growing for some years, albeit slowly.
My own parents came over from Malin Head in Donegal, which is the most northerly part of Ireland yet still in the south of the country, in the 1950s, like so many others in search of work and a better life in Glasgow. They settled in Govan, where I grew up. My father worked as a labourer while my mother devoted her life to raising her eight children, of whom I am the youngest. Sadly, in the 1950s the atmosphere and attitude the Irish encountered was not always as welcoming as it could have been, as the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) and others have pointed out. Thankfully, things have improved. But my mother applied for a council house in 1954, and it was not until 1982 that her patience was finally rewarded.
The poverty in which my parents lived and raised their family was scarring, as poverty so often is. Ultimately, it destroyed their health and led to their premature deaths. My father died when I was 15 months old and my mother died at the age of 54, 32 years ago. My parents could never have imagined that their daughter—the youngest of their eight children—would grow up to have the enormous privilege of securing a university education. They could never have envisaged that I would become an English teacher for 23 years and they could absolutely never have believed that I would be elected to serve the good people of North Ayrshire and Arran—in this, or indeed any other Parliament.
Like the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), I recall going to school with a St Patrick’s day medal and shamrock pinned to my school uniform—a ritual faithfully observed every year. But my story, like those of so many others in this House, is not unusual. Across much of the UK, those with Irish roots have sought to contribute and make their mark on the nations in which their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents settled—whether Scotland, England or anywhere else in the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) said, the strong bonds between Scotland and Ireland are well known. Scotland can look to Ireland—a small, independent country—for both example and inspiration.
This year, 2022, is significant for Ireland as it marks 100 years of an independent, self-governing free state of Ireland. There is no doubt that the first steps of Ireland as an independent nation brought their own challenges, but surely no one can doubt that the journey, despite its challenges, has been worth it. The value of the destination has undoubtedly made the challenges of that journey worth bearing. I say that because, since her independence, Ireland has grown into a confident, prosperous country—one of the richest in Europe. Independent of the UK, it has prospered. It has a real sense of national pride and has found its place on the world stage as a confident, outward-looking, liberal, democratic, modern, prosperous and internationally respected independent nation of a similar size to Scotland. I very much echo the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott): prosperity and freedom are indeed linked. I look forward to her extending that sentiment to Scotland as well.
Those of us in Scotland who believe that Scotland, too, should become an independent nation see this modern island as a beacon—an example of the possibilities and potential that await Scotland when we take our future in our own hands. When Scotland does so, as I sincerely believe it will, we will, like Ireland, cultivate good relations with England, our near neighbour. We will cultivate that relationship as friends, allies and trading partners, I am sure.
Just as my Irish parents could never have imagined that their eighth child would go to university, become an English teacher and be elected to serve in Parliament, so too many would never have envisioned how far an independent Ireland has come in 100 years—how it has grown, prospered and earned the respect of its neighbours in the European Union and the wider international family of nations. Scotland can indeed learn much from Ireland’s economic and social journey to the nation that it has become.
I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for securing the debate and I wish everyone in Ireland, all those with Irish parentage in this House and beyond, and all those with Irish roots a happy St Patrick’s day.
Tá áthas agus bród orm páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo agus labhairt ar son pháirtí an Lucht Oibre—I am delighted to be winding up the debate on behalf of the Labour party. Normally at this time on St Patrick’s Day I would be up to my oxters in Guinness and beaten dockets, either at Cheltenham or in the Sheephaven Bay pub in Camden. None the less, it is a pleasure to be here in surroundings and company that might be seen as more eminent, but are definitely less craic.
Being Irish is something of which I am very proud and which is very important to me, and being Irish in Britain—this great country that has given me so many opportunities—adds another special and distinct layer to my identity and, I know, the identities of millions of other people. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) understands that deeply, and I thank him not just for securing this debate, but for his decades of work in supporting the Irish in Britain and furthering the cause of good relations between Britain and Ireland. I know that all the Members who have spoken today are similarly committed. Some of the members of the all-party parliamentary group on Ireland and the Irish in Britain—for instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan)—cannot be here today, but they also undertake such work.
I know that many of us will be thinking of our friend Jack Dromey today. He would be so proud that we are having this debate, and of course he would be actively participating in it by making what he would describe as “just seven brief points”. We also think today of many colleagues who took up the cause of the Irish in Britain at a time when it was certainly not politically advantageous, and on occasion was even personally dangerous. You and I, Madam Deputy Speaker, talk frequently of your great friend Sir Patrick Duffy, who was one such champion. I know that the whole House will want to send him our best wishes. He is the oldest living former Member of Parliament. At the age of 101, he is still active, and has written the story of his incredible life, from Mayo to NATO, in his autobiography.
Let me now turn to the subject of our community, its place here in Britain, and its role in strengthening relations between the Britain and Ireland. 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.
About half a million Irish-born people live in Britain. I use the term “Irish-born” specifically because, of course, many more people here have Irish parents and even more have Irish grandparents, as was mentioned by the hon. Members for Bury North (James Daly), for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar). As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) and the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), the contribution made to British life by Irish people is enormous—economically, culturally, socially, in sport and, dare I even say it, politically; and also, of course, in public service.
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. Then there were those in the community groups and centres, from London to Liverpool, who put their shoulder to the wheel to help those who needed that help, from providing companionship for older people to providing food parcels for families. The work of organisations such as our many Gaelic Athletic Association clubs and their volunteers was incredible, and the national charity Irish in Britain was to the fore in creating the Vaccine Le Chéile, or “Vaccine Together”, campaign to encourage take-up. I know that that community campaign was strongly supported and assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth).
This week alone showed me the strength, diversity and extent of the Irish community. Last week the British Irish Chamber of Commerce held one of its council meetings here in Parliament. Over the weekend the Taoiseach paid a visit, and was hosted in the City of London by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Vincent Keaveney, the first Irish citizen to have that role. On Sunday, the Liverpool Irish Centre hosted a lunch for Irish pensioners—and there are quite a few of them in Ireland’s 33rd county of Merseyside, including some in my own constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson). On Monday morning I went with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to the London Irish Centre, which provides welfare support and advice for those in our community who need its help and assistance, while the arts-related and cultural side of its work showcases the best of our music, language, drama and literature.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I could not be here for this debate because I had a debate in Westminster Hall that I had sponsored. I want to add my support for the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and the others who have spoken in the debate and for what they are trying to achieve. I am pleased to be supporting it through this intervention. Could I also ask a question? Would the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) support the request that I and others have made for the Republic of Ireland to join the Commonwealth?
I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. He tempts me to stray into policy areas that are not mine, so I will pass on his comments to the shadow Foreign Secretary and ask for a response. But it was a nice try!
The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that, just on Tuesday, Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), visited the Irish cultural centre in Hammersmith. I think they were even persuaded to take up the bodhran and play their part in an impromptu music session. Yesterday here in Parliament I was proud to co-host an event for parliamentarians with the Irish ambassador and CHAMP, the peace and reconciliation organisation. And of course today, on St Patrick’s day itself, we are having this debate.
The position and prominence of our community has arguably never been stronger, but we have come through tough times and the impact of the troubles was felt acutely by the Irish community here. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, many were shunned and subjected to anti-Irish racism, personally and through the press. We know about the prominent miscarriages of justice, but we also remember the treatment of the wider community as a suspect community and the impact of legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974.
I am sure the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) would agree that, outside Northern Ireland, no group of people have benefited more from, or been more supportive of, the peace process and good relations between the UK and Ireland than the Irish in Britain. We still face challenges, however. We know that many of our fellow Irish in Britain still suffer health inequalities, for example, with higher rates of cancers and increasing mental health conditions. I know that the Minister has a keen interest in this. The Government have a duty to address that in the same way they would for other communities.
Does the hon. Member agree that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a direct challenge to the recognition of the profound issues faced by the Irish Traveller community? This relates not only to Irish Travellers but to Irish citizens who travel through the common travel area. Perhaps he might challenge the Minister on that as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I recognise and acknowledge the incredibly challenging work that he does to speak up in this House for Irish Travellers, and I hope he knows that he has my full support in that task, as does the Irish Traveller community.
We know that the impact of the UK leaving the EU has meant that there have been, and will be, testing times for the relationship between Ireland and Britain. The Irish community here has a distinctive role in helping to bridge those gaps and divisions when they arise and in ensuring that all of us in positions of political leadership strive to maintain the forward momentum of strong co-operation between two countries who should always be each other’s greatest allies. In that regard, I want to commend the work of the Irish embassy here, under the stewardship of Ambassador Adrian O’Neill. I am also delighted that new consulates have been established in Cardiff and Edinburgh and in the north of England.
The Irish in Britain, like everyone, feel an affinity and sense of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. We can have no idea of what they are suffering, but many in our community have at least a sense of what it is to leave home, to miss home and to love their country. That is why it was so moving to see the local Ukrainian community take part in a St Patrick’s day event with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) at the Irish world heritage centre in Manchester as our honoured guests. Our Ukrainian friends also helped to lead the St Patrick’s day parade in London. We will continue to be their strongest allies and supporters.
I conclude by saying what I said in my maiden speech some six years ago, which I feel still holds today despite all the ups and downs, challenges and changes. Where previously there was suspicion and mistrust, today there is friendship and co-operation between the United Kingdom and Ireland. There is no longer any contradiction in being Irish and British, or in having feelings of loyalty and affinity to both countries. The contribution made by the Irish in Britain to society here has helped to make that possible. It is valued and respected and it has helped to make this country the great nation it is. My home, head and heart are in Ireland and England, in south Armagh and St Helens. I am lucky, and all the better for it. Féile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who is a friend as well as a colleague.
I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this timely debate on St Patrick’s day, and I am delighted to respond. Unfortunately, I will perpetuate the stereotype. because I am second-generation Irish and my parents came from Ireland in the 1950s, my dad as a builder and my mum as a nurse. They came here not by choice but by necessity, because times were hard in Ireland. Many people left for Britain, Australia or America, and many never returned home—it was a difficult time.
Many colleagues mentioned that the welcome for the Irish in Britain was not always warm. My parents faced signs in windows refusing entry to Irish people looking for accommodation. They faced difficult, tough times. My dad, as a builder, did not benefit from the health and safety legislation and employment rights that we have today. We have a lot for which to thank the generation who went before us and who created the community here in Britain.
The community in this country takes many forms, such as the county associations that do tremendous work bringing together people from the same county. As young girls, we were all forced to go to Irish dancing lessons whether or not we were any good, and we travelled the country to take part in feises. The GAA’s Gaelic football teams join communities together, as does the traditional Irish music scene, which we missed tremendously during lockdown when we were not able to listen to traditional music in our local communities.
The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) mentioned the work of publications such as The Irish Post and The Irish World, which I, too, was forced to read every week. I did not win many medals for Irish dancing, so my picture was rarely in The Irish Post, but we still read it every week.
Every summer holiday we made the annual pilgrimage to Ireland to catch up with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. It rained a lot and we did not get much of a suntan, but we enjoyed our visits and would bring home Tayto crisps, Kimberley biscuits and Barry’s tea—other products are available—to take a bit of Ireland with us to keep those memories burning. Things have changed: Tayto crisps now come in more than one flavour. The new generation of Irish in Britain come here for very different reasons. They come not out of necessity but out of choice, and they are able to make a positive contribution to our country in so many ways, as many hon. Members have highlighted today.
The impact and influence of Irish men and women has been woven into Britain for a very long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) touched on the contribution of his family during the second world war, when Irish citizens served in the British armed forces. Irish citizens also helped literally to rebuild this country after the war. They built roads, railways, homes and factories to get this country back on its feet. People like my dad contributed to that and played a huge part in this country’s future.
The Irish have also made a significant contribution to art and culture, whether it is Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, as the hon. Member for Rochdale highlighted, or broadcasters such as Sir Terry Wogan on the radio and television. My favourite Bond, on Her Majesty’s secret service, was played by Pierce Brosnan.
The Irish have also contributed through sport. We have the captain of the England cricket team, and he is doing a tremendous job, but British talent has also been exported to Ireland in the shape of Jackie Charlton, who led Ireland to that famous penalty shoot-out in the 1990 World cup. As an Arsenal fan, I am ashamed to say that I did not think David O’Leary would score that penalty—we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when he did.
The Minister has the opportunity to answer the question I posed in my speech about the culture and diversity of language, whether it be a guid Scots Ulster leid in yer tongue or the Irish language Act, which was promised in the St Andrews agreement. Will she say something about the opportunities to build on that and bring it forward?
I was going to touch on that, but I shall come to it now. The Government’s preference is that the Northern Ireland Executive bring forward the legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but in the absence of any progress on that the UK Government have been taking the necessary steps to introduce the legislation in Parliament. The legislation will faithfully deliver what was agreed in the New Decade, New Approach commitments on identity, language and culture. It will provide for the status of the Irish language and the development of the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition, and create the two commissioners and an office of identity and cultural expression, as negotiated with the Executive. Therefore, we want the Northern Ireland Executive to legislate, but the Government are committed to introducing the legislation if progress is not made.
With such a broad and significant influence on the fabric of Britain, it is extremely pleasing that we are able to celebrate with this debate today and to acknowledge that our relationship with the Irish Government has been critical in establishing and protecting the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland. I grew up in this country during some of the troubles and it was not easy for my generation either. Here we were seen as Irish people living in England, but when we went back for our summer holidays, we were English people in Ireland. Having an identity was difficult, because we actually belonged nowhere. With the progress made in the Good Friday agreement and the Anglo-Irish agreement, peace, as the shadow Minister said, brought as much resolution for us as an Irish community here as it did to many parts of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 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.
The Irish Government have remained an ally in maintaining peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and have played important roles as interlocutors in the subsequent agreements, such as the St Andrews agreement in 2007 and the recent New Decade, New Approach agreement in 2020. We greatly value that relationship, and the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met only last weekend in London, ahead of the Ireland-England rugby match. Perhaps it was best that that meeting was before the match, rather than after it. I have a foot in both camps, so my team always wins, but the loyalty of the SNP may be tested on Saturday when Ireland could win the triple crown if it is successful against Scotland—we await that match with interest.
The Belfast agreement established structures to encourage and foster a strong relationship between the UK Government and the Irish Government. We will see a great example of that next week at the meeting of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference in Dublin, which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will co-chair with Minister Simon Coveney. I want to reassure colleagues in all parts of the House that the UK Government are committed to upholding and promoting the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has provided the framework for Northern Ireland to prosper and develop. 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. Once again, I want to wish everyone a very happy St Patrick’s Day.
This has been a great debate. It has been a celebration—not simply of people who are very proud of their own claim to part of Ireland but, much more than that, of the role that the Irish have played. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who spoke on behalf of the SNP, rightly said: what would we be had the Irish not been here? Ours would have been a very different country.
People have rightly touched on the difficult times—the “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” signs that were part of my city and my upbringing. Fortunately, we are now a long way from that. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that I have a friend, whose father was Jamaican and mother was Irish, who once said to me, “You know, the Jamaicans and the Irish are very similar—it’s just that on the Jamaican side of me I’ve got sunshine.” The rain in Ireland keeps it green, as it keeps large parts of Britain green.
This is a day of celebration, as St Patrick’s day always is. I will not speak for too much longer, as I do not want to keep my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) away from either the Guinness or the races.
I join the appeal of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) in respect of the specific problems faced by Irish Travellers. It is an important issue that we should recognise on this day of celebration.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) that it was of course the Irish who built the Manchester ship canal, which enabled the Guinness boat to travel up from Dublin. That made sure that for a long time we had Dublin Guinness in Manchester, not simply that from London.
My final point is simply this. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made an important point about the role of the Irish embassy, as did my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North. I pay tribute to the current ambassador, Adrian O’Neill. He has had a difficult time with covid and, without getting into the issues of Brexit, it has been a rocky few years since the referendum. It is in all our interests to make sure that we re-establish that good relationship. It is good for the Irish in Ireland, good for the British in Britain and good for the Irish in Britain. On this day of celebration, let us look forward to better times for all.
It has been a real pleasure to be in the Chair for this debate and to hear so many good friends spoken of in such warm terms—especially Sir Patrick Duffy who, as the shadow Cabinet member and hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) said, is the oldest living former MP. He is my constituent and a very dear friend. I spoke to him this morning and he was in fine form. He received a lovely letter from Mr Speaker on his 101st birthday last year. I wish him and everyone else a very happy St Patrick’s day. I also wish Sir Patrick a very happy birthday for his forthcoming 102nd birthday.
That was probably a complete abuse of my position, but nevertheless I wanted to do it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Irish diaspora in Britain.
Before we come to the next Backbench Business debate, I reiterate that the statement from the Transport Minister will come immediately after that debate. If the debate finishes before 5 o’clock, the statement will be not at 5 o’clock but immediately after the debate.