Sunday, 23 October 2011

Time for Irish community to punch its political weight

The success of the campaign to save the Irish Post showed the power of the Irish community once mobilised into action.
Following the summary closure of the title in August by then owners Thomas Crosbie Holdings, staff and contributors joined together with supporters from the Federation of Irish Societies (FIS) and MPs.
An Early Day Motion was put down in Parliament by stalwart supporter Chris Ruane MP. This quickly gathered over 60 signatures across parties showing the strength of support in Parliament. There were 76 signatures in the end.
A meeting was held in Parliament to launch the Save the Irish Post campaign. The new owner Elgin Loan attended that meeting and must have been impressed with what he saw in terms of the passion and support shown for the paper. The liquidator then took control of the paper and Mr Loan bought it.

Mr Ruane is taking things on further in Parliament, seeking to bring together some media owners with MPs in a new initiative but there are real lessons for the Irish community in this campaign to save the Post.
It has long been a cry of some in the community that it does not punch its weight when it comes to the political stage. A few years ago Labour MP John McDonnell called for all the different organisations working in the Irish community to come together with others to effectively create a slate of political demands. Mr McDonnell compared the piecemeal approach of the community in Britain with the power of the Irish caucus in America, where for example no serious Presidential candidate would run for office without listening closely to what the Irish had to say.
These plans though never really materialised, indeed Mr McDonnell’s suggestions seemed at the time to rather annoy those then running the FIS, who may be considered they were already fulfilling such a role.
The terrain though has now significantly changed. There are massive demands that need to be articulated at political level. The economic downturn is hitting everyone hard but the Irish community has a high number among the most vulnerable groups.
The Irish community has been ageing, so cuts to the NHS, transport provision and pensions will all hit particularly hard. What of fuel poverty and lack of provision for dementia sufferers and carers.
The lack of affordable housing is another factor effecting members of the Irish community here and those coming over for work. The lull in the construction industry itself is hitting Irish employers and workers alike.
Then there are the longstanding needs of representation for Irish prisoners and the travelling community. The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas and the Irish Traveller Movement have both done excellent work in these respective areas.
Finally, in this quick summary, there are the new emigrants flowing in every day from Ireland once again. This group will have other needs that may not even be recognised yet but need to be met.
So the community has many needs that must be heard at the top political tables up and down the land. What the campaign to save the Irish Post shows is that the community has the potential to develop a louder voice in the political arena.
The FIS has become a much more voluble body since the excellent Jennie McShannon took over as chief executive. It proved its advocacy credentials earlier this year with the effective census campaign to get Irish people registering their ethnicity.
Previously, there had been mobilisation to oppose proposals being put forward by Lord Peter Goldsmith that would have detrimentally effected Irish people’s rights to citizenship.
In Parliament, the mantle of leading the Irish caucus seems to be being taken on by Mr Ruane, who is part of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
So there is a momentum gathering toward getting Irish issues heard more clearly in the political arena. There may though need to be some changes of approach in political tactics.
The Irish have traditionally been the bedrock of the Labour Party. Irish people have remained loyal through both thick and thin during the parties periods both in and out of government. The Labour Party has been good for the community. As the EDM to save the Irish Post proved there is strong Irish representation among MPs, but is there not a danger of the community being taken for granted by the Labour Party? Surely, links need to be strengthened with the other parties, particularly at this time when Labour is out of government at so many different levels across the country. Again the support for the Post campaign proved that not all of the other parties are hostile to all things Irish.
Then there is Ireland itself, maybe sometimes the Diaspora in Britain might look to parties like Sinn Fein for a little support in attaining some of its own demands, rather than it being a one way street. This is not ofcourse to downplay the historical context of Britain’s role as the partitoner of Ireland and occupying power.
These are all things for consideration in a wider debate in the community about how best its demands can be taken forward in the political sphere. The campaign to save the Irish Post is the latest in a proud tradition of the Irish community standing up for its rights, from the miscarriage of justice campaigns to the more recent census initiative. What these campaigns prove is just how effective a political player the community can be once mobilised. The challenge now in moving forward is how we build on these excellent roots

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