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Sunday 22 August 2004

Don't Labour the Irish immigrant point

IT IS right that we should address the sad state of many elderly Irish emigrants in Britain, so well highlighted in RTE's Prime Time last December. But why did the Parnell Summer School choose John McDonnell MP to address it last week?

McDonnell's claim to fame in the British Labour Party is as a far-left rebel. On matters Irish he is an ideologue: a few months ago, at the Wolfe Tone Society annual dinner dance in west London, he was presented with a plaque in recognition of his "unfailing political and personal support" to "the Irish community in Britain, and to the republican community in the Six Counties over many years".

The beaming notable who made the presentation was none other than Sinn Fein Justice spokesman Gerry Kelly, best known in Britain for having bombed the Old Bailey in 1973 (one dead, 230 injured).

In May, McDonnell told a hunger-striker commemoration that it was "about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle".

The Irish "are the only migrants to Britain whose life expectancy falls," McDonnell said at the presentation in Wicklow, because they "lived and still live in some of the worst housing conditions in Britain"; "worked and still work in some of the hardest manual jobs"; and "experienced and still experience isolation and extremes of poverty, especially in old age". Fair enough.

But then he took off onto Planet McDonnell. They also suffered "cultural denigration - with the same images of the Irish as a sub-human species being deployed in the media in the Eighties as they were in Parnell's time."

Well, no actually. True, over the past 30 years some cartoonists got a bit worked up when British people were murdered and maimed in the name of Irish freedom and showed the IRA in a less than flattering light. Still, by and large, the Irish in Britain were treated with extraordinary tolerance, as Muslims are these days, despite the terrible threat posed by fringe loonies. McDonnell, of course, thinks Muslims are the new Irish and tends to vote against anti-terrorist legislation.

"Where was the Irish homeland?" when its emigrants were having a tough time, McDonnell wanted to know. "If the hands of successive Irish governments were tied at that time in tackling the economic exploitation of the Irish migrant to Britain, then it still had a voice with which to challenge and protest against the racist abuse of the Irish in the media and the treatment of Irish people by the judicial system. This voice was at best muted."

It is certainly true that successive Irish governments have been heartless about emigrants who fell on tough times.

But so were those institutions that left so many terrified, ignorant and emotionally inadequate, the judges who offered the choice of jail or England and the farmers who used younger sons as free labour but left them nothing in their wills.

Worse were those Irish people who welcomed them to Britain as commercial and political cannon fodder - the greedy exploiters and the anti-British agitators.

Thousands of the inadequate and the vulnerable were wickedly abused by Irish-born employers. They were deliberately kept apart from the host community, given back-breaking jobs in appalling conditions with no job security, and under the system that became known as "the Lump", they were paid outside the tax and social-welfare system.

This glorious Irish tradition, by the way, is still alive and well in Ireland both North and South, in inner-city areas controlled by the Provos.

On a Thursday night, the worker went to a designated Irish-owned pub where he was either paid in cash or had his cheque cashed for a consideration.

The pubs offered the only consolation for those men who now live alone and destitute, homeless or in hostels. And the feckless, knee-jerk republican culture of Brit-hating songs and collections for "the lads" made people like this an object of suspicion when the IRA were letting off bombs with callous disregard for the immigrant community.

The worst enemies of immigrants are their own bad people. West Indian boys are cursed with role models who call industry and ambition selling-out and make criminality seem sexy; Nigerian fraudsters make their whole community appear suspect; Romanian beggars turn people off Eastern Europeans.

And Irish travellers behaving badly in the fenland village of Cottenham - where the English travellers they have supplanted had lived happily for decades - have done terrible damage to the reputation of all travellers. 'By and large, the Irish in Britain were treated with extraordinary tolerance, as Muslims are these days, despite the terrible threat posed by fringe loonies'

Any civilised society welcomes immigrants who want to succeed and who show respect to their hosts.

The majority of the Irish have done well in Britain because they ignored those spokesmen who whinge and blame and foment anti-British feeling.

John McDonnell is no more a good friend to his Irish constituents than he is to the Muslims he encourages to think like victims.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards