The Irish Community in Britain - diversity, disadvantage and discrimination

The Irish Community
- diversity, disadvantage and discrimination

Bronwen Walter
Reader in Social and Cultural Geography
Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge CB1 1PT

Paper presented to the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain,
18 June 1999


The Irish are by far the largest birthplace group originating outside Britain, more than twice as numerous as the next migrant population, those born in India. This reflects the demand for migrant labour in Britain in the post-War period and comprises a large group of Irish women and men who arrived in the 1950s and a smaller section from the 1980s. Unlike other ethnic groups originating outside Britain, only the migrant generation has usually been recognised for statistical purposes as 'Irish'. However the proposed inclusion of a self-identified 'Irish' category in the 2001 Census means that in future the acknowledged size of the 'community' including migrants' children could be up to three times as large.

Although the 1980s migrants included a high proportion of well-qualified young people, the overall profile of the Irish-born population is still dominated by the 1950s generation. These migrants were required to fill 'unskilled' manual vacancies, and their rates of upward mobility have been lower than those of the indigenous 'white' population. In 1991 both Irish-born women and men were clustered in the lowest occupational groupings to a greater extent than any other ethnic grouping. Despite the frequent linking of Scottish, Welsh and Irish under the title of the 'Celtic fringe' of England, the greatest contrast was between Republic-born women and men living in England and those from Scotland and Wales. The closest social class profile was that of the African Caribbean population (Hickman and Walter, 1997).

Although the Irish have played an essential role in providing a flexible 'unskilled' workforce, they have also experienced discrimination at the point of finding work. Cases brought under the Race Relations Act have included denial of interviews for jobs and discrimination at interview as well as racial abuse at work (see Appendix 1). These cases included recent migrants from Ireland, showing that the 1980s arrivals have not all moved easily into well-paid jobs as some stereotypes portray. Moreover low rates of upward mobility for the Irish-born suggest that attempts to move outside this role have not been very successful (Hornsby-Smith and Dale, 1988). The 'second generation' may have reached a profile closer to that of the indigenous 'white' population, but recent research findings in Birmingham indicate an ongoing pattern of low achievement for groups of second- and third-generation Irish young men (Williams, Dunne and Mac an Ghaill, 1996). This requires fuller investigation of the extent to which socio-economic disadvantage may continue, perhaps masked by the higher-than-average achievements of other sections of the population.

Negative stereotyping of Irish people is widely recognised. However the extension of verbal abuse into physical threats and violence is very rarely recorded and occasions surprise and disbelief when documented. The CRE report (1997) found evidence of police and neighbour harassment which included violence and intimidation. The Sheffield Irish People's Forum has kept a detailed record of instances of attacks on Irish people's homes, including graffiti, excrement through letter boxes and property destroyed. This harassment appears to be stronger in particular locations, often outside large established Irish communities where small numbers of Irish people are more vulnerable and where there is little understanding of the issue on the part of local managers.

It has continued in less overt forms than in the 1950s and early 1960s when 'No blacks, no Irish' signs were commonplace. Although heightened in times of IRA activity in Britain, when physical attacks on Irish people and property took place, harassment relates to much
longer-established negative stereotypes which continue to be recycled in ways recognisable
from the nineteenth century. Thus the CRE found no decline in the number of cases of
discrimination reported by Irish people during the period of the ceasefires in Northern Ireland, 1994-96. Irish Travellers experience even stronger harassment and exclusion.

To Top of Page

The size of the Irish community in Britain

In 1991 the Census of Great Britain recorded 837,464 people born in Ireland, 1.5% of the total population. Of this number 72.7% (592,550) were born in the Irish Republic and 27.3% (244,914) in Northern Ireland. Women outnumbered men, comprising 53.0% of the Irish-born total. The total rose sharply in the post-War period, with a peak of 950,000 in 1971.

When subsequent generations who identify themselves as Irish are included, the total is at least 2.5 million people, making the Irish by far the largest non-indigenous ethnic group. The 'second generation', that is children of Irish parents, was enumerated only in the 1971 Census, when 1,303,450 people in the United Kingdom had at least one parent born in the Irish Republic (two parents 361,800; one parent 941,650). The addition of people whose parents were born in Northern Ireland adds at least another half million.

Some light on the wider diffusion of the Irish population within England and Wales can be drawn from the Longitudinal Study, which recorded the number of Irish-born grandparents to children aged under 16 and living at home. The results show that 6.9% of this 1% sample of the 1971 Census in England and Wales had at least one Irish-born grandparent and the proportions will be much higher for particular localities. Multiplied through to the total population this would give 3.3 million people in the third generation. Taken together these figures indicate that over 11% of the population of Britain (approximately 6 millions) is first-, second- or third-generation Irish.

A distinctive section of the population missed from Census enumeration is Irish Travellers, about whom statistics are patchy and inaccurate. Estimates of numbers are based on families in some cases and on individuals in others. In 1987 the Minority Rights Action Group gave the figure of 11500 Traveller families in Britain, of whom 13,000 individuals were Irish, suggesting that they comprised a quarter to a third of the total. A survey in 1995 showed that a much higher than average proportion of Irish Travellers were living in vans (75% compared with 52% overall), and therefore both more visible and in need of parking sites (Kenrick and Bakewell, 1995). A large proportion of the Travelling population lives in London where estimates place the number of families at 3,200, one third of whom have no official status (LIWC, 1995).

To Top of Page

Patterns of settlement

The Irish population in Britain has never been evenly spread so that national level statistics are extremely misleading. Clustering both by region and size of settlement is marked. For example, although the Irish-born comprised 1.5% of the total British population in 1991, for example, they made up 3.8% of the Greater London total, augmented as was shown earlier to at least 10% when the second generation is included.

Distribution at a regional scale has changed sharply over time. with important consequences For later arrivals (Figure 1). In the nineteenth century the major centres of Irish settlement were in the heavy-industrial areas in the north and west, notably Lancashire and Clydeside. As a result there are long-established traditions of Catholic adherence and school provision in these areas. Newly-arrived migrants are not seen as a challenge to resource allocation as they have been in parts of southeast England without previous experience of Irish settlement (Walter, 1984). In northwest England the spread of Irish ancestry through outmarriage now includes a much wider section of the population than in other parts of England where settlement has been on a much smaller scale. Moreover in Merseyside, a regional identity of 'Liverpudlian' is readily accepted by second-generation Irish people, in contrast to London where many remain firmly 'Irish' (Hickman, 1990).

In the immediate post-War period the strongest demand for labour was in the West Midlands, especially in Birmingham and Coventry. Since the 1970s employment prospects in these areas has declined sharply, leaving an aging Irish-born population and a large second- and third-generation community. In the 1980s an upturn in demand for labour in the service sector was concentrated in London, where the largest number of young Irish-born people is now located.

In the most recent period therefore greatest growth has taken place in the South East where almost half of the British total of Irish-born people was recorded in 1991 (49.3%), compared with only 31.4% of the population as a whole. Six of the other nine regions registered a fall in their Irish-born populations between 1981 and 1991. There is still a slight, though declining, overrepresentation of Irish-born people in the West Midlands (10.9%, compared with 9.4% of the total population) and for the first time since 1841 the proportion in North West England almost exactly equals that of the total population (11.7%, compared with 11.4%). This pattern is similar to that of other ethnic minorities by migration, with the exception of the higher percentage of Irish people in North West England, and lower percentage in Yorkshire and Humberside. In Scotland numbers have steadily decreased so that the Irish-born population in 1991 (49,184) was only 32.8% of the 1881 figure, compared with a growth of 131.0% for England and Wales.

Within regions, the Irish population has been concentrated into the larger urban areas, with specific effects on access to housing and employment. In 1991 50.8% of Irish-born people lived in the major conurbations, compared with 31.9% of the total population. Outside London, Luton (5.4%), Coventry (4.6%) and Manchester (4.6%) all had relatively high proportions, showing that areas of previous high immigration continue to have substantial Irish populations.

To Top of Page

Economic status, employment and unemployment

The position of the Irish in the British labour market is crucial in determining income and job security. It is also an indication of the extent to which the Irish are integrated on equal terms with the majority society, remain a migrant labour force filling specific gaps or experience continuing disadvantage through exclusion. Whilst a disadvantageous position is not clear evidence of discrimination, this may be a contributory factor.

The Irish are a labour migrant group in Britain and rates of immigration are closely tied to
demand for labour. Although the push factor of high unemployment has been experienced in Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s and 80s, and in the Irish Republic after a brief fall in the early 1970s, emigration takes place in response to the pull factor of opportunities in Britain. In other words, although high rates of unemployment in both parts of Ireland until very recently have made labour readily available, actual numbers emigrating respond very sensitively to the needs of the British labour market.

To Top of Page

Employment profiles

The 1991 Census classifies the economically active population into nine broad occupation categories. Table I shows the overall pattern of Irish-born women's and men's occupations compared with that of the population of Britain as a whole.

Irish women are far more strongly clustered than men into particular occupational groupings. Much higher than average proportions of Irish women are recorded in associated professional occupations including nursing (category 3), personal services (category 6) where domestic and catering work is predominant and other elementary occupations (category 9), mainly services. At the same time Irish women are noticeably underrepresented in the major section of British women's work, clerical and secretarial work (category 4).

Overall therefore, Irish women clearly fit the pattern of migrant workers, filling niches in the labour market unmet by the skills and preferences of the majority population. Two very different groups of Irish women are involved - highly qualified nurses and low-skilled personal service workers.

Irish-born men's occupations are more similar to those of the population as a whole. Like women they are underrepresented in 'white collar' occupations (categories 1,3 and 4), but not professional work (category 2), where there is a slightly greater proportion of Irish-born men. Some clustering is apparent in Category 5, which includes skilled construction work, and industrial work, heavy machine operation and general labouring (Categories 8 and 9). These two categories account for 19.2% of Irish men s work compared with 13.8% of the male workforce.

Labour migration from Ireland thus has a dual pattern. It includes both highly-educated
and trained professionals for whom there is a skills shortage in Britain, the 'brain
drain', and low-paid manual workers filling secondary jobs which are rejected by the
indigenous workforce.

Important differences are noted when the Irish-born population is disaggregated into
Republic-born and Northern Ireland-born. The main point to emerge is that those born in the North are much closer in profile to the average population of Britain, although in some cases they show a pattern of clustering similar to, but less marked than, the Republic-born. Undoubtedly, therefore, the stereotyped manual occupations are more characteristic of migrants from the Irish Republic.

Young Irish-born men also remain over-represented in areas of low-skilled, often casual work, notably personal services (10.3%, compared with 4.1% total population). Fewer young women appear to be entering low-paid, unskilled casual work than in the past, but young men continue to do so, indeed taking on service jobs rather than the traditional general labouring ones. However it is possible that young men missing from Census enumeration are mainly in the casual labourer category, so that the totals are misleadingly low. The 18-25 age group forms a substantial proportion (20%) of clients seeking advice from Irish welfare agencies, mainly because of homelessness and unemployment (Kowarzik, 1994).

Marked differences by migrant generation and lifecycle stage are brought out when further sub division of occupational categories by age is made. The young group (18-29), which comprises 11.8% of the total Irish-born population and represents 1980s migrants, has much stronger representation in occupations demanding higher qualification levels. Both women and men are strongly over-represented in managerial and professional occupations compared with the total population (Irish women 45.4%, av. 26.5%: Irish men 39.0%, av. 26.5%).

Much sharp distinctions emerge, however, amongst older working age populations (45-59). This is by far the largest section of the Irish-born population, comprising 30.8% of the total and representing the l950s bulge. The experience of this group thus has a major effect on the socioeconomic structure of the Irish population as a whole. Older working Irish-born women are strongly concentrated into the two personal service and catering categories, (categories 6 and 9: 39.2%, total population 27.0%) and Irish-born men into the industrial and general labouring (categories 8 and 9: 34.9%, total population 23.2%). The proportion of Irish-born men and women in the professional category is much lower than in the young working age group.

To Top of Page

Social Class

Several methods of allocating individuals to social classes may be used. The simplest and
most readily available is the Registrar General's index based on levels of skill in
occupations. Although criticised for lack of systematic criteria and inadequate representation of women's work, this has the advantage of summarising data on occupations. Table 2 shows the distribution of women and men in England by Registrar General's Social Group for the main birthplace and Census-based ethnic groups, though small numbers are inevitably involved (2% Individual SARS). Nevertheless broad patterns can be identified.

(i) Social classes IV and V

The most striking finding is the clustering of Republic Irish-born women and men in the
lowest social category, Social Class V. The proportions in this class are substantially
greater than for any other group, 14.1% for women compared with 7.5% for white
English-born, the closest being Black African women with 11.5%. For Republic
Irish-born men the total is 12.0%, more than twice the proportion of the white English-born (5.4%) and closest to the Black Caribbean population (8.4%). There is a
particularly marked contrast with Scottish and Welsh-born women and men in England,
whose totals in this class are lower than for the English-born majority. If the lowest
Social Classes (IV and V) are merged, an approximation to a 'working class'
grouping, Irish Republic-born women are second only to Pakistani women in proportion, whilst men are very close to Black Caribbean and Pakistani men where the highest proportions are found.

The greatest contrast is with the internal British ethnic groupings. Women and men
From Northern Ireland are also much closer to these British ethnic groupings than to the Irish Republic-born.

(ii) Social classes I and II

At the top end of the class scale a more complex pattern emerges. Irish Republic-born women have low proportions in Social Class I, similar to the English-born total and well below those of the Scottish. Welsh and Northern Irish-born groups. The difference is even more striking when the two highest Social Classes, that is the groups fitting most closely the description 91middle class92, are taken together. Women originating in Wales (41%), Scotland (37.2%) and Northern Ireland (39.3%) are in much higher ranking occupations than Republic-born women (32.9%), despite the number of well-qualified nurses. Amongst men, Irish Republic-born proportions are high in Social Class 1(11.8%), but still lower (32.1%) than those of men from Wales (49.0%), Scotland (40.9%) and Northern Ireland (37.4%) when the top two classes are taken together.

Overall the patterns strongly reinforce the position of the Irish as a labour migrant
group which cannot simply be categorised as part of the 91Celtic fringe92 with Scotland
and Wales. Irish men differ from Black Caribbean men in having much higher
proportions in Social Class I but share clustering in the lowest socio-economic categories. Again clear contrasts with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish men can be identified. Heath and Ridge (1983) and Hornsby-Smith and Dale (1988) highlight a continuation of the pattern of below-average mobility for the Republic Irish-born, despite the arrival of well-qualified migrants in the 1 980s. Having arrived in Britain Irish migrants are less likely to move to better paid, higher status jobs over the course of their lifetime than the population as a whole. This finding is in accordance with Castles (1984) analysis of labour migrants 92experience in Europe. They are recruited to fill less desirable secondary sector jobs and are still needed in those areas when opportunities open up for movement into the tertiary sector

To Top of Page

Housing conditions

Housing is a central issue for the Irish-born in Britain. As migrants they have to enter the
housing market. The majority arrive as young people without any capital and are thus
dependent on income from paid work. Unlike an increasing proportion of the British-born population most cannot expect to inherit property in Britain during the course of their lifetime. Published Census tables are an unsatisfactory source of data about Irish people's housing situation, because of categorisation under birthplace of household head. This excludes about half of all Irish-born women who do not live in households with Irish-born men and includes many non-Irish people, although these live at least to some extent in an 'Irish' household. Figures relate to the housing situation of individual Irish-born people, some living in households with other Irish people and some not. Published Census data also fail to distinguish between people originating in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, who may have very different housing experiences.

Tenure provides some measure of comparison of the housing situation of the Irish-born
compared with that of the total British population, though it no longer provides a clear-cut indicator of advantage or quality. Table 3 shows that Irish-born people are underrepresented in owner-occupied housing in Britain. The average proportion of Irish-born people occupying outright-owned property is accounted for by the top-heavy age structure, so that many of the 1950s migrants have lived long enough in Britain to have paid off loans on small terrace or semi-detached houses. In fact the proportion might have been expected to be even higher than average and in reality the Irish-born are underrepresented in this category when age structure is taken into account.

When London is considered alone, a different picture emerges (Table 4). The proportion of owner occupiers owning their houses outright (13.5%) is substantially below that of the white non-Irish born population (20.0%). This illustrates the importance of taking geographical clustering into account when examining statistics relating to the Irish population, so that national-level generalisations do not mask areas of disadvantage.

Both Republic- and Northern Irish-born groups are much more strongly clustered than
average in the furnished private rented sector, reflecting migrant status, low income and
above-average proportions of single-person households. Rates of private renting amongst Irish-born women and men are well over twice the average. In London, the proportion of Irish-headed households in privately rented accommodation is much higher. In 1991 16.8% of Irish-headed households were in this category, compared with 12.1% of white non-Irish households and much lower proportions of the main Census-defined ethnic groups (Black Caribbean 5.4%, Indian 7.3% and Pakistani 11.2%). Only Black Africans had similar rates (16.5%).

Private rented accommodation has the worst record for unfitness and lack of amenities of any tenure category. Over a quarter of private tenants in furnished accommodation share a bath, shower or toilet. In 1981 overcrowding (more than 1.5 persons per room) was much greater amongst Irish-headed households in both furnished (Irish 5.9%, total 1.3%) and unfurnished (Irish 12.9%, total 2.8%) rented accommodation (Connor, 1987).

People from the Irish Republic have been associated with local authority rented housing since its inception. In London well over a quarter (28.9%) of Irish-headed households occupied local authority housing, compared with only 21.8% of the white non-Irish.
Census-defined ethnic groups with higher rates included the Bangladeshi population
(57.6%), Black African (46.1%), Black Other (40.0%) and Black Caribbean (39.0%).
This pattern holds for housing association tenure which, although small overall, is relatively greater, especially for those from the Irish Republic compared with the total population. Although the proportions are higher in London, where 8.0% of Irish-headed households compared with 5. 1% of white non-Irish-headed households rent from Housing Associations, they are lower than for a number of other Census-defined groups, for example Black African (11.7%), Black Other (11.6%) and Black Caribbean (10.5%). This suggests that Irish people do not have the same access to Housing Association property as other Census-defined ethnic groups, although their high demand for private rented accommodation, and its declining availability, indicates a need for rented housing.

Table 5 shows that households in London with Irish-born heads have poorer facilities than average for the majority white population. Nearly twice the proportion (2.2% compared with 1.2%) lack or share a bath/shower and/or inside WC. The proportion is higher than for the other established large ethnic groups, Black Caribbean (1.4%) and Indian (1.0%), and similar to the Black Other category (2.4%). Similarly higher proportions of Irish-headed households lack central heating, 21.9% compared with the white average of 18.90o. Again this is higher than for the Black Caribbean (17.40%) and Indian-headed (10.9%) households and slightly above the Black Other category (20.2%).

Only part of the population sleeping rough in Britain was captured by Census enumerators in April, 1991. The Irish-born were substantially over-represented, comprising 15.7% (377) of all men and 10.5% (45) of all women classified in this way in Britain, though the overall proportions of Irish-born people in the population are only 1.5% and 1.6% respectively. But there is a lack of accurate data about this issue which is compounded by failure to include an Irish category in research. A major study on homelessness in London published in 1989, for example, used the category 'white' European, which included 88% of the sample (Canter D. et al, 1989). It is likely that a substantial proportion of this figure was Irish, but this was not recorded, although 'AfroCaribbean', 'Asian' and 'Oriental' with extremely small numbers, were.

To Top of Page

Health profile

There is considerable evidence that the Irish in Britain experience more ill-health than
can be explained by their demographic and socio-economic status alone (Pearson,
Madden and Greenslade, 1991). Data for the period 1970-78 shows that death rates
amongst Irish-born men aged 15-64 were 22% higher than average, the excess remaining at 15% even when occupation is taken into account. (Marmot et al., 1984). Irish men are the only migrant group whose mortality is higher in Britain than in their country of origin.

Amongst the major causes of death which disproportionately affect Irish men are accidents, suicide and violence (+80%) (Marmot et al., 1984). This reflects employment in the construction industry which has high rates of accidental death because of low safety standards. Suicide is related to much higher incidence of mental illness amongst men born in Ireland. In 1981 men from the Republic of Ireland were admitted to psychiatric hospitals at 3.2 times the rate of the indigenous population and the rate for men from Northern Ireland was 2.5 times greater (Cochrane and Bal, 1989). Deaths from violence are connected to the unsettled lifestyle of single Irish men which exposes them to street life.

Higher mortality rates for Irish-born men were also recorded from tuberculosis (+145%) and cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx (+83%) and of the gall bladder and gullet (+76%). Death from liver cirrhosis (+63%), peptic ulcer (+42%) and high blood pressure (+35%) were also in excess of average. All these sources of premature death were higher than in Ireland, suggesting that the migration experience was implicated. Irish-born women also showed higher than average levels of excess mortality (+16%), ranking third amongst migrant groups. Major causes of mortality included tuberculosis (+115%), accidental poisoning (+77%), liver cirrhosis (+59%) and cancer of the lung and trachea (+59%) (Marmot et al., 1984).

Irish-born women were admitted to psychiatric hospitals at much higher than average rates. In 1981 rates per 100,000 for women from the Irish Republic were 1167 and 834 for women for Northern Irish-born women, compared with 485 for women from England and Wales (Cochrane and Bal, 1990). The most important single cause was depression, accounting for 35% of admissions from Republic Irish-born women and 32% of those from Northern Ireland. Links between depression and women's migrant status and negative experiences living in Britain needs investigation.

From the new question on limiting long-term illness introduced into the 1991 Census,
Owen (1995) calculates higher rates for the Irish-born population in Britain as a whole,
showing that these are more than twice as high as for Census-defined ethnic groups, and
a third higher than for all white people. He calculates that illness rates of the Irish-born
are 5 to 10% above age-standardised rates, with greater differences for men than for

Particularly telling is recent evidence of poorer health is experienced in the
second-generation Irish population. Harding and Balarajan (1996) show that
significantly higher mortality rates apply, especially in the age group 15-44 and for
women, who also had much higher rates at 75+. These patterns were unrelated to social
class. They provide very strong evidence of ongoing disadvantage, related to experiences in Britain rather than to migration alone.

Explanations for the excess of poor health in both first and second generations of the Irish population are actively being sought by medical sociologists who agree that class, whilst a contributory factor, is not a sufficient one. Kelleher and Hillier (1996) suggest that 'material and cultural factors interact to create a sense of low self-esteem'. Thus in addition to reluctance to seek medical help for non-serious illness, is the sense of collective insecurity about their identity which may contribute both to their unwillingness to make demands on the health care system and to the likelihood that their problems may eventually emerge as psychological ones, or at least be diagnosed as such. There is, after all the possibility that, as has been found to be the case with Afro-Caribbean people, those diagnosing Irish patients may use the stereotypes of Irish people which are commonly found in English culture' (p121).

Williams (1999) also suggests the possibility of an interpretation based on ethnic exclusion within a dominant British culture. The detailed Census evidence he has analysed could be explained by model which proposes that the social class distribution of the Irish, their occupational specialisations, their patterns of territorial concentration and religious endogomy may all have been maintained in existence as a defensive reaction to practices of dominance and exclusion by the host population, and that this situation may have entailed patterns of health behaviour and psychosocial response which explain the excess mortality' (p.364).

All these findings point to the strong possibility that poor health is related anti-Irish attitudes in Britain. Further research exploring the nature of these links is now urgently needed. For example, access to benefits plays a part in Irish people's wellbeing. The CRE survey showed that, although Irish migrants had greater than average need of benefits as low-paid workers in insecure employment, stereotyping of the Irish as feckless and untrustworthy led to their rights being questioned. They experienced delays in receiving benefits to which they were entitled and were deterred from claiming. Nearly a quarter of claimants in the survey had experienced this kind of discrimination.

To Top of Page

Criminal justice and policing experience

Despite the large amount of publicity given to miscarriages of justice in the cases of the
Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, very little information is
available about Irish experiences of policing in Britain. Statistics are not collected about the Irish background of people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Thus: 'The Irish, although they form a sizeable minority, remain invisible in the social
administration of the state and academic discourses in crime and criminology' (Hillyard

In the absence of official statistics, evidence has to be drawn from the small number of
surveys of Irish people's experiences in the British criminal justice system. These highlight
discrimination against Irish people in a variety of contexts. In the last thirty years the conflict in Northern Ireland has been a backdrop to these experiences, but many reflect much more generalised and long-established anti-Irish attitudes.

The CRE survey provided evidence of Irish people's contact with the police and judicial
system for a very wide variety of reasons, ranging from trivial encounters to serious criminal involvement. Altogether 58% had some form of contact and of these a quarter reported negative reactions to their Irish origins. It must be remembered that these incidents were uncovered in a random sample of Irish-born people and so indicate a substantial level of anti-Irish racism in the British justice system which is never catalogued. Categories identified included serious assault and injury, racial harassment on the street, stereotyping, hostile police attitudes and court experiences where Irish accents were given undue attention.

The study Social Exclusion and Criminal Justice: Ethnic Communities and Stop and
Search in North London (Mooney and Young 1999) carried out by the Centre for Criminology at Middlesex University confirms the disproportionality in the representation of young Irish men in 'foot stops' in Finsbury Park. The researchers contacted 1000 randomly selected households in North London and revealed that 14.3% of the Irish were stopped in a single year, compared with 12.8% of the black community and 5.8% of the indigenous British population. Part of the explanation for the large number of Irish stoppages lay in the policy of 'lurking and larking' in which police officers waited outside Irish pubs and clubs to make arrests, confirming the experiences of CRE respondents. Mooney and Young interpreted the process as one of 'institutionalised racism' and argue that racist stereotyping and practice raises the levels of stops in the Irish and African-Caribbean populations well above what would be expected on class grounds alone.

What is particularly worrying is that, if the study had not explicitly separated 'English/Scottish/Welsh' from 'Irish' in the analysis, this study would have shown very similar levels of 'foot stops' for 'black' and 'white' populations in the Finsbury Park area and might have led to the conclusion of an 'even-handed' approach. It demonstrates very powerfully both the existence of a range of racisms and the need for accurate and full ethnic monitoring categories.

Evidence about abuses arising out of the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1974) have been documented in detail by Paddy Hillyard (1993) in his study Suspect Community. He enumerated 7052 detentions up to 1993, 86% involving no further action, and calculated that they amounted to 33 years in custody. Many ordinary Irish people have encountered the effects at ports and airports where they have been stopped. In the CRE survey 60% of the sample had been stopped at least once, three quarters for less than an hour which would not appear in official statistics.

