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‘The white essential subject: race, ethnicity, and the Irish in post-war Britain.’ Gