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Return of anti-Irish prejudice in Britain?

by Brian Whelan | Tuesday, 17 July 2012


Last week saw the announcement of an “anti-IRA” march in Liverpool by hardline English Defence League splinter group the North West Infidels (NWI), a far-right street protest movement. The march is an anachronism, a feeble attempt by the far-right to relive past ‘glories’ – but if you scratch beneath the surface of English society anti-Irish prejudice still lurks.

Thousands of Irish people have emigrated to England over the last three years. They’ve arrived in the country with over 600,000 Irish born citizens, but are quite often completely unaware of the difficulties past generations faced moving here.

Occasionally you may notice the signs of a previous tension; a total stranger might approach you in the pub upon hearing your accent to let you know their relative was killed while serving in the North, as if you were to blame or should apologise.

For me the soft face of anti-Irish sentiment first hit home when people began to leave comments under articles I’ve written suggesting it’s time for me to move home and hand my job and house over to a British person. I felt it was my own fault for venturing below the line.


Poster advertising Saturday's march

It turns out I’m not alone. British-born journalist Brendan O’Neill regularly receives “Paddy-bashing’” abuse for simply having an Irish surname and occasionally speaking out against “Catholic-bashing”.

This Saturday Liverpool’s Irish community had planned to march against racism. The event is organised by the James Larkin Society with the hope of countering the worrying rise in far-right activity targeting Muslims, trade unionists and Irish republican groups living in the north of England.

Outraged by the prospect the North West Infidels have called for their own protest billed as “Stop the IRA march in Liverpool”, despite the event having nothing to do with the IRA.

The poster in red, white and blue boldly declares: “Over the past several years the city of liverpool and north west england has seen the rise of anti-British feeling projected on them by immigrant families from the republic of Ireland.”

The rhetoric is laughable, but it’s being backed up with physical force.

“These people are much like the Islamics. They take take take with one hand and abuse their host nation with the other. They openly support sinn fien [sic] and the irish republican army and we are expected to stand by, smile and allow them to spread the hatred for britain.”

Last February, in scenes unseen since the 80s, hardline British nationalists stopped a march commemorating Liverpool-born Republican Sean Phelan and racially abused marchers.

The NWI, usually dedicated to harassing the Muslim community under the pretence of protesting “extremism”, have openly expanded their remit to include targeting Irish families.

Any sane English person would stay away, as the protest represents something abhorrent to right-minded people, and while most Irish immigrants have no interest taking part in an anti-racism protest or republican commemoration, even a fringe re-emergence of anti-Irish street marches should come as a warning to us all.

The rhetoric of groups like the English Defence League is just the recycled racism of the 1980s when the National Front and British Movement would stage “anti-IRA” marches as an excuse to attack and intimidate Irish immigrants. As a consequence many Irish people moved to the forefront of the fight against the far-right in the UK and played a central role in beating the fascists off the streets.

The unspoken rule seems to be that Irish people are white, so discriminating against them can’t be racist. When BBC3 screened RTE’s documentary about Irish rappers last week the soft face of anti-Irish prejudice quickly surfaced on Twitter:

“You should be Happy They Spitting Bars and Not Blowing up Sh*t#IRA

“Irish rappers on bbc three!? Give it a rest, f**k off back to the fiddle and flute you potato eating chumps!“

“Irish rappers!!…potato famine has resulted in some damage chromosomes me thinks”

Similar Tweets about any other nationality could potentially get the person arrested or fired from their job, but when the jokes are aimed at the Irish it is written off as “banter”.

This is a situation helped by our love of self-deprecation and general thick-skinned nature when taking criticism, but outbursts like the above should not be tolerated. It’s up to us to decide when the joke stops.

The recession has scattered an entire generation of Irish youth across the globe, hopeful and idealistic, but ultimately abandoned by our own government and without any networks for support. While the French government has created new constituencies abroad to represent their expats, Ireland withdraws support closing the RTE London office at a time when more Irish people here need a voice than ever before.

A fractured Irish community with no connection between the old generation and the new arrivals can make an easy target. Without a sense of our own history anti-Irish sentiment might seem like something that doesn’t affect you, but if left unchecked it could come marching down your street next.


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