It appears that anti-Irish attitudes are strongly ingrained in the police force and justice system. Irish accents trigger reactions out of all relation to the context in which they are heard. This is particularly serious because the police are in a position of authority, and have the power to enforce their prejudices, including the apparently legimate use of violence. Recently cases against the police have been successfully prosecuted, but these are rarely reported outside the Irish press (eg Irish Post 1996). A much more comprehensive study of Irish people's experiences in the British criminal justice systems at all levels is urgently needed.

To Top of Page

Irish views on ethnicity

A final question concerns Irish people's own view of their ethnicity and the extent to which Irish people in Britain identify themselves as a distinctive ethnic group will now be considered. The arguments for and against formal recognition of this difference were
presented to the Office for National Statistics in the preparation of the White paper for Census 2001. The outcome was a proposal in for a separate category within the 'White' section of the Ethnic Question, allowing people to identify themselves as 'British', 'Irish' or 'other'. The choice about ethnic identification depends not only on a sense of group belonging, but also on the political advantages and disadvantages of being identified as separate. Because of negative experiences of anti-Irish racism, there has been a strong tradition of 'keeping heads down' to avoid discrimination.

In the CRE survey carried out in London and Birmingham, the question asked was: 'Do you think the Irish should be recognised as an ethnic group in Britain?' It is important to
remember that this was a randomly-selected sample drawn on the basis of Irish names in the electoral register. Overall a majority of those questioned gave a strong positive answer (59%). A minority gave a firm 'No' (28%) and the remainder (13%) were ambivalent. No significant differences by gender or age were identified. Proportions saying 'Yes' were almost identical in Birmingham and London, though a higher proportion in London were negative rather than ambivalent in their opinion.

Q 62a Do you think the Irish should be recognised as an ethnic group in Britain?

Positive responses fell into four main groups, on the basis of
(i) similarities in Irish position and experience to that of other, that is black and Asian labour
migrant groups and their descendents, including specifically racist treatment.
(ii) entitlement to similar benefits as these other groups.
(iii) recognition of Irish contribution to the British economy, that is of the benefits of
labour migration.
(iv) recognition of Irish cultural difference in Britain.

Many respondents (50% of those favouring an 'ethnic' label) made the point that the Irish are treated like outsiders, but not given the recognition which can now be claimed by other groups. The overwhelming impression given was a feeling of injustice about the treatment of Irish people. The respondents were not demanding a recognition of their 'white' superiority, but equality of treatment, especially when there are parallels in their experience of racism.

A sizeable group of respondents favouring recognition (24%) felt strongly that the economic contribution of Irish people in Britain was undervalued, because their presence was not acknowledged. The work they had done as labour migrants was not attributed to them. Thse comments reflected the lack of understanding by British people of the Irish as labour migrants in the British economy. Because the reasons for Irish settlement in Britain are little understood, they are often seen as 'scroungers' who simply leave bad conditions in Ireland to benefit at the expense of British taxpayers. The respondents on the other hand had a much clearer picture of their own value. Others (18%) believed that Irish cultural difference was not understood by the British.

Those who felt unable to give an unequivocal answer to this question (13%) were mainly
reluctant to separate out the Irish from the British on grounds of numbers and length of
residence. They were also unwilling to be given this label. Finally some were doubtful of any benefits.

However just over a quarter of the sample (28%) would prefer that the Irish were not given a specifically ethnic status in Britain. The reasons expressed included anxiety about
identification and a belief that there was or should be no difference between the Irish and the British. A small number of people stated that there was no need for an ethnic designation because they perceived no problems. Reasons therefore could be classified as:

(i) Desire not to cause difficulties, fear about labelling and of identification
(ii) denial of ethnic or cultural difference
(iii) no problems perceived, or self reliance preferred

Although there was a wide range of responses to the question, the overwhelming impression was of a group who felt unrecognised for their positive contribution. There was a difference of view about the appropriate strategy to adopt in order to achieve acknowledgement of this position. The majority felt that campaigns by African-Caribbean and Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups had brought them more benefits than disadvantages, including recognition of their experience as racism and access to a fairer distribution of material resources,such as housing. Clear parallels in the position of the Irish within British society were seen.

To Top of Page


Action Group for Irish Youth (1995) Census 1991 Briefings London.
Castles, S. with Booth, H. and Wallace, T. (1984), Here for good. Western Europe's new ethnic minorities, Pluto Press, London.
Cochrane R and Bal S. (1989) 'Mental hospital admission rates of immigrants to England, a comparison of 1971 and 1981', Social Psychiatry, 24.
Connor, T. (1987), The London Irish, London Strategic Policy Unit.
Harding S. and Balarajan R. (1996) 'Patterns of mortality in second generation Irish living in England and Wales: longitudinal study', British Medical Journal 312.
Heath, A. and Ridge, J. (1983) 'Social mobility of ethnic minorities', Journal of Biosocial
Sciences, Supplement 8.
Hickman, M. (1990), A study of the Incorporation of the Irish in Britain with special reference to Catholic State Education: involving a comparison of the attitudes of the pupils and teachers in selected Catholic schools in London and Liverpool, Ph.D thesis, Institute of Education, University of London.
Hickman M. and Walter B. (1997) Discrimination and the Irish Community London:
Commission for Racial Equality.
Hillyard P. (1993) Suspect Community: People's experience of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in Britain Pluto Press, London.
Hornsby-Smith, M. and Dale, A. (1988), 'The assimilation of Irish immigrants in Britain',
British Journal of Sociology, xxxix.
Kenrick, D. and Bakewell, S. (1990), On the verge: the gypsies of England, Hatfield:
University of Hertfordshire Press.
Kowarzik U. (1994) Developing a community response Charities Evaluation Services, London LIWC, (1995), Rights for Travellers, London Irish Women's Centre.
Marmot M., Adelstein A. and Bulusu L. (1984) 'Immigrant mortality in England and Wales, 1970-78' OPUS Studies on Medical and Population Subjects, 47, HMSO, London.
Mooney J. and Young J. (1999) Social Exclusion and Criminal Justice; Ethnic Communities and Stop and Search in North London, Centre for Criminology, Middlesex University.
Owen D. (1995) Irish-born people in Great Britain, settlement patterns and socio-economic circumstances, 1991, Census Statistical Paper 9, Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick
Pearson. M , Madden, M. and Greenslade L. (1991), Generations of an invisible minority. the health and well being of the Irish in Britain, University of Liverpool.
Walter, B. (1984), 'Tradition and ethnic interaction: second wave Irish settlement in Luton
and Bolton', in Clarke, C., Ley,D. and Peach, C. (eds.), Geography and ethnic pluralism, Allen and Unwin, London.
Williams R. (1999) 'Regional mortality and the Irish in Britain: findings from the ONS
longitudinal study', Sociology of Health and Illness 21.3.

To Top of Page


Appendix 1

The Irish and the Race Relations Act

Date Case Nature of discrimination Key issues Outcome
1989 Killian v Boots Denied job interview Irish unreliableDirect discrimination
the Chemist compensation

1990 O'Driscoll v Discrimination Questioning Direct discrimination
Post Office at interview nationality compensation
drink patterns

1990 Chapman v Discrimination Irish as a Direct discrimination
STC promotion security compensation

1991 Nicholl v Agency denied Irish Direct discrimination
London Staff interview unreliable compensation

1991 Campbell et al Racial abuse Irish dirty, Pre-court
v Central of customers paddies, settlement
London pub service provision thick, compensation

1994 McAuley v Racial abuse Sustained Direct discrimination
Auto Alloy at work racialist compensation
Foundry humour
and abuse (NIP)

1995 Bryans v Racial abuse Racial Direct discrimination
Northumber- at work abuse compensation
Land College victimisation (NIP)

1996-7 Irish customer Refused Denied Apology
and building opportunity to service compensation
society open savings account provision
with Irish passport Irish passport

1996-7 Irish worker Failure to renew Racial abuse Changed
and care contract following at work admission
agency complaint of racial abuse procedure

1996-7 Irish student Exclusion from Exclusion of Changed admission
and post-graduate equality targets Irish from procedure
university course for student intake EOP

1996-7 Applicant of Denied interview Discrimination Compensation
Irish/ specifically targeted in recruitment. Consultation
Origin and following advert Irish origin with CRE
Voluntary used to exclude
Sector agency

1996-7 Irish chef and Racial abuse at work Racial abuse Compensation
work place led to EOP introduced

1996-7 Irish welder Racial abuse at work Racialist Compensation
and work place name calling EOP introduced
as 'Paddy' etc

1996-7 Irish baker Racial abuse at work Racial abuse Apology
and work place by manager Manager disciplined

To Top of Page

To Top of Page

Eng England Dl Car Black Caribbean
Sco Scotland Ind Indian
Wa Wales Pak Pakistani
NI Northern Ireland Bl Afr Black African
IrRep Irish Republic

Source: Crown Copyright ONS. Samples of Anonymised Records

To Top of Page

Help us end racism

As an independently funded charity we rely on the support of generous individuals to continue our work.