The Commission for Racial Equality is set to disappear in a few months time. In the meantime, however, its magazine Catalyst has some interesting articles.
There’s also a piece on the second-generation Irish by Professor Mary Hickman, the leading academic authority on the Irish in Britain. It considers the question of how people born in Britain of Irish descent should define themselves.
The concept of ‘Britishness’ was always meant to be an umbrella
identity, which effectively masked its close relationship to
Englishness. Part of the problem lies in the hierarchical basis of
Britishness, which the terms ‘the Celtic fringe’ and ‘ethnic minority’
amply demonstrate. There has never been a way to be Irish-British or
British-Irish in England, Wales or Scotland, which is remotely
comparable with the way in which it is perfectly acceptable to be
Irish-American. One might expect to find ready recognition of the
potential for British and Irish identities to be entwined – in the
children and grandchildren of Irish migrants to Britain. But this is
not the case. (Hybrid and hyphenated)
In spite of these criticisms, Professor Hickman sees a British-Irish identity as more viable than an English-Irish one:
To be accepted as English, it is not possible to maintain a meaningful
Irish identification. Many second generation Irish who assumed they
were Irish-English have come to realise this is not a possibility. As
such, they expose the limitations of whiteness as an overarching
racialised ‘ethnicity’, and reveal the boundaries that tightly enclose
My own view is more or less the opposite of this for a number of reasons. For one thing, if it’s true that "the concept of Englishness is narrow, with little room for internal cultural difference," the same could be said of Irishness with at least as much justice.
The reason for this is that both identities have deep cultural roots, unlike Britishness, which is a a state-led identity.This political content explains why an Irish-American identity is much more viable than a British-Irish one, at least for Irish nationalists.
American republicanism was a formative influence on modern Irish nationalism, whereas it was defined by its rejection of British institutions.
The dilemma can be put as a simple question: Is it possible to be both an Irish nationalist and a British unionist?
On a simple territorial interpretation, it’s possible to argue that one could oppose the union between Britain and Northern Ireland but support the union between England and Scotland.
However, an alternative view might take more account of the political philosophies that have shaped nationalism and unionism. Is it possible to be both a republican and a monarchist, for example?
Another issue is the position of the Irish in Scotland or Wales who might well feel very comfortable with a Scottish or Welsh identity rather than a British one.
Scottishness is not a pedigree lineage, it’s a mongrel tradition. The
more varied the mix, the richer the tradition. The contribution of the
immigrant Irish, for example, to the nature of Scottishness has been
crucial. (Sunday Herald)
Is it only the second-generation Irish in England who are expected to adopt a British-Irish identity?
If so, it looks like another example of what might be called the current catch-22 of Englishness.
English identity is relegated to a purely cultural status, because unlike Scottish or Welsh identity it has no insititutional expression.
The cultural exclusivity of Englishness is then used, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, to justify the refusal to establish any specifically English political institutions.