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. 

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories