A cabinet minister recently spoke of “two Micks” leading the strike wave in Britain, in a seeming dig against their Irish heritage. But the Irish diaspora’s role in the labor movement is very real, in a country that long relied on its neighbor for cheap labor.

RMT union general secretary Mick Lynch speaking at a rally in London over planned ticket office closures, July 13, 2023. (Jonathan Brady / PA Images via Getty Images)

If post-COVID Britain can be defined by one constant, besides its political farce and economic implosion, it has been sustained strike action. Why are Brits walking off the job? Well, take your pick. If the economic fallout of Brexit-induced inertia, the pandemic, and a European war weren’t enough, they were followed by an inflationary cost-of-living crisis, and the fever dream that was Liz Truss’s premiership. And it was all underpinned by stagnant wages and over a decade of Tory austerity that has carved public services to the bone.

This combination of conditions has revitalized trade unionism in a way the British political and cultural mainstream long thought impossible. Since COVID-19 hit, industrial terminology has returned to political discourse: ballots, strike dates, picket lines, and, above all, trade union leaders have been brought back into public consciousness. True, the Labour Party has been purged of its Left as it scurries to the perceived safety of the hallowed center ground. Yet, figures such as Mick Lynch of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), who spoke to Jacobin last year; Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF); and Sharon Graham, general secretary of multisector union Unite, have filled the ideological vacuum.

But this cohort of union leaders has something else in common: their roots. More specifically, their Irish backgrounds. In fact, a disproportionately large number of Britain’s trade union leaders are the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants. Now this generation, born in England in the 1950s and 1960s, raised during the Troubles, and shaped by the long shadow of Thatcherism, is spearheading the leftist challenge to Britain’s socioeconomic settlement and, unlike the Labour Party, refuses to kowtow to Britain’s media establishment and economic orthodoxies.

A recent combination of conditions has revitalized trade unionism in Britain in a way the political and cultural mainstream long thought impossible.

One of the most public has been ASLEF’s Whelan, the son of immigrants to London from Waterford. Like Lynch’s RMT, ASLEF has been locked in a dispute with railway companies for over a year. Whelan tells Jacobin that union leaders are well aware of their shared backgrounds. “We laugh and joke about it when we meet,” he says. “But there is a real thing here that every one of those people you described has a natural sense of injustice.”

Long Tradition

The diaspora phenomena in Britain’s trade unions is obvious enough to anyone who grew up in an Irish family: the names give it away. But it can’t be overstated how deep of a trend it really is. Of the leading trade union figures of the day, the list of sons and daughters of Irish immigrants to Britain includes ASLEF’s Whelan; Lynch and his RMT assistant, Eddie Dempsey; Unite’s Graham; and Niamh Sweeney, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU).

Baroness Frances O’Grady, former general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), was also born to Irish parents. Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, is the daughter of Irish immigrants to Glasgow. If you broaden the scope and consider third-generation union leaders, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), is the granddaughter of Irish immigrants; as is Paul Fleming, general secretary of Equity; and Warren Kenny, GMB’s London regional secretary. There are more, no doubt, but that covers many of the major sectors of the British economy, as well as two trade union federations representing millions of workers.

Look up any trade union branch and you will likely see Irish surnames.

The trend flows all the way down to regional organizers, secretaries, officials, shop stewards, and workplace reps. Look up any regional branch and you will likely see Irish surnames. It is also long established, going from this current crop to Lynch’s immediate RMT predecessor, Mick Cash, and all the way back to Jim Larkin at the turn of the twentieth century. Born in Liverpool to Irish parents, Larkin went on to become a member of the Irish parliament and formed the Irish Labour party along with James Connolly, the trade unionist republican leader of the 1916 Easter Rising and son of Irish immigrants to Edinburgh. Lynch has named Connolly as his political hero, and Eddie Dempsey served as secretary of the London branch of the Connolly Association, an Irish migrant workers’ association.

For education workers’ Sweeney, whose members are also engaged in strike action over a pay dispute, trade unionism is a cultural norm among the Irish in England — something her parents, Dubliners who migrated to Leicester in the late 1950s, could take for granted. “It was always sort of expected,” Sweeney says, “when you got a job the first thing [Sweeney’s mother] talked about was, ‘are you in the pension scheme and have you joined the union?’”

