Irish in London: no longer forced to hide, but not quite accepted, either. (Photo: Getty)
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St Patrick's Day is the most Blue Labour of holidays

The renaissance of St Patrick's Day offers reminders of the difficulties that the Irish have faced, and a lesson.

Behind the over-indulgence and crass marketing associated with St. Patrick’s Day is a quintessentially Blue Labour affair. For the Irish community, celebrating the feast of the “Apostle of Ireland,” our patron saint, represents the enduring importance of family, faith, country, tradition and heritage.

That’s not always been easy. During the years of the Troubles it paid to keep your head down. Certainly if you had an obviously Irish name or accent. (Flattened, Anglicised pronunciations of Irish surnames abound to this day).

‘You’re British now,’ Irish children were told by their parents, as much a means to protect them from discrimination, which used to be blatant. “No Blacks No Dogs No Irish” was the infamous sign outside lodging houses. Some Irish comedians, especially Dave Allen, added to the problem. By specialising in gags about the Catholic Church, he validated sneery liberal assumptions about the peasant Irish.

So, as an overwhelmingly white ethnic minority, it was easy enough to disappear. St. Patrick’s Day was kept low profile. The marginalised Irish looked inwards.

That’s why there’s systematic under-reporting of the ethnic Irish in the Census (which has only recognised us as a distinct grouping since 2001 anyway). This, in turn, under-provides essential services for an ageing community facing a range of health and social problems. Often bespoke ones, it has to be said. The Irish face a higher susceptibility to genetic conditions like celiac and hemochromatosis as well as some of the highest cancer rates in the world.

Things have improved in recent years. The mainstreaming of politics in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s clearly helped, arriving, serendipitously, at the same time that a wave of Irish theme pubs hit British high streets. Now, the Irish coming to these shores are as likely to work in IT or finance as they are construction or nursing. It’s become cool to be Irish. So much so, that Channel Four thinks it okay to commission a sitcom about the Irish Famine. (It isn’t).

In many places, the day has become laughably diluted, turning what is, in essence, a religious feast day, into a gaudy, corporatised free-for-all. Chinese dragons compete with the obligatory leprechauns on ‘inclusive’ Irish parades in our big cities. Stalls selling German sausages and Euro-tat line the route.

But beyond this cultural illiteracy and those ghastly floppy Guinness hats, lies something genuinely unifying for a diverse community that now includes young professionals with no memory of the Troubles, along with a more settled, but still often isolated pensioner community. One that knows first-hand how hard it used to be to be publicly Irish in this country.

At its heart, St. Patrick’s Day still evokes a powerful sense of place and respect for the past. With its parades, music, drink and merriment, it’s a manifestation of genuine community pride and cohesion. The kind that politicians laud, but seem unable to create by spending public money.

Maurice Glasman would approve.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.