Green and not heard

How much 'recognition' do the Irish in Britain need?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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It isn’t easy being green.

According to a new report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), second-generation Irish people in Britain face an uphill struggle to gain recognition for their identity. With their white skin, English accents and normal jobs, it seems that Plastic Paddies are being mistaken for (God forbid) ordinary Brits.

‘It’s hard to be Irish in another country’ says the British-Irish newspaper the Irish Post. ‘Unlike other ethnic groups clearly visible because of their colour, the second-generation Irish in England and Scotland have to stake a claim to their difference.’ (1) ‘[T]he Irish community in Britain has been overlooked and ignored as a distinct ethnic minority’, claims the Post.

According to a Manchester-born Irishman, where the black children at his school were accepted as ‘different’ he was always assumed to be just another whitey. ‘They could claim to be Afro-Caribbean or Asian’, he says, ‘but I was never deemed Irish’ (2). So being the cultural and political ‘blacks of Europe’ is no longer enough – some second-generation folk want to go the whole hog and become the literal blacks of Europe.

The report, The Second-Generation Irish: A Hidden Population In Multiethnic Britain, researched and written by the ESRC-funded Irish 2 Project, claims that ‘second-generation Irish identities lie at the intersection of two hegemonic national domains, each of which represents their Irish identifications as inauthentic’ (3). In English (to use the hegemonic national domain language I am most familiar with), second-generation Irishness is rejected both by British officialdom and real Irish people, leaving people like me in national limbo.

Are these people serious? Which hegemonic national domain do they live on? It can’t be Britain, where Irishness is more popular than ever; where officialdom bends over backwards to recognise every version of Irishness, from first-generation to nth-generation; where Irish pubs cast their safe-drinking shadow across every high street; and where Irish memoirs, pop records and films top all manner of charts.

The report claims that (warning: academic language ahead) the British government must incorporate the ‘many silenced subordinations’ of second-generation Irishness. But second-generation Irishness has the British state’s full seal of approval. In 2001, an Irish ethnic category was introduced into the UK census for the first time, with London mayor Ken Livingstone insisting that ‘British-born people with Irish roots’ should tick the box.

Also in 2001, the Greater London Authority organised Britain’s first official St Patrick’s Day parade, inviting ‘all Irish generations to express and celebrate their Irishness’. And it took place in Trafalgar Square, where protests, gatherings or parades remotely related to anything Irish were banned until the mid-1990s. As one observer wrote, the St Patrick’s parade captured the Irish community’s integration into ‘the very heart, the literal heart, of British society’.

Take twentysomething second-generationers, who are often most vocal about their identity being ignored. In comparison to our first-generation parents, who came here in the 1960s and 70s, we’ve never had it so good.

When there was a war being fought in Northern Ireland, being Irish in Britain wasn’t something you advertised. Our Irish-born parents tended to keep the fact that they were Irish to themselves and their local Irish communities. Walking down a crowded high street with a t-shirt declaring ‘I’ve got Irish roots’ and covered from head to toe in shamrocks would have been unthinkable in the 1970s and 80s, when many assumed that if you were Irish you must be a ‘man of violence’ – a prejudice given weight by 1974’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was used to harass Irish people in Britain, hanging over them as a constant threat.

But now the Irish war is over, the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been rewritten, and Irishness is everywhere. Twenty years ago, waving an Irish passport at a British customs desk might have earned you dodgy looks and maybe even a strip-search. Now, whenever I flash my Irish passport leaving or returning to Britain I get a beaming, indulgent and slightly patronising smile. They love us. They love us so much it almost makes you sick.

So what’s with the complaints? Why does this new report allege that the second-generation want more and more recognition for their Irish identity? The problem is that when you create an identity based on spurious grounds, one that is often affected and cultivated rather than forged through experience, it needs to be reasserted as real at every opportunity.

Irishness today is no longer an accident of birth tied up with national aspirations and pride. Being Irish no longer means being born in Ireland or even having traceable Irish ancestors (as long as you’ve got Irish ancestors somewhere in your family tree). Rather, Irishness is a feeling, an identity that you can adopt, chop and change to suit your own circumstances. As former Irish president Mary Robinson says, ‘Irishness is not simply territorial’, but is more of a ‘concept’.

And because the new Irish identities are not based on anything concrete like place of birth or nationality, but rather in vague notions of cultural heritage and ‘silenced subordinations’, they have to remind us constantly of their Irishness. Irishness used to be a straightforward affair, where it was rightly assumed that those who lived or were born in Ireland were Irish. Now that Irishness is everything and anything, you have to declare your Irish credentials repeatedly in order to feel that your identity is a real, living thing.

So some of the second-generation Gaelicise their names (turning plain old John Smith into Sean O’Smibhne), others hang out in the rough end of Cricklewood and Kilburn, while others take every opportunity to remind us of the 800 years of oppression bearing down on their identity – anything to convince us of their Irishness. You could be forgiven for thinking that they were protesting too much.

There is an element of truth in the Irish 2 Project’s claim that the second-generation Irish always have to ‘stake a claim to differentiation’. That’s because we aren’t really different to the average white Briton. We’re the same colour, we speak the same language in the same accent, we like the same cultural things, and growing up in British and Irish society is an increasingly similar experience. Surely it is only because we are not at all different that some of us feel the need to constantly claim we are?

Then there are the report’s claims that second-generation Irishness is ‘not recognised’ by British officialdom. This is the argument that most flies in the face of reality. Irishness is embraced by British officials and ministers more than ever. Even prime minister Tony Blair has staked his claim to Irishness, writing in the book Being Irish that ‘Ireland is in my blood’ (his mother was born in a hardware store in Donegal) (4). So why the bizarre claims that Britain is turning its back on the second-generation?

It seems that this notion of being rejected by the authorities has become an essential component of the second-generation Irish identity. Real Irishness always involved a strong streak of independence, with Irish people in Britain often living on the edge of mainstream society, particularly during the conflict-ridden period of the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Traditional Irishness had an anti-authoritarian element, an idea of the ‘fighting Irish’ who hated the authorities as much as the authorities hated them.

Now this sense of distance from the authorities seems to have been co-opted by the new Irish identities, in an attempt to achieve that genuine touch. But it has been bastardised in the process. Where the old fighting Irish sometimes challenged, or at least snubbed, the British authorities, today’s second-generation complain to them. Where Irish people in the past might have told British officialdom to ‘feck off’, today’s second-generation Irish want British officialdom’s approval and recognition.

This could be a neverending process. The second-generation Irish identity, like other modern cultural identities, exists largely as a result of the all-important ‘recognition’ it receives. So however much it gets recognised by the authorities, it always needs more. If one aspect of second-generation Irishness is recognised, it will quickly be followed by demands for recognition of other aspects.

The Irish 2 Project even manages to complain about the inclusion of an Irish ethnic category in the 2001 UK Census, which was seen as a major breakthrough by many Irish campaigners. According to the Irish 2 report, the ethnic category is too much of a ‘simple label’, which doesn’t allow for other, more diverse forms of Irishness. ‘[A] simple categorisation of “White” followed by a national identity such as “British” and “Irish”…will produce an over-identification with “British” because it is seen as a “fact” based on birthplace and passport entitlement’, says the report.

Would the Irish 2 Project rather that Census information was based on non-‘facts’? What it wants are options such as ‘British-Irish’, which recognise the ‘specificity’ of second-generation identity as well as first-generation identity. But what’s the bet that if the Census were to include a British-Irish option it would soon be followed by demands for other, more specific categories of Irishness – London-Irish, Manchester-Irish, Liverpool-Irish, Glasgow-Irish….

Indeed, the Irish 2 report criticises the placing of Irish under the heading of White in the UK Census, claiming that it ‘excludes the small but significant number of “non-white” Irish people’.

The lists of Irishness are endless and the demands for acceptance could go on forever – forging a second-generation identity that fancies itself as being rejected by the authorities while simultaneously seeking more and more recognition from the authorities. It’s enough to make you long for the old days of the straightforward fighting Paddies.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) ‘It’s hard to be Irish in another country’, Irish Post, 27 November 2002

(2) ‘It’s hard to be Irish in another country’, Irish Post, 27 November 2002

(3) The Second-Generation Irish: A Hidden Population In Multiethnic Britain, Irish 2 Project, November 2002

(4) See Tony Blair in Being Irish, edited by Paddy Logue, Oak Tree Press, Dublin (2000)

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Topics World


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