Thankfully, as we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in 2017, the days when ‘No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks’ signs were displayed in the windows of cheap board and lodging houses across Britain in the 1950s and 1950s, are long behind us.
That does not mean, however, that Irish people living in Britain do not still experience housing needs or disadvantage: far from it. And the consequences of Brexit, especially the possibly of the unravelling of the peace process, the status of migrants, and the establishment of a ‘hard’ border between the north and south of Ireland, are yet to be felt.
Migration from Ireland to Britain has occurred from the earliest recorded history. More recently, migrants in the 1950s frequently came to work in construction. Those during the 1980s and 1990s tended to be more highly educated and seeking employment in the professions. The most recent ‘wave’ of migration took place following the collapse of Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy with migrants seeking employment in Britain’s service sector.
This over-simplifies the diversity of the migrant communities in these periods but shows that Irish migrants are among both the least qualified and the most highly qualified in the Britain; often with a generational twist.
The acceptance of Irish migrants into British communities, often linked to negative stereotyping as exemplified by the boarding house signs mentioned at the start, has been far from smooth. Anti-Catholic sentiments have a long history in Britain and were stoked anew during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Today, millions of British people are either from Ireland or have Irish ancestry. It is estimated that as many as six million have at least one Irish grandparent. Around 700,000 people in the 2011 Census designated themselves as being of Irish ethnicity, with two thirds pointing to the Republic of Ireland as their place of origin, with the remainder being from Northern Ireland.
The housing disadvantage and discrimination that many Irish migrants experienced from their arrival in the 1950s precipitated the creation of specialist Irish housing associations as part of the Housing Corporation’s BME Housing Strategy.
One of the remaining and most preeminent is Innisfree HA, which grew from the campaigning zeal of a small group who were driven to do something about the poor health and housing conditions of the Irish community in Brent. From the management of short-life housing in one London borough, Innisfree grew to own over 500 homes in north and west London, including family homes, a specialist scheme for Irish elders, and supported housing for vulnerable singles.
Nehemiah UCHA, originally a BME housing association dedicated to meeting the needs of African-Caribbean people in West Midlands’ communities, has recently taken on the role of aiding Irish people in Birmingham. This has come about following transfer of Father Joe Taaffe House, sheltered housing for older Irish people, and other housing three years ago from CARA, a now defunct Irish housing association in Birmingham.
The Human City Institute is now working with these two housing associations on a new research project to explore the changing nature and characteristics of Irish communities in Birmingham and London, and their evolving housing and community needs.
Early findings suggest that Irish households are less likely to be home owners and more likely to be private or social renters than the white British group. But there are higher rates of home ownership and lower rates of renting than for all other BME groups.
There is a particular problem of homelessness amongst Irish singles.
Older Irish people are over-represented in one-person households compared to all other ethnicities. The Gypsy and Irish Traveller group are most likely to be lone parent households. There is both more overcrowding among Irish families, and under-occupation for older Irish households.
Irish households also more frequently declare that they are in poor health, at 10%, rising to 14% for the Gypsy and Irish Traveller group. These morbidity rates are higher than for any other ethnic group. Irish people are also more likely than other groups to be providing unpaid care to relatives.
The report from this research will be published in May. In the meantime, have a great St. Patrick’s Day.