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 of the meeting. Twenty three people attended.
The name IBRG was adopted with John Martin elected as Chair and Treasurer, Michael Sheehan as Secretary and PRO and Michael O Callanan as Vice Chair. Other named persons who attended were John McDonald from Cumanna na Poblachta, Siobhan Sandys from Liverpool, Kay Jones from Bradford, and Frank Gormley from Burton. The names of the other 16 attendees are unknown as no minutes of the meeting have survived.
The issues discussed were the reunification of Ireland, Prevention of Terrorism Act , anti-Irish racism, Labour Party policy on Ireland, Votes for the Irish in elections in Ireland and the high cost of travel from Britain to Ireland.
IBRG was founded as a reaction to the failure of mainstream Irish organisations (and most left organisations ) to speak out on the Hunger Strikes. 1981 was a pivotal moment n Irish history with the death of ten men on hunger strike in the North of Ireland. It led to significant shifts in Irish politics and the entry of the modern Republican movement into political life through the electoral system in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The Hunger Strikes had a considerable impact upon the Irish community in Britain 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 as ten men died whilst demanding political status.
Joe Mullarkey, who founded Bolton IBRG, reflects: “My motivation in convening the inaugural meeting of the Bolton branch of IBRG was to give a voice to Irish people like myself whose views and concerns particularly in relation to events in Northern Ireland were never heard. As a community we were treated with derision, grossly stereotyped by the media as drunken, stupid, bigoted and sectarian. The use of the PTA and the conviction of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were issues of grave concern, as was the lack of support from the Irish Government. Many members like myself would have been inspired by the deaths of the hunger strikers and during that momentous event as a community we were unable express our views or concerns.”
Another significant event was the Greater London Council election of 7th May 1981 with Ken Livingstone taking over as leader of this important Labour Council . Pat Reynolds of IBRG says: “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.”
Unlike the Irish Government-supported Federation of Irish Societies, IBRG took an anti-imperialist stance, had a democratic structure which involved branches and individuals across the country, was non-sectarian and was driven by a civil rights, social justice and campaigning agenda.
IBRG developed in a hostile society for Irish people with anti-Irish racism and discrimination not recognised. It was a new chapter in the ongoing struggle by Irish people in this country and on the island of Ireland to end Britain’s occupation of the North of Ireland.
Patrick Reynolds said “The right to be Irish is the first demand of an emerging community. We saw it as essential to the reconstruction fight back on Britain against British colonisation both external and internal, against the war in Ireland, against anti-Irish racism, against institutional racism which left our community with poor housing, employment, health, education and welfare at levels far below those suffered by the British working class.”
In the 1980s at least forty thousand Irish people each year were leaving Ireland for work, some of whom of became active on the issues around the British occupation of six counties of the North of Ireland in organisations such as the Troops Out Movement, Labour Committee on Ireland, Women and Ireland, Strip Search Committee .
IBRG benefitted from this new generation, as well as building on the experience of Irish women and men who had been active on Irish issues for many years in groups such as the Connolly Association, Wolfe Tone Society, Sinn Fein and so on.
IBRG was noticeable for the number of second generation Irish involved who were growing up in what was a hostile environment for anyone who wanted to assert themselves as Irish. Young people like me who came from a background of post-war Irish parents who were socialists and republicans, who were activists in their trade unions and encouraged their children to follow in their footsteps.
In the 1980s the Irish community numbered around five million. However official documents did not reflect this and one of the major challenges for IBRG was to get the lrish recognised as an ethnic community in the National Census as well in other official statistics, including local authorities and other official bodies. The Irish were the largest ethnic community, but without a profile, either nationally or locally.
IBRG gave respect back to the community. It fought on the hard issues from challenging anti-Irish racism and discrimination to demanding a role in achieving peace and justice across the whole of Ireland.
It had ideas and policies and was not afraid of airing them, particularly when faced with a conservative Irish community and also a Left that often failed to take seriously the issues that we brought up. In its branches it brought together people were not afraid to voice their views or act on them.
IBRG branches grew up across the country and organised according to local conditions. Some London branches obtained funding for offices and paid staff. Outside of London – which comprised the majority – branches had to fundraise through membership (although that was deliberately kept low at £5/1) and social events.
