Why I won’t tick the Irish box

The Irish category in the UK census will reveal a lot about modern Britain - except how many Irish people live here.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘Be Irish. Be counted.’

So say the leaflets currently doing the rounds in north London, Luton, Liverpool, north Manchester, east Glasgow and every other part of the UK where Irish immigrants have set up shop. ‘Feel Irish? Be Irish! Census 2001’ says a poster in a pub window on the Kilburn High Road, the undisputed capital of Irish London. ‘Irish in Britain urged to register in census 2001’ runs a headline in the Irish Post, which has joined forces with the Irish Embassy in London to encourage people to ‘Tick the Box’ (1).

In case you haven’t heard, this year’s census will feature ‘Irish’ as an ethnic minority status for the first time – and Irish community leaders are going hell for leather to make sure it gets filled in. Under the category ‘White’, census fillers-in can pick between ‘British’ or ‘Irish’ – meaning that Irish will sit alongside Black Caribbean, Black African, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese as a recognised ethnic minority. ‘Only [now] will we get a true picture of the number and distribution of people of Irish background living in this country’, says Sean Hutton of the Federation of Irish Societies (2).

Really? If the pre-census flurry is anything to go by, the last thing we’ll learn from the new Irish category is how many Irish people live in the UK – but it might tell us how many Irish wannabes there are.

There is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people who were born in Ireland now live in Britain. Throughout the twentieth century swathes of Irish people moved to Britain to find work and start a family in a country more stable and affluent than their own. Between 1939 and 1945, when unemployment in Ireland was high but Britain was crying out for extra ‘war labour’, about 20,000 Irish people a year moved to the UK. In the 1950s, half a million people left Ireland, the majority of whom came to Britain – explaining Britain’s high number of Irish pensioners today (3).

Such massive movements continued into recent times. From April 1982 to April 1993, 472,300 people (an eighth of Ireland’s population) emigrated – and about 330,000 of them came to Britain (4). Even in the late 1990s, when Ireland was supposedly a ‘Celtic Tiger’ that could finally offer its young people a future, thousands of Irish people moved to Britain: 13,000 in 1995; 14,000 in 1996; 13,000 in 1997; 9000 in 1998; and 10,000 in 1999 (5).

So it was hardly surprising when the last UK census in 1991 suggested that there could be as many as one million Irish-born people living in Britain – and that five million UK residents had either an Irish parent or Irish grandparent (6). Nobody was shocked by the news that about one in 10 people in Britain was either Irish or of direct Irish descent.

But this year’s pre-census polls claim to have found something really shocking – that there are far more Irish people in Britain than even the 1991 census suggested. Forget the figure of five million Irish descendants in the UK – according to today’s polls, it is closer to 14million. Forget the statistic of one in 10 people being Irish or of Irish descent – according to today’s polls, it is nearer to one in four. The pre-census surveys claim that up to 24 percent of the UK’s population is Irish – and that this ‘hidden’ figure will finally be uncovered by the Irish category in the census.

‘One in four Britons claim Irish roots’, reported the BBC in March 2001, in response to a pre-census survey carried out by ICM Research (7). The survey found that out of 1000 people questioned throughout Britain, 216 (22 percent) claimed to be ‘in some way’ Irish. ‘The survey is a major fillip for the “Be Irish, Be Counted” campaign for this year’s census, which will have an Irish tickbox for the first time’, said the BBC.

But can it really be true that one in four people in Britain is Irish? Not if you get your facts straight.

Firstly, this jump from five million Irish people in 1991 to 14million today has occurred at a time when Irish immigration to Britain has hit an all-time low. Indeed, at the end of the 1990s, the number of Irish people leaving Britain was higher than the number coming in. So in 1998, fewer than 9000 Irish people moved to Britain, but 21,000 people moved from Britain to Ireland, about half of whom were returning Irish nationals. In the year 2000, just over 6000 Irish people moved to the UK, but over 16,000 people moved from Britain to Ireland, around 7000 of whom were Irish people ‘returning home’ (8).

For the first time in living memory, the number of people moving from Britain to Ireland was higher than the numbers moving from Ireland to Britain – yet according to the polls, the number of Irish people in Britain trebled during this period.

Secondly, the ICM pre-census poll has been taken too much at face value. So both BBC Online and the Irish Post reported the ‘finding’ that a whopping 77 percent of Londoners claimed Irish descent, a truly extraordinary figure. But completely untrue. One phone call to ICM Research revealed it to be a ‘misprint’, and that, in fact, 30 percent of Londoners claimed Irish descent. Let’s hope the census-counters pay more attention to numbers.

Thirdly, the ICM poll benefits from being broken down. The question posed to the 1000 people surveyed was, ‘Do you regard yourself as having any Irish ancestry, or do you think of yourself as Irish?’ – conflating having an Irish ancestor (which by definition can go back hundreds of years) with actually being Irish. So the headlines are right: 22 percent of those surveyed ‘believed they are in some part Irish’. But what they didn’t reveal is that 19 percent of those said yes in response to ‘having Irish ancestry’, while only three percent said yes in response to actually ‘being Irish’ (9).

As Dr Roy Bradshaw of Nottingham University points out: ‘A quarter of the population claiming Irish roots may be true, but you would have to go a long way back to find it, probably to the first half of the nineteenth century.’ (10) When having an ancestor going back to the Irish famine in the 1840s is put on a par with being an Irishman just arrived from Dublin on the lookout for work, it is no wonder the polls found that 14million people in Britain are Irish.

The problem is, this is precisely the same conflation made by those campaigning to get the Irish box ticked in the census – complete with the argument that you don’t even have to be Irish to tick it; you just have to ‘feel’ Irish.

‘Irish passport not needed for census’ ran a recent headline in the Irish Post, with Sean Hutton of the Federation of Irish Societies pointing out that the Irish tickbox has nothing to do with Irish nationality or citizenship: ‘We think it should be made clear that a person does not need to hold an Irish passport or be an Irish citizen in order to mark the Irish category….While we hope that all Irish citizens in England, Scotland and Wales will register themselves as Irish in the census, we hope also that the many hundreds of thousands of people who are not Irish citizens but have Irish links will do so as well.’ (11)

This expands the definition of Irishness beyond all previous bounds. In the past, the only people in Britain considered to be Irish were those who were Irish-born (first generation); those who were British-born but who had an Irish-born parent (second-generation, who are automatically Irish citizens at birth and can claim an Irish passport); and, at a stretch, those who were British-born but who had an Irish-born grandparent (third generation, who are not Irish citizens at birth but can claim Irish citizenship through the Irish Embassy in London). It is on this basis that the 1991 census reached its estimate of five million Irish-descended UK residents.

Now, Irishness seems to include fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, nth generations of so-called ‘Irish people’ – and it is these ‘lost Irish’ who are being targeted to tick the box in the census. Mayor of London Ken Livingstone hopes that ‘everyone with an Irish heritage [will] tick the appropriate box’ (12), while Irish ambassador to the UK Ted Barrington reminds us that this ‘is not an indication of citizenship or nationality, [so] we hope that the vast majority of millions of Irish people will tick the relevant box’ (13). The message is clear: you don’t have to be Irish to tick the Irish box. As BBC Online said: ‘Those who consider themselves British, but have Irish roots, can still tick the Irish box.’ (14)

It is not hard to work out why Irish community leaders and Irish organisations want anybody with an ‘Irish link’ (whatever that is) to tick the Irish box. The more Irish people there are, the more funding and authority Irish groups have. Explaining why it has ‘focused so much attention and resources during the last six years on getting an Irish census category’, the Federation of Irish Societies said, ‘the answer is simply this: the data produced from the census influences…how public resources, including money raised from taxes we pay, are allocated’. (15) There are seats on quangos and council committees to be had – and Irish community leaders don’t want to miss out.

As far as the census campaigners are concerned, Irishness is something you feel – a feeling you can have even if you are in fact British. This is Irishness as trendy badge, rather than Irishness as nationality. Which might explain why young British-born people are the keenest of all to ‘tick the Irish box’.

The pre-census poll found that ‘the desire to be Irish is most prevalent among young people’, with 42 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds claiming Irishness. But the last great influxes of Irish people to Britain were in the 1950s and 1980s, groups of people who today would be in their sixties to seventies and mid- to late-thirties respectively. It looks like it is their British-born children and grandchildren, and the rest of the ‘lost Irish’, who are most excited about ticking the Irish box. As Michael Coughlan, editor of Irish cultural magazine Ri-Ra, argues: ‘Young Londoners are attracted to [Irish culture], as many perceive themselves as having no identifiable culture of their own.’ (16) Maybe the census should have a tickbox for Pogues fans.

In truth, there are not three times as many Irish people in Britain today as there were in 1991 – but there are loads more people who wannabe Irish. And this isn’t just your typical ‘plastic Paddies’ or ‘brittle Bridgets’ (second-generation boys and girls who Gaelicise their names and hang out in the rough end of Cricklewood to prove their Irishness, man) – it is also young Brits who think Irishness is the new black, and they want to wear it (17). To the extent that they will scour their family trees for a Patrick or an Eamon among their forefathers to prove their ‘Irish credentials’ – like those dumb middle-class white kids in the USA who claim to be one-sixteenth Native American.

How times have changed. Not so long ago, when there was a war being fought in Northern Ireland, being Irish in Britain wasn’t something you advertised. My parents’ generation (who came to Britain in 1969 just as the conflict began) kept the fact that they were Irish to themselves and their local Irish community. Walking down a crowded high street with a t-shirt declaring ‘I’ve got Irish roots’ would have been unthinkable at a time when many assumed that if you were Irish you must be a ‘man of violence’ – a prejudice given weight by the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was used to harass Irish people in the UK. Even when I was growing up in London in the 1980s I was aware that shouting about your Irishness was not a good idea.

Feeling like you had to hide your Irishness was no good thing. But the end of the war in the early 1990s has opened the floodgates to a trend of fake, nauseating Irishness which has swept through the UK. Walk down any high street now and you’ll see a ‘traditional Irish’ (ie, British money-spinning) pub; browse any bookstore and you’ll see shelves stacked with second- and third-generation Irish memoirs; tune in to a radio station and you’ll hear some bland Irish pop band topping the UK charts. Now, as the census comes round, every Thomas, Richard and Harold not only pretends to be Irish but declares it to anybody who’ll listen. What eejits.

But what’s the problem? the ‘Be Irish, Be Counted’ campaigners will ask. The Irish category in the census is just a measurement of ethnicity and roots, not nationality. ‘It is an indication of ethnic background, not Irish citizenship’, says the Irish Embassy in London. Which leaves one question: what exactly are the ethnic differences between Irish people and British people?

There is none. Irish people and British people speak the same language, live in increasingly similar societies, share the same cultural interests. What are the ‘racial’ differences between them? Do Irish people have more freckles per square inch than British people? The idea of a separate ethnic tickbox for Irish people is a nonsense. In fact, at a time when everything Irish is cool in the UK, the only thing which now distinguishes an Irishman from an Englishman is his nationality – and it is precisely this that is being played down in the census, in favour of flagging up spurious ethnic and cultural differences.

Like many other second-generation Irish people I was excited when I first heard there would be an Irish category in the census. At last, I thought, recognition of the hard work that my parents and thousands of other Irish people have put into this country. Now I’ve changed my mind. It looks like the Irish tickbox is for anybody who happens to ‘feel’ Irish, who’s into a bit of Irish culture and craic, who wants to box himself off from other British people on the basis of non-existent ethnic differences, or who just fancies being ‘different’.

Tick the Box? No thanks.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

We’re all Irish now, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Irish Post, 21 March 2001

(2) Irish Post, 6 December 2000

(3) ‘Some recent demographic developments in Ireland’ by Piaras Mac Einri, University College Cork, published by the Irish Centre for Migration Studies, Cork

(4) ‘Some recent demographic developments in Ireland’ by Piaras Mac Einri, University College Cork, published by the Irish Centre for Migration Studies, Cork

(5) ‘Population and Migration Estimates’, Central Statistics Office, Dublin, September 2000

(6) See Norah Casey in Being Irish, edited by Paddy Logue, Oak Tree Press, Dublin (2000)

(7) One in four Britons claim Irish roots, BBC Online, 16 March 2001

(8) ‘Population and Migration Estimates’, Central Statistics Office, Dublin, September 2000

(9) ‘Irish Survey: Fieldwork: 16-18 February 2001’, prepared for Lexis PR by ICM Research Limited

(10) See One in four Britons claim Irish roots, BBC Online, 16 March 2001

(11) Irish Post, 3 April 2001

(12) Irish Post, 3 April 2001

(13) Irish Post, 3 April 2001

(14) See One in four Britons claim Irish roots, BBC Online, 16 March 2001

(15) Irish Post, 14 April 2001

(16) See One in four Britons claim Irish roots, BBC Online, 16 March 2001

(17) See We’re all Irish now, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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