Category: Archive

Advocates for change

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

As recently as 30 years ago, boarding houses around London still had signs that read, “No dogs, blacks or Irish.” And while the level of harassment and discrimination that used to exist has largely disappeared and the Irish in London are for the most part a well-established community, there are still areas that are in need reform.
Today in London, there are two men dedicated to improving the lot of the Irish. Together, Brian McCarthy and Donal McKinney form the Action Group for Irish Youth.
AGIY’s tagline is, “Promoting Irish inclusion, tackling Irish exclusion.” To that end, the organization uses research, statistics and thoughtful planning to achieve its aims.
AGIY has become involved in all aspects of Irish life. It explores the experiences of Irish people in the criminal justice system. Its members are passionate about getting proper facilities for Irish immigrants, they help set up programs to visit the elderly and to establish luncheon clubs where older members of the community can gather and socialize.
“In the early 1980s, there was a high number of young Irish people emigrating and they were all turning up at the London Irish Center looking for help,” McKinney said last week from AGIY’s headquarters on Holloway Road in North London. “Social workers realized that there was a need for policy and research work to be done to assist the vulnerable group.”
These social workers joined forces and founded AGIY, quickly identifying areas where they could help. One practical step was to provide the newcomers with advice about basic services and resources.
Hundreds of booklets were printed and distributed, including a general guide to the city, a health guide, an anti-race booklet, a guide to paying taxes and advice for working on building sites.
“While that was helpful, they realized that they would need a more formalized approach to raise awareness in the government to the needs of the Irish,” McKinney said. “That meant more research and less front-line work.”
These days, AGIY has moved away from the youth focus and has become a social-policy think tank. Its aim is to chip away at the authorities by collating information and using it to rally for resources.
McKinney, who’s 40 and from the Falls Road in Belfast, was a Catholic priest until 1994. He said his job today is not much different from his previous work.
“It sometimes feels like being a priest again,” he said. “People always want to talk about problems. The key thing about a job like this is that you come with a human conviction of the need for it. Irish people here still suffer discrimination and horrendous disadvantage.”
One example of AGIY’s effectiveness is its success influencing the Census 2001.
“A few years ago, we realized that we needed statistics about the Irish community and there were none as the Irish had subsumed into white Britain,” McKinney said.
So AGIY developed a standardized information system on a database. It collected details of age, length of time in Britain, health status, type of housing and other basic facts from as many people as possible.
The information collected was enough to ensure that there was a separate category for the Irish nationality in the census.
“There are so many issues that are specific to the Irish in London,” McKinney said. “We have the highest psychiatric admissions and are the only ethnic community whose life expectancy declines when we come to Britain.”
With a voluntary committee of six and just two paid employees, AGIY often subcontracts work in an effort to complete its projects.
“For example, on the information database project, there are 28 people throughout Britain working on gathering the information,” McKinney said. “Then a researcher helps me analyze the data.”
AGIY receives funding from project to project from groups like the National Lottery, the Association of London Government, and the Irish government fund DION.
“We have to beg and borrow but we are not allowed to steal yet,” McKinney said with a rueful laugh.

Racial concerns
Last week in West London, Brian McCarthy, the other half of AGIY, discussed similar issues. As part of a new initiative, the 39-year old Cork native was in the offices of a group called Race on the Agenda, an organization devoted to issues that effect London’s black and minority ethnic communities.
AGIY and ROTA are collaborating on a project called Safer London. Their aim is to investigate issues relating to the discrimination and racial inequality in the communities they represent.
McCarthy and ROTA’s senior policy officer, Leroy Richards, believe their groups have a lot in common.
“The experience within the African-Caribbean community is that people came here originally for five years and always meant to go back but never did,” Richards said, noting the similarity with Irish immigrations patterns in Britain and the U.S.
The 41-year-old son of Jamaican immigrants described this phenomenon as the reason why there are so few African-Caribbean businesses in London.
“When someone went back to Trinidad or Jamaica, friends would ask them to bring things back but no one thought to set up a shop to deal with that market,” he said.
The collaboration between the two groups began as a casual swapping of ideas.
“AGIY was trying to highlight the Irish position within the criminal justice system,” McCarthy said. “It was a neglected topic, being shrouded in political overtones.”
Then, in 1993, a young black man named Stephen Lawrence was brutally attacked and killed in London. The inquiry that followed raised questions about how minorities were treated by the police. It prompted AGIY to look at how the Irish community was policed.
McCarthy discovered that the Irish who were convicted of crimes received longer prison sentences and that they had less chance of bail that members of other communities.
“We realized that there was discrimination against the Irish all the way through the system,” McCarthy said. “We decided that we should start with the police and some training issues, then to get the Crown Prosecution Service involved and to look at what was going on within the prisons.”
Due to AGIY’s interest in looking at problems from a racial-equality point of view, the groups were perfectly suited to work together. They decided to combine on a project that would look at the shared black and Irish experience.
They have secured funding for two years and have worked out a schedule for that time frame.
“The funding we received was from the Bridge House Trust and the Queens’ Golden Jubilee Fund, which is a bit of irony there,” said McCarthy, smiling.
Since January 2003, the two have met once a month. Their task plan contains the following objectives:
? address and tackle issues of discrimination, isolation and violence;
? increase black and Irish community representation and consultation;
? assist black minority and ethnic groups an other organizations to respond to policy issues;
? act as a channel of communication at a strategic level;
? raise awareness at central government, local government and voluntary sector concerning the partnership.
One aspect of policing that holds their particular interest is the controversial policy of stop-and-search, roughly the equivalent of what is known in the U.S. is known as racial profiling.
“There are numerous studies to show that Irish people suffer disproportionate stop-and-search,” McCarthy said. “It is a form of harassment.”
As a result of lobbying and persistence, AGIY now works with the Metropolitan Police Authority to scrutinize how police policies affect individuals.
“Our involvement ensures that the Metropolitan Police are made aware of the Irish aspect of their policies,” McCarthy said. “There is a dialogue going now and they are implementing new guidelines with regard to the stop-and-search policy.”
Neither of the men expect to see changes overnight but are confident that by holding conferences, gathering accurate statistics and a adopting a measured approach to reform, that they will make gradual progress.
It is small victories, like the handbook that AGIY produced for the police, that makes the effort worthwhile.
“The book includes information on services and Irish centers, so if the police meet Irish people in distress, they can refer them to get help,” McCarthy said. “Before we started, the police did not see an Irish element to their work.”

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