“My dad used to drag me along to various meetings,” Whelan says of his childhood. “Say my Dad and my uncle [were] getting paid on a Friday, you would end up where they were cashing their check and all their friends would be in there at the same time and you’d have the local trade union shop stewards from the council, who tend to be Irish.”

Mixed Identity

Besides a couple of profile pieces in Irish media, little has been made of this phenomena. If it were a generation of second- and third-generation South Asian or Caribbean trade union leaders, it might have received more attention. Bronwen Walter, emerita professor of Irish diaspora studies at Anglia Ruskin University, told Jacobin that “the Irish are in a peculiar position where the English often don’t think of recognizing them . . . [and] don’t particularly want to.” Why? As opposed to parentage or lineage, markers often used to identify other diaspora groups, Walter has written that “Irish people in England are identified by the English largely through the way they speak.”

The Irish diaspora in England — a community that Walter puts at the “very, very broad figure of 6 million . . . [for] first, second and third generation” — is an understudied sociological phenomenon. White Irish was not included as an ethnic group on the national census until 2001, after years of campaigning by Irish groups.

Much has been made of Britain’s South Asian diaspora in recent years. That the sons and daughters of postwar migrants from India and Pakistan could rise through the ranks and hold the offices of prime minister, London mayor, chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, first minister of Scotland, and leader of the Scottish Labour party — all while coming from across the ideological spectrum — is as remarkable for the typically British understatement with which it happened as it is for the fact that Britain is likely the only European country where it would have been possible.

The offspring of Irish immigrants, however, seem to have been subsumed into the mass of white faces that made up the postwar British working class. Race plays an obvious role, here. But if someone were born to Italian or Polish parents, they would almost certainly be considered Italian or Polish, in part, at least. Yet for many born into Irish families in Britain, their identities exist in an awkward emotional middle ground, the perpetually conflicted “plastic Paddy” or “English cousin” during summers in Ireland but treated with suspicion in England, too, for their strange names and politics: too English for the Irish and too Irish for the English.

For many born into Irish families in Britain their identities exist in an awkward emotional middle-ground: too English for the Irish and too Irish for the English.

Political Engagement

But why are second- and third-generation Irish so disproportionately represented in British trade union leadership? And what, if anything, does it say about the broader diaspora identity? Is there even such a thing as an Irish ethnic identity in Britain?

As an ethnic group, the white Irish in Britain seem to be abnormally politically engaged. According to recent survey data from Racism and Ethnic Inequality in a Time of Crisis, they are the most likely group (83 percent of respondents) to report being interested in politics, followed by British Jews (81 percent). For white British, the result was 60 percent. A higher proportion of white Irish (84 percent) declared having a political affiliation than any other ethnic group. For the white British group, this figure was 73 percent.

This high level of political engagement is combined with a “generousness of spirit that goes with the cultural background” in many Irish migrant communities, Whelan believes. “Everybody wants natural justice, a natural sense of human rights.” Perhaps this comes in part from what Whelan calls the “colonial past . . . what happened in Northern Ireland.” Many — like him children of migrants from Britain’s first and closest colony — grew up in the days of “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish,” a time when sectarian strife back home and bombing campaigns on the British mainland forced many of their parents to Anglicize their names or soften their accents.

Could their children also have been less eager to publicly claim their heritage? It seems plausible. The English saw “the Irish as second class . . . not to be encouraged and not to be taken much notice of,” says Walter. “A lot of Irish culture and attitudes are kept within families and communities and within the home because of what happens if they’re shown outside and especially because of Northern Ireland.”

Many Irish-background trade unionists grew up in the days of ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.’

There have even been hints of latent anti-Irishness during the current strike wave. Comments from British cabinet ministers about “the two Micks” in reference to Whelan and Lynch could be interpreted as slurs. “Even Mr Harper,” Whelan says, referring to Britain’s transport secretary, “didn’t he have a dig at the two Micks?” Asked if it was intentional, he responds: “I have to believe that he’s [Harper] that cultured and most people who design his quips or whatever would be looking at what he says, so I have to think it was intentional.”

Irish history, and Britain’s role in it, is seldom taught in British schools. For Whelan, his awareness of this complicated historical relationship came at home, through “the folk songs and the culture that you heard when you were growing up about who did what to who and when.” This homeschooling, he feels, makes you “concerned about injustice not happening to other people,” and it “becomes part of your persona that you’ve understood that other people have been treated badly and every time you see that people are treated badly, you see people are willing to fight for other people.”

The Racism and Ethnic Inequality in a Time of Crisis survey also found that the white Irish showed the highest levels of support for the Black Lives Matter movement (78 percent), tied with black Caribbean (78 percent), black African (78 percent), and Arab (78 percent) groups. For white Britons, support was 55 percent. Often when growing up poor and Irish in England, neighbors were not white Britons but other migrants from the Caribbean. “My community was very much Irish and Caribbean at the time,” Whelan says of his childhood, and it is no coincidence that the British-Caribbean diaspora has also played a crucial historical role in Britain’s trade union movement.

There have even been hints of latent anti-Irishness during the current strike wave. Comments from British cabinet ministers about ‘the two Micks’ in reference to Whelan and Lynch could be interpreted as slurs.

“It’s just that social justice was always [there],” Sweeney says. “I suppose that’s the way that discipline was in our house, because if you did something wrong, you admitted it and you went through the process of admitting it. And if you hadn’t done something wrong and you were accused of doing something wrong and you hadn’t done something wrong, Mum would defend you to the hilt, and that’s what the trade union movement does, isn’t it? It protects people in the workplace if they’ve done something wrong or not.”

Growing up with Irish parents may have also instilled a diffidence toward the British establishment itself. “That might relate back to this union leadership,” Walter says, because “people are willing to stand up and say things, whereas perhaps English people are more aware of a different position in society where they’re entitled to do certain things but not others.” The Irish diaspora “isn’t so status aware, perhaps,” she adds. The Racism and Ethnic Inequality in a Time of Crisis survey found that the white Irish expressed lower levels (around 40 percent) of trust in the British parliament to handle the COVID-19 pandemic than many other groups.

This distrust is combined with a skepticism toward how the British state and press portrays events, particularly in Northern Ireland. “Mum was very political,” Sweeney says, “there was always Irish radio on, always, constantly . . . but that meant that we were always listening to Irish news and the Irish perspective of the news.”

Educational Barriers

But the broader, more common migrant experience of their parents likely played a role, and being a second-generation immigrant (to anywhere, from anywhere) could also lend a propensity to trade union activity. Frances O’Grady, daughter of Irish immigrants and former TUC general secretary, told the Irish Post recently: “I think every wave of migrant workers from anywhere in the world eventually generates leaders for the whole movement. Seeking a better life in a new country requires courage, determination, resilience, organisational skills, and self-education — all essential qualities for trade unionism.”

Walter believes that a lack of educational opportunity could have slowed the upward social mobility of the diaspora. Though the parents often had little formal education, for many poor, often large Irish families in Britain, education was highly encouraged (Whelan’s parents’ aspirations for him were, he says, “wearing a shirt and a tie and not having to do what they did”) but ultimately relegated to second priority when it came to making a living. “Irish migrants came from somewhere with not a lot of formal education, but some clever people who in this country probably would have been selected out early for grammar schools or would already have moved into the middle classes a few generations back,” Walter says.

This is sadly something that the Whelans experienced firsthand. Mick Whelan, a bright boy in school, had hopes of attending university. He was “about to go to higher education and my Dad fell off a scaffold [and] broke his back,” he says. Those dreams were put aside for the good of the family. “Of course there was no compensation, there was no health and safety . . . there was no anything.”

Historically, this class barrier meant that some workers looked elsewhere to continue their education. “Education has always been part of that, hasn’t it?” Sweeney says. “The trade union was the only place where you could get training or education.” Denied educational opportunities, many bright second-generation Irish entered the world of work with a keen awareness of workplace power dynamics and sensitivity to social justice. “So what you were getting is very bright people perhaps in industries where that wasn’t really expected,” Walter says, “so it wouldn’t be surprising if they rise to the top of being organisers or seeing what was going on and being able to express it.”

A Way With Words

Part of union leadership is public speaking. Much has been made of this during Britain’s recent strike action. That people who grew up on council estates and, god forbid, didn’t go to university (former train guards like Whelan and electricians like Lynch) could be articulate communicators seems to have surprised many. Even those on the soft left of British politics marvel at these leaders’ straight-talking media appearances and reveal unconscious class biases in this way. Yet because many union leaders speak with working-class or provincial accents, coverage in Britain’s middle-class media has seen many a cut glass–accented broadcaster left rather red-faced whenever Whelan or Lynch come to do their media rounds.

Though this too could come from their cultural background — “the oral tradition in Ireland,” as Whelan puts it. Walter also sees a plausible linguistic connection, not only in terms of public speaking but being inwardly persuasive, something crucial when asking members to take strike action. She says that the “Irish traditionally” have been “good at speaking, good at stringing sentences together.” Perhaps their children, then, are “thoughtful in a way that you probably could come out and speak to a group of people and persuade them to do something because you’re persuasive and you can speak well and you like speaking in front of other people.”

If second- and third-generation Irish in England are more likely to be trade union leaders, they are also more likely to be from Catholic backgrounds. “I’d always thought that the links between trade unionism and collectivism were almost a little bit like the church,” Sweeney says. “Being a trade unionist or being active in a local community was about the community and not about self-advancement.” This seems more resonant still when you consider the iconography of the trade union movement: “If you think about the flags and the banners and the marching,” she says, “the badges, the memorabilia . . . there’s funny little traditions that are connected to all of them.”

Ultimately, the second- and third-generation Irish leading the revival of organized labor in Britain are trade unionists first — and immigrant sons and daughters second.

Walter also wonders about a “Catholic dimension to this,” specifically “whether there’s something about families [and] community that is supported or encouraged by the Catholic Church that makes this a little bit different and partly explains people’s attitudes and maybe that also perhaps brings in ethics or sense of justice or some feeling, some philosophical attitude to doing right by your fellow workers or getting what is due to you and the group.”

Millions of people in England have grown up with Irish parents and grandparents. Some strongly identify with their cultural background, others do not. Some feel Irish, others English. But in reality, the second- and third-generation are neither Irish (not in the same way as the born and bred Irish are, at least) nor English (like those born to English parents and grandparents). For some like Whelan, who regularly visits Ireland and is proud of his Irish blood, he says: “I see myself as English and I talk like a Cockney.” Others, like Sweeney, say of her upbringing: “I never really liked the term ‘second-generation’ and I didn’t like using it because for me, I was Irish. I was born in England but I am Irish.”

Perhaps the greatest symptom of this hybrid identity is the propensity of second- and third-generation Irish to strongly associate with their hometown, but less so with a sense of Englishness or Britishness and the historical baggage that brings. Often they settle on some kind of fudged, halfway identity: Whelan and Lynch are London-Irish; Sweeney is Leicester-Irish; and many millions across the country would identify as Brummy-Irish (Birmingham), or Scouse-Irish (Liverpool), or Manc-Irish (Manchester). Like all diasporas, they have grown up in a culture within a culture.

Yet these conditions have incubated a generation of trade union leaders. A generation of naturally able people armed with an oratorical fluency and persuasiveness; exposure to the world of insecure work and without deference toward the British establishment; a natural sense of fairness and justice kindled by childhoods submerged in cultural Catholicism and legacies of colonial history; and politically engaged parents and communities teaching them what the British school system refused to. And they are unlikely to be the last, Whelan feels: “We won’t be the last generation. There is a generation of people,” he says, “from various backgrounds coming through to challenge the leadership — particularly from the Irish culture.”

Ultimately, however, whatever their backgrounds, shared or otherwise, Mick Whelan, Niamh Sweeney, Mick Lynch, Edie Dempsey, Sharon Graham, and all the other second- and third-generation Irish leading this union revival in Britain are trade unionists first — and immigrant sons and daughters second. On a banner of the Connolly Association it says: “The rights of the Irish in Britain are in no way contrary to our interests as workers.”

However interesting or understudied the broader sociological phenomena may be, this cohort of second-generation general secretaries are first and foremost fighting industrial disputes on behalf of workers, all workers, wherever they come from. Their challenge to the British state and their questioning of how society works and how its class system functions in a modern economy are driven ultimately not by their Irishness or any other identity characteristic but by class: the thing that underpins all groups. Most of us, after all, must work for a living.

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