Alan O’Kelly is Executive Director of the Conservative Ireland Association, an organisation that has just been recently established to create links with the Irish community, and is Deputy chairman (Political) of Putney Conservative Association. Hugh Byrne is a Wandsworth Borough Councillor.
The relationship between Ireland and the UK is as complex as ever. But regardless of any current political differences, the UK has provided jobs and homes for hundreds of thousands of Irish people over the last century. Today, nearly 400,000 Irish-born people currently reside and work in the United Kingdom. This represents a huge number of people who can vote in the United Kingdom, thanks to agreements that pre-date the EU by several decades. It is also estimated that six million people in the UK can claim Irish citizenship by virtue of having at least one Irish grandparent.
It is estimated that 35,000 Irishmen died fighting for Britain in the First World War and, since then, Irish people have played an important role in helping to develop the British economy: supplying labour to help to rebuild our cities after the Second World War and by contributing to the development of the NHS. Much of this immigration was driven by economic necessity, though newer waves of Irish immigrants to the UK are now more likely to work in the technology and business sectors. As a result, their aspirations tend to be aligned with the values of our party.
However, for historical reasons the Irish community has tended to show an antipathy or ambivalence toward the “Conservative and Unionist party”, and the “Irish vote” is usually claimed by Labour. This is at odds with the natural tendency of Irish people to be socially and economically conservative in their thinking, with a strong focus on the family, work, and home ownership. It is more than possible to be a proud Irish person and a Conservative at the same time, despite the Party’s full name. In the years following the Acts of Union until the War of Independence, over 100 Irish MPs sat in the commons, a fact frequently noted in the novels of Anthony Trollope and personified by one of his most famous characters, Phineas Finn.
The Party has not yet cultivated a formal relationship with the Irish community in Britain and this is an opportunity to reach out to what can be a powerful network. Analysis which we have conducted shows that in several key marginal constituencies the number of Irish-born voters is greater than the margin needed to win the seat. The Party is missing an opportunity to engage with this community who could and would support it, given the right support and encouragement. Many are already involved in the Conservative Party, whether in local government or as constituency officers or volunteers, but we believe that the time has come for the Conservative Party to acknowledge the Irish diaspora on more formal level, which is why we have established the Irish Conservative Association.
This new group will seek to build a bridge between the Irish community in the UK and the Conservative Party. We will be a member-led organisation promoting the values and ideals of the Conservative Party across the UK. This new group is open to anyone with an Irish background or an interest in Ireland. We believe that participation and inclusion will be key to our success going forward and we are proud that Maria Caufield has agreed to act as our Chair.
The relationship between the UK and Ireland will always be important one, and one that has changed dramatically over time. While the debate over Brexit has increased tensions, we believe that our two countries still have much in common, not to mention our economic ties and shared border. Our aim is to foster and deepen the relationship between the Irish community here in Britain and the Conservative Party. Establishing this group will have many benefits for the party and over the coming weeks we hope to announce a variety of initial events that will take place in the new year.
If you would like to get involved, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.