Guest Blog: Lessons for Brexit Britain: A Short History of Irish Migration Controversies
Guest blog by Professor Louise Ryan. Professor Louise Ryan is Co-Director of the Migration Research Group at the University of Sheffield and is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She has published extensively on migration across Europe including on highly skilled migrants. Louise is also interested in social network analysis and visualisation methods. Her books include Gendering Migration (2008) with Wendy Webster and Migrant Capital (2015) with Umut Erel and Alessio D’Angelo.
‘These immigrants account for a great deal of our public assistance expenditure’ and ‘provide by far the greater proportion of our juvenile and adult criminals’
‘We are suffering from the generous migration policy of the British government…’
These newspaper quotes could be from any tabloid during the Brexit referendum. But, actually, they were published in the 1930s. During the great depression, when unemployment was high in Britain, hostility towards migrants also reached fear pitch. The scapegoating of migrants as criminals and threats to British society is nothing new.
Listening to Brexit debates, one might be forgiven for thinking that migration was something entirely new, unprecedented and even alien to British society. However, it is misleading to suggest that ‘Taking Back Control’ would mean returning to an imagined era before migration. Migration has always been present.
As discussed at the recent symposium at The Migration Research Group at the University of Sheffield, it is important to adopt an historical lens in order to fully understand migration.
From Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans through to French Huguenots seeking sanctuary in the 1600s, Irish labour migrants and Jewish refugees, fleeing pogroms, in the 1800s, Britain has a long history of diverse migrations.
A Hostile Environment
But that is not to suggest that Britain was more open and welcoming towards migrants in the past. The current ‘hostile environment’ – the brainchild of Theresa May while Home Secretary – is not new.
As those quotes above, from the 1930s, visibly demonstrate, anti-immigration sentiment was also prevalent in the past. So, what about those quotes? Who were they referring to? Let’s look in detail:
‘Irish immigration menace’ (Liverpool Echo, 15 January 1937). The article went on to quote Rev. Longbottom, an Alderman from Liverpool: ‘these immigrants account for a great deal of our public assistance expenditure’ and ‘provide by far the greater proportion of our juvenile and adult criminals’.
That reverend minister was not the only one to publicly speak out against Irish immigration. The Church of England Bishop of Liverpool Dr David expressed his views in an article published in the Liverpool Daily Post under the deadline ‘Liverpool’s lrish Problem’:
We are suffering from the generous migration policy of the British government…. Consequently there are a quarter of a million Irish in Liverpool and they continue to come every year for the higher dole. Ireland has discovered a way to make England support her surplus population…. The most serious effect is political. They may give control to the local Labour Party, which in turn may gain control of the local government. In this effect Liverpool will be dominated by Roman Catholics.
But it was not only religious leaders, political actors also expressed hostility against the Irish.
The Irish ‘influx’ was discussed by the Junior Imperial League (a branch of the Conservative Party), attended by 400 delegates. The conference passed a motion condemning the ‘terrible influx of semi-civilised Southern Irish men who come with the sole idea of qualifying for our dole, which enabled them to live in what they would call luxury…. They were used to living at a slight remove from the pig-sty stage’.
One delegate was cited as saying that ‘we should limit the length of their stay in this country and regard them as aliens. The Free State was not an integral part of the British Empire [hear, hear]. Irish labour was the cut-price of human endeavour’.
In fact, such was the open animosity against the Irish that there were calls in Parliament to ban the freedom of movement from the Irish Free State (now Republic of Ireland) to Britain. With startling similarities to today’s Brexit debates, immigrants were presented somewhat contradictorily as being simultaneously benefit cheats, drawn here by generous welfare, and cut price economic migrants coming here to steal ‘British jobs’.
Lessons from the Irish Migration Debate
These debates bring to light the anomalous position of Irish migrants as both much needed labour – as Engels pointed out the Irish were the reserve army of labour for Britain – and racialised, stigmatised other.
The inter-departmental committee set up in 1937 to investigate the ‘Irish immigrant menace,’ found no evidence that the Irish were coming to Britain to claim benefits. Instead, the Irish were filling job vacancies, often doing jobs that no one else wanted to do.
Interestingly, the report concluded that curtailing free movement from the Irish Free State would be extremely difficult to enforce due to the border with Northern Ireland. The echoes with current debates about the border and the infamous ‘backstop’ are loud and clear. However, there seems to be little learning from the past. The complications of a European land border on the island of Ireland did not feature very much in pre-referendum debates.
While adopting an historical lens is important, that is not to imply that anti-Irish immigration hostility is a thing of the past. The anomalous position of being both much needed labour and stigmatised other continues through echoes of anti-Irish stereotyping which still rear their ugly head in everyday interactions.
Nonetheless, geographical proximity and English language fluency still make the Irish a valuable source of labour. In a Brexit future, with the likely reduction in EU migrant labour, it is not hard to imagine the Irish, once again, being actively recruited to fill labour market gaps. The recent assurances that Irish citizens are ‘exempt from’ the requirements of EU settled status suggest how the dual issues of reserve army of labour and complexities of the border are as important today as in the 1930s.
Paying attention to history can be extremely illuminating for those of us interested in understanding not only patterns of migration but also changes and continuities in political policies over time.
Interested in History? You may also like this guest blog by Dr Hamza Safouane, Migrants’ Timeless Tales: A Visit to Bremerhaven’s German Emigration Centre. Join the conversation #migrationconversations.