Finding somewhere to meet was a big problem in the 1970s after a series of bombings in England and the arrest and detention of innocent Irish people, the most notable being the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 . It was very difficult to find Irish Centres or Irish clubs that would allow what was seen as a “political” Irish group to meet there.
In Manchester we had a left wing Labour Council who gave free access to their buildings for community groups. Later one of the poorest Irish Centres offered us free use of their main room. We brought in a younger Irish generation to our events and the Centre benefitted.
Members travelled across the country for regional and national meetings, fired up by their ideals and determination to get a fairer deal for Irish people in this country. Policy documents on important issues were discussed and formulated at meetings: IBRG led campaigns on issues including ethnicity, education, Irish Language, Northern Ireland, anti-Irish racism, mental health and the positon of prisoners in British prisons.
IBRG was noticeable for its grassroots campaigning, with a mixture of people from different classes and a high number of women who were active on a local and national level. It was an organisation which for instance had Dr Maire O’Shea as President , Bernadette Hyland as National Chair. And Judy Peddle and Virginia Moyles were national secretaries.
At a branch level Margaret Mullarkey and Caitlin Wright in Bolton, Laura Sullivan in Hackney , Ann Hilferty and Joan Brennan, Jodie Clark in Southwark, Theresa Burke in Lewisham played significant roles. Laura Sullivan says “IBRG connected with and supported many miscarriages of justice and looking back the support I gave to all these campaigns were probably the most important things I did in IBRG,”
Anti-racism and discrimination against Irish people were topics that many Irish people were very angry about: these were issues that ran throughout the history of the organisation. From taking national newspapers such as the Daily Mail to the Press Council, to IBRG members picketing bookshops that sold Irish Joke Books. But it was not confined to the media as branches challenged official bodies such as trade unions and government bodies about their use of racial stereotypes of Irish people.
This was at a time when asserting yourself as Irish was seen as making a political statement. And whilst there was support from Irish people and sympathetic English people to overcome some aspects of discrimination, this was also set against a background of a worsening political situation in the North of Ireland. IBRG’s policy on Northern Ireland called for British withdrawal and self determination for the Irish people.
Links were made with the Republican movement, we shared platforms with Republican speakers in Britain and engaged in or gave support to many activities that would bring about a political solution in Ireland.
IBRG organised delegations to promote the views of the Irish in Britain across Ireland and the U.S.A. Meetings were cross border with the Irish government, political parties, and single issue groups including issues on divorce and abortion.
The annual Bloody Sunday March organised by the Troops Out Movement was a regular event which IBRG members took part and to which IBRG had a delegate on the organising committee. In 1988 IBRG had its first St Patricks Day march for Justice.
In 1991, IIBRG members took part in many marches in England and Ireland including attending one in Dublin on the 75th Anniversary of the Easter Rising, the Anti-Internment march in Belfast, the Hunger Strike commemoration march in Birmingham and joining with black community at Broadwater Farm in London.
Members of Sinn Fein who visited England would regularly speak at IBRG events. But IBRG did not have the relationship with Sinn Fein such as organisations such as Troops Out Movement. IBRG was often critical of Sinn Fein’s policy towards the position of the Irish in Britain and saw itself as part of wider Irish community and spoke to Sinn Fein from a position of independence and equality.
IBRG believed that it was impossible to talk about Irish history, culture and identity without also talking about what was happening every day in the North of Ireland.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act hung over the Irish community like a spectre. It was passed by the Labour government as a temporary measure after the Birmingham Pub Bombings in November 1974, with the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins calling the new law “draconian”. The government could now proscribe named organisations such as the IRA, issue an order excluding people from Britain to Ireland or Northern Ireland (part of the Uk) without having to go to court or produce evidence. The police were allowed to detain people for questioning without charge for 48 hours and this could be extended for a further five days with the agreement of the Home Secretary.
The PTA succeeded in silencing much of the Irish community (and some others) who were critical of Britain’s role in Ireland and organised an opposition. After 1974 many Irish people dropped out of Irish politics, whilst Irish clubs and social centres were terrified of any event – political, social or cultural – which might in any way be connected to the war in Ireland.
Labour MP Joan Maynard, a campaigner on Irish unity, urged Labour MPs to vote against the PTA, stating that the law “had absolutely nothing to do with preventing terrorism; there were very few people charged under it and even less convicted; it was really about terrorising Irish people in this country and collecting information.”
Work on the PTA was a constant theme in the work of IBRG , nationally and locally. This involved working with groups including the Labour Committee on Ireland, Troops Out Movement, and individual MPs and councillors.
The West Midlands PTA Research and Welfare Association included IBRG members Maire O’Shea, Maurice Moore and Kevin Heyes. Based in Birmingham and Coventry – where the Birmingham bombings in Nov 1974 had taken place and Irish people had faced a great deal of popular anger and violence afterwards – it was significant that it became an area that played a significant role in ensuring that the same miscarriage of justice would not happen again.
Alongside IBRG it campaigned for the repeal of the Act, providing evidence showing that it targeted the Irish community leading to 80,000 detained at ports and airports for questioning every year.
Practical help was offered to those detained including a telephone tree that was activated when a person was detained which included phone calls to the police station where the person was held and finding a solicitor. The campaign for the repeal of the PTA led to the distribution of leaflets offering practical support and legal advice to the Irish community and over the years the issue was raised at many meetings up and down the country.
Links were made with progressive people within the Irish Community including Tommy Walsh who was chair of the Liverpool Irish Centre. He had been for years working quietly supporting Irish people who were detained under the PTA at Liverpool port which at that time was the arrival point for many people from Belfast and Dublin which and became a major centre for police activity. He said “It is used as an act of harassment and intimidation against innocent people.”
Tommy would get little support from the established Irish organisations except money. He would join with IBRG – particular its new Merseyside branch– to speak at our meetings on the campaign to abolish the PTA – and to share information and to encourage others to support people held under the Act.
When IBRG was founded the Birmingham 6 wrote to the organisation asking for support for their campaign to prove their innocence. Their campaign grew in the 80s as Birmingham 6 support groups were founded grew across the country and the North West of England saw one of the most vibrant branches with Arthur Devlin and Joe Mullarkey of Bolton IBRG playing major roles.Members included Labour Committee on Ireland, IBRG and individual Irish and English people.
Following their successful campaign to prove their innocence the men were released in 1991 and the effect of this was to expose a justice system that was prepared to imprison Irish people wrongly – “because they were Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time.” It encouraged other people to get involved in miscarriage of justice campaigns leading to the freeing of other innocent Irish people.
Most importantly it gave a confidence to activists to take up the cases of people when they were first arrested, challenging the use of the PTA, rather than waiting until people had been processed through the legal system.
Over the years IBRG took up many cases including Kate Magee, Frank Johnson and Mary Druhan. There was a campaign to highlight Irish deaths in police custody, such as that of that of Richard O’Brien in London and Leo O’Brien in Coventry.
Links were made with Irish political prisoners in jails in England – highlighting their campaign for repatriation back to Ireland and opposing unfair and cruel treatment that they experienced over here.
IBRG was founded by people who believed that a progressive organisation was needed to represent the needs and aspirations of the Irish community in Britain. For the right to be Irish – and the right to civil and human rights.
It followed on from a radical tradition that has also existed in this country – as long as Ireland has been a colony and as long as Irish people and progressive English have sought to oppose and demand the right to a united country.
We demanded the right to speak about the war going on in the North of Ireland and the right to take part in a peaceful solution.
It put anti-Irish racism on the agenda and made it unacceptable.
Ethnic minority status for the Irish was won – and we can be seen in documents ranging from the Census to local government statistics
We challenged the P.T.A., publicised its abuse, supported its victims and called for its abolition.
We supported many miscarriage of justice campaigns concerning Irish people and joined together with other migrants in their fight for justice.
IBRG was an organisation of its era. It was a chapter in the continuous history of the Irish and our lives in the UK and in Ireland. It brought together a mixture of people who identified as Irish. Many of the people in IBRG worked fulltime, often in stressful jobs, had children, partners and also were active in their trade unions as well as running IBRG branches.
It was being active at a time that taking up any issues whether anti-Irish racism or human rights abuses in the North of Ireland that led to smears of being a supporter of the Irish Republican Army, surveillance by the security services and the threat of being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act whilst visiting Ireland.
The commitment of IBRG members should be recognised – and celebrated.
The IBRG archive which comprises hundreds of documents, leaflets, minutes and photographs can be accessed at the Working Class Movement Library
Read more about IBRG on this blog page . It includes a detailed history and a number of articles about the organisations’ activities.