Irish in Britain challenges and changes for the diaspora

Speech by Francie Molloy MP, Sinn Féin, at Towards a New Ireland conference

The excellent attendance and interest in today’s conference underlines just how much Irish people living here in Britain – whether second, third or even fourth generation Irish people, those who’ve been here for a long time, or those who are newly arrived – remain interested and engaged on the issue of Ireland’s political future; its constitutional future and how that affects the relationship between Britain and Ireland. So I’m delighted to see so many different people here from the community and in this particular session.

The fact is that one cannot divorce the political developments in Ireland from the community here – it has a direct correlation and impact. So it makes absolute sense that the diaspora has a crucial role and must have an actual say in both politics at home in Ireland; but also in affecting British government policy here.

Britain’s colonial – both historic and current – role in Ireland is at the root of the circumstances of the diaspora around the world. The huge depopulation of our island is unprecedented in Europe – through conflict, famine and of course the massive scourge of emigration which has sent thousands upon thousands of people overseas for generations – indeed for centuries. Ireland is the only country in Western Europe – probably in the whole of Europe – whose population actually declined since the early 1800s. And of course we are experiencing that now as a consequence of government austerity policies.

So the changes and fortunes of the diaspora are inextricably linked to the political situation In Ireland. That is particularly true for the Irish in Britain. People here suffered clearly in many different ways during the most difficult times of the conflict. People suffered from victimisation, discriminatory policies and an atmosphere comparable to that which the Muslim community is experiencing at the moment. Indeed emigrants from Ireland suffered the same kinds of prejudices and discrimination that many immigrants from British colonies around the world also experienced.

And during that time and despite an atmosphere designed to silence the Irish community about what was happening in their own country, it was by and large Irish people – alongside other people of goodwill here – who did speak out and ensured that political campaigns and discussions in relation to the conflict were kept on the table. That played a crucial role in achieving the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and something reflected in the huge support for that here in Britain.

And there is no doubt that the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process has also had a huge impact on the situation of the Irish here in Britain. Irish people here and around the world have of course contributed hugely to the economic, social and political fabric of the country. But most recently that has begun to be recognised and celebrated. The confidence and organisation in the community is clear to see – it has always been there, but with the peace process, people feel more able to participate and stronger in the ability to do that. And that is vital, as there are a number of issues now which we need to keep on the agenda of governments and of the political parties.

So we have some clear changes – what are the challenges?

As Mary and Jenny have both spoken about, there are clear issues for the community here. Politically having a say at home is an important political issue. So that means the right to have a vote. And can I commend Mary and the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad Campaign for all of the work it has done in regard to this, and getting it on the agenda. We have been pleased to support this campaign from day one.

It is meaningless for the Fianna Fail/Labour government to pay lip service to the diaspora, or to appeal to people to come back to Ireland to spend money and support the economy, when they refuse to give people a say. Indeed, this and previous government’s failed austerity policies are what has driven and is driving people – especially our young people – out of our country. Tory austerity policies are doing the same in the north. And yet people are then disenfranchised and can’t vote.

This is a simple thing to change – a vote for the President, and we also support looking at some kind of vote too in the Oireachtas. We also believe that the vote should also be given to those in the north of Ireland and that there should be real northern representation in the Dáil (for MPs such as myself to represent Irish voters in the north in parliament in Dublin too).

So doing that would give some concrete say for the diaspora.

Secondly, there is a challenge to influence the British government. At present the government is playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement. This can’t continue and the voice of Irish – and progressive – people in Britain has to be heard. We cannot allow the British government to continue to play such a negative role around the peace process. With a Westminster election in the next 18 months, there is a clear job of work to get the issues we discussed this morning on the political agenda. The Irish in Britain organisation and Jennie do brilliant work, with the all-party Irish in Britain group in Westminster as well – to get their voice heard among politicians.

It’s very important to continue to do this. Because as we’re discussing the next phase of the peace process, that has a big effect on the diaspora here. Whether future waves of people are forced to leave Ireland, whether people chose to come here, or elsewhere, or whether people want to choose to go back to Ireland – the connection between our two islands is always going to be very strong.

We believe that a united Ireland is the way forward. That is why we want a serious discussion around this – like we are having today.