Opinion: from politics to academia, ignorance in British society about Ireland has profound implications for relations between the two nations

By Mary Hickman, Maynooth University and Louise Ryan, University of Sheffield

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently told the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg that Irish people understand a lot more about Britain than British people do about Ireland. He added this did not just apply to the British public in general but also to "the political classes in Britain". He went on to say:  "and that’s one thing that we actually find hard to understand because… We really understand a lot about Britain, but I think a lot of British people don’t understand a lot about Ireland, including your politicians ... and politicians in Westminster had to learn more about Ireland". 

Evidence of this lack of understanding about Ireland among British politicians is easy to find. For example, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, admitted that she was "unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists".

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From RTÉ's Humans Of Politics podcast, Abie Philbin Bowman interviews former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley

Commenting on the EU requirement for a backstop dealing with the Irish border in any Brexit negotiation, then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson said that it was a folly that "the tail was now wagging the dog". On another occasion, the current UK prime minister likened the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to that between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster for congestion charge purposes. 

This ignorance is not merely frustrating, but has profound implications for relations between Ireland and Britain. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Brexit negotiations. Many people in Britain seemed genuinely surprised at the critical ways in which Ireland, and the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, impacted on British-EU relations.

In our recent work, we have taken this discussion further by examining how ignorance of Ireland and all things Irish is also apparent among British academics. It is little wonder that the general population knows so little about Ireland when the education system, both school and university, rarely address this subject matter. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, writer and academic Bonnie Greer on why Britain doesn't understand Ireland

In our discipline, Sociology, there is rarely reference in Britain to Irish migrants when discussing race and ethnicity and the possible disadvantages that might be experienced by Irish migrants and their children. This is not because Irish people experience no disadvantages or discriminatory experiences but more because they are not seen as "proper migrants". 

Irish migrants in Britain have privileges, not only stemming from EU citizenship but also, more importantly, derived from the arrangements between the British and Irish states through the Common Travel Area. Since 1952, there have been no immigration controls on travel between Britain and Ireland because Ireland agreed to operate a similar immigration policy to the UK. This facilitated labour migration from Ireland to Britain and especially enabled Ireland to "off-load" a "surplus population" in the 1950s, 1980s and 2010s, in the sense that the economy did not generate sufficient jobs for them.

What have been the costs of this neglect and ignorance of Irish experiences in Britain?

Irish migrants have long occupied an ambiguous and complex position in Britain as simultaneously "insiders and "outsiders". They have right of entry and many of the rights of citizenship, but also have been racialised, and viewed as a collective with certain inherent biological or cultural characteristics (violent, stupid), and policed as a threat to national security. 

On the one hand, Irish immigrants can pass unnoticed because they are predominantly white. On the other hand, however, they are identified and subject to ridicule or bullying as soon as they open their mouths to speak - even in the present day in certain circumstances. 

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From RTÉ Archives, Mary Fannimg reports for RTÉ News on a meeting between representatives of the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain and the Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and leader of the opposition Charles Haughey to discuss the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1985 

There was also virtually no attempt to understand the impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The IRA campaign in England (it was not pursued in Scotland or Wales) and counter-terrorism measures, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Acts transformed Irish communities in Britain into "suspect communities". 

The government approach (regardless of political party) of placing a cordon sanitaire around Northern Ireland lest any issues become inflammatory in Britain closed down discussion of counter-terrorism policies and their impact. There was little challenge to discourses about the Irish as innately violent and as a community likely to be harbouring the IRA. In fact there was little research, let alone protests, about how Irish people were being treated even after the publication of Paddy Hillyard's 1993 book, Suspect Community, research for which he found it impossible to gain funding support.

What have been the costs of this neglect and ignorance of Irish experiences in Britain? It is important to study the experiences of Irish migrants in Britain not only for their own sake, but also because of the opportunity to learn valuable lessons relevant to other groups within British society. For example, examining the impact of counter-terrorism practices from the 1970s to 1990s, and the media coverage of Irish communities "harbouring terrorists" would have generated valuable insights into how Muslim communities might be effected in the present day. Press reporting and counter-terrorism methods and implementations have been very similar in both eras of political violence with an assumption that the communities and their ideologies produce the violence. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke show, Ian Duhig and John O'Donoghue discuss a new book, I Wouldn't Start From Here: The Second Generation Irish in Britain

The failure by British sociology and migration research to take seriously the experiences of the Irish as predominantly white migrants, meant that recent white, European migrants in Britain, especially Poles, have tended to be regarded as an entirely new and unprecedented phenomenon. The challenges experienced by white migrants have been largely overlooked because migrants have been seen by British academics as people who have black and brown skins.

Paying more attention to the Irish would have provided a better stock of knowledge about the complex and sometimes-contradictory position of white migrants within British society. The experiences of French and American migrants, for example, are very different from those of Polish and Irish migrants.

This piece is based on The "Irish question": marginalizations at the nexus of sociology of migration and ethnic and racial studies in Britain, which was recently published in Ethnic and Racial Studies 

Professor Mary J. Hickman is Adjunct Professor at the Social Science Institute at Maynooth University and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Irish Studies at London Metropolitan University. Professor Louise Ryan is Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