Patrick Reynolds was one of the founders of IBRG and played a key role in its history. He is now writing up that history and putting it into the context of radical history in Britain and Ireland in the C20th. This is the story of the first year of IBRG………….
1981 was a pivotal In Irish history with the death of ten men on Hunger Strike in Northern Ireland. It led to significant shifts in Irish political history and the entry of the modern Republican movement into political life and the electoral system in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
On 1st March 1981 Bobby Sands started his Hunger strike, on 5th March 1981 Frank Maguire MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone died, on 26th March Bobby Sands was nominated to stand for the vacant seat. On 9th April 1981 Bobby Sands became the new MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone. On 5th May 1981 Bobby Sands MP died and over 100,000 people attended his funeral on 7 May 1981 in Belfast.
On 29th May 1981 nine republican prisoners, four of them on hunger strike, are nominated in the General Election in the Republic of Ireland. On 11th June 1981 two republican prisoners were elected to Dail Eireann – Kieron Doherty and Paddy Agnew. The new government was made up of Fine Gael and Labour. On 20th August 1981 the last of the ten men Michael Devine dies on Hunger strike. On the same day Owen Carron wins the by election held after the death of Bobby Sands MP. On 23rd August 1981 Sinn Fein announces that they will contest all future Northern Ireland elections.
On 29th September 1981 the British Labour Party votes to campaign actively for a United Ireland by consent. On 31 October 1981 Danny Morrison make his famous speech of ‘a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in the other’ to mark the new departure in Republican politics.
The Hunger Strikes were to move the international community none more so than the Irish abroad. In London the Irish Civil Rights Association statement said: ‘No Irish person should join, vote or give support for any British political party” and called on “the Irish community to abstain in the 7th May local elections” (1). On 13th June 1981 Ken Livingstone addressed a Hunger Strike march in Finsbury Park before it started on its way via Camden to Michael Foot’s House in Hampstead. Only the North Hackney Labour Party were on the march which had no Trade Union banners: the Irish community was left to march on its own.
The Irish Post newspaper was critical of the AGM of the Federation of Irish Societies which was held at the height of the Hunger Strikes stating ‘Conference was remarkable in that at no time were the H Block or Hunger Strike mentioned’. Harry McHugh of the earlier Anti Partition league in a letter to the Post stated ‘when people who call themselves Irish people refuse even to talk about them (Hunger Strikes) I am impelled to ask What kind of Irishmen are you? (2)
On 1st August 1981 John Martin (later to be the first Chair of IBRG, and credited as the original founder of IBRG0 had a letter in the Irish Post. (3) The letter stated: ‘The time has come for the Irish in Britain to acquire an organised effectiveness in contending with the major issues besetting their homeland as well as their adopted country… one positive action would be to begin campaigning for the postal vote in Ireland… we can still organise and do so independently of the established Irish community in this country…once a dedicated organisation is in existence speaking for the mass of the Irish in Britain then we can pursue out voting intentions through the European Court’. While calling for a new Irish organisation to represent the Irish in Britain the letter only mentions one issue, that of voting rights for the Irish in Britain at home in Ireland.
In the same issue of the Irish Post (3) John Fahy, a USDAW Trade Union Official, and later a Labour Party Councillor in Greenwich and an Officer of the Federation of Irish Societies, had a much stronger letter stating: ‘The Irish in Britain can be an effective force in the political life of this country and we must coordinate out activities to exert the maximum pressure on MP’s to demand the ending of the Emergency Powers Act and the prevention of Terrorism Act, and extract from them a clear commitment to begin the process of moving towards an united Ireland over the next decade’.
It was clear that the Irish Post and its Editor Brendan McLua was very unhappy about how the Federation of Irish Societies failed to give any expression to the feelings of the Irish community over the Hunger Strikes and was opening its pages to a debate on the subject, and to where the Irish community should go. The Irish Post was to become the public forum of the Irish community over the next year as to how they should organise themselves for the future.
On 15th August 1981 Michael O’Callanan of Cuman na Poblachta in the leading letter in the Irish Post entitled Call to Action Welcomed (4) stated: ‘Should John Martin’s proposal receive the support it deserves from the Irish in Britain, and should he decide to promote further the idea of an Irish national organisation to give our community political effectiveness, we can assure him of our support all the way to victory’.
On 5th September 1981 in the leading letter in the Irish Post John Martin responded in a letter headed Now the Time for Action (5). He wrote ‘I now propose to convene a meeting to take place in about six weeks’ time at which a new organisation will be formed to pursue the political interests of the Irish in Britain…one positive action we could take is to begin campaigning for the postal vote in Ireland…I would urge people born in Ireland to write to their TD and ascertain their opinion about Irish citizens in Britain having a postal vote’ Again, apart from the vote in Ireland, there were no other demands.
On 26th September 1981 Liam Og O Lochlain from the Green Ink Writers Group wrote in a letter to the Irish Post (6) in support of this proposal: ‘there is a tremendous amount of goodwill and latent support for any worthwhile organisation that will effectively represent the interests of our community…It deserves our wholehearted support’.
In another key letter written on the same date, entitled Its Time to go Political, Michael Sheehan of Manchester sets out a political agenda, listing several key issues, votes in Ireland, anti-Irish racism, anti-Irish legislation like the PTA, Northern Ireland and Irish political prisoners.He stated: “it appears to me that there is a pressing need for the development of an Irish political organisation as no existing political party reflects Irish opinion on the issues I have isolated nor will they till the Irish are effectively organised”.
On 3rd October 1981 the Irish Post headline stated Political Role the Primary Objective. (7) It gave notice of first exploratory meeting to be held on 10th October: ‘the John Martin proposition is for an Irish political organisation which while deeply concerned about the situation in Ireland would also derive its raison d’etre from the social and political need so the Irish In Britain while editorial stated: ‘Because of the diversity of our community at this time the odds must be against the emergence of a representative and effective political organisation..and yet the need is there and the vacuum begs to be filled… Certainly an organisation which seeks to represent the diversity of the Irish In Britain has a difficult undertaking’.
On 10th October 1981 the Irish in Britain Representation Group (IBRG) was founded at the New Inn Public House, Newhall, Burton on Trent in Derbyshire with John Martin as convenor.
Twenty three people attended (8). The name IBRG was adopted with John Martin electedas Chair and treasurer, Michael Sheehan as Secretary and PRO with Michael O Callanan as vice Chair. Other named persons who attended were John McDonald from Cumanna Publachta, Siobhan Sandys from Liverpool, Kay Jones from Bradford, and Frank Gormley from Burton. The names of the other 16 attendees are unknown and no minutes of the meeting have survived. The issues discussed were the reunification of Ireland, PTA, anti-Irish racism, Labour Party policy on Ireland, Votes in Ireland and the high cost of travel to Ireland.
On 13th October 1981 a student, Pat Reynolds, proposed a United Ireland motion at the National Union of Students Annual General Meeting at the North London Polytechnic three days after the Chelsea Barracks bombing. The Irish students who supported the motion got racially abuse by students from the Engineering section, who called the Irish students Paddies and Micks, but a good continent of African students supported the motion and helped it get through by a handful of votes.
On 17th October 1981 the Irish Post headline was New Organisation gets Moving. (9) It stated that London, Liverpool, South Wales, Watford, Bradford, Manchester and Derby were represented. It was to model itself on the SDP in having rolling meetings before hitting London. ‘Its primary role is the representation of the Irish In Britain on issues relating to their lives in Britain’.
Six main issues were identified to pursue: Unification of Ireland: Kay Jones to report back, PTA: John McDonald to report back, Anti Irish racism in media: Michael O Callanan to report back, Labour party policy on Ireland: Frank Gormley to report back, cost of travel to Ireland: John Martin to report back, votes in Ireland: Siobhan Keys to report back.
On 14th November 1981 the IBRG held their first rolling conference meeting in Derby where 16 people attended. (10). The Derby meeting condemned the indiscriminate and unjustifiable use of the PTA to frighten people into silence, condemned all forms or racism including anti-Irish racism such as anti-Irish jokes, media stereotyping and misrepresentation, claimed that the Race Relations Act was not protecting the Irish from many forms of racism, urged to use Press Council to complain, called for political solution to Nt Ireland, talked of the electoral system in Ireland and how expensive travel to Ireland was, and ‘condemned all violence in Ireland and in Britain from whatever source’.
The danger of having the first meeting in Derby and having rolling meetings is that it left the field open to other groups to come in and set up in London which is exactly what happened, and left the group without an early base in London.
On 21st November 1981 a new rival political group was set up in London at the Irish Club with 30 people attending. (11) Richard Balfe MEP attended and welcomed the group. The Connolly Association, the Irish National Council and the Irish Lobby group attended the meeting along with Gerry Lawless.
On 12th December 1981 the IBRG held their second rolling conference meeting in Moss Side, Manchester at which 40 people attended. (12) A steering committee of 14 people was set up at this meeting. They decided to set up two branches in Manchester and campaign for air time on Manchester Radio.
1981 was a pivotal year in the history of the Irish in Britain in many ways. The Hunger Strike did impact upon the community and was primarily the reason why there was an explosion of rage in the community at the failure of existing organisation like the Federation of Irish Societies (FIS), including all its affiliates, to speak out on the Hunger strikes.
Another very significant event was the GLC election of 7th May 1981 with Ken Livingstone taking over. He was to do more for the Irish community in Britain in five years than the Irish government had done in the previous 60 years. 1981 was also the year of the Brixton Uprising because of the police oppressive stop and search policy and unemployment of over 3 million people in the UK.
The Irish community were beginning to organise themselves eg on 28th February 1981 over 200 Irish people attended an Irish study day at the North London Polytechnic with a further big meeting on 25th April at the same venue for an Irish in Britain History Workshop.
1.Irish Post 2/05/1981
2. Irish Post 6/06/1981
3. Irish Post 1/08/1981
4. Irish Post 15/08/1981
5. Irish Post 5/09/1981
6. Irish post. 26/09/1981
7. Irish Post 3/10/1981
8. Irish Post 10/10/1981
9. Irish Post 17/10/1981
10. Irish Post 14/11/1981
11. Irish Post 21/11/1981
12. Irish Post 19/12/1981
Listen to my talk about the IBRG in the northwest in the Irish Collection at the WCML here
An excellent history of 200 years of Irish political activity in Mancheser – including Manchester IBRG read “The Wearing of the Green” by Michael Herbert. Buy it here