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Prime Movers

Alex McDonnell reports on funding the Irish community

Aisling gratefully received our annual grant from the Emigrant Servicers Programme this month which is the money distributed by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin for services to the Irish Abroad. This fund has become a life saver for the emigrant Irish community throughout the world and we can thank a number of people for this largesse. It was Ruairi Quinn of the Irish labour party who created the fund for emigrants in 1984 when it was administered by the Dion Committee which was a group of politicians, civil servants and members of the Irish community abroad. The original fund was Eu1m per year which had increased over the intervening years to Eu2.7m by 2001. At this stage during the height of the Celtic Tiger boom ironically, the fund was cut back although evidence of dire need of support in the community had been presented to Brian Cowen, the Tánaiste (Finance Minister) at the time.

A task force had been set up by the Dept. of Foreign Affairs in 2001in the wake of the Good Friday agreement to look into the needs in the Irish community abroad consisting of community workers, academics and sociologists to visit areas of high Irish density in Britain, America and Australia and report back on the needs of the community. The task force went to great lengths to fulfil their brief visiting community groups, church groups, hostels and community centres in these countries. What they found was a massive cause for concern; far from the popular belief at home that our emigrants were all thriving abroad they found that many had fallen on very hard times. The Task Force visited Arlington House when I was working there and discovered for themselves the huge numbers of homeless Irish men in London. According to reports by Shelter and the Simon Community around this time the Irish made up 30-40% of all homeless people in London. In Arlington House 250 out 400 tenants were Irish.

The report made several recommendations to increase the level of support to the Irish abroad including increasing the Dion fund to Eu18m on 2003 rising to Eu30m in 2005. The detailed findings were presented to the Dail in 2002 and got the aforementioned response when the Brian Cowen decided to ignore the recommendations of the Task Force and actually cut the budget. This wasn’t the end of the story because the Task Force then went to RTE’s Prime Time team who came to London following in the footsteps of the Task Force and made a film which blew the lid off the hidden Irish homeless and destitute in Britain which when it went out at Christmas time outraged the country with families discovering, perhaps for the first time that many of their loved ones who had left home and not returned were living lives of desperation in London, Birmingham and Manchester. RTE even interviewed Brian Cowen for the programme who reiterated his belief that our communities abroad were doing very well and didn’t need the assistance of the Irish government. He even claimed not to know who John McDonnel was. John, who was also interviewed for Prime Time, was the chair of the Irish British Parliamentary Group at the time and had met several times a year with Cowan to discuss issues effecting both parliaments. Coming after the visual proof of extreme deprivation Cowan’s words were damning. He’ll certainly know who John McDonnel is now.

After the programme aired the Department of Foreign affairs was able to increase the Dion fund although not by as much as the Task Force had recommended. One of the recommendations of the report was support for returning emigrants including a holiday scheme for the older Irish. Aisling was already bringing home Irish people including many of the Arlington House residents but now we were able to apply for funding for a coordinator to run the project followed by two outreach workers over the next few years. The Dion Fund, now the Emigrant Support Programme, has literally been a life saver for Irish emigrants in Britain and it so easily could have been lost but for the timely intervention of the Task Force on Emigration and the RTE Prime Time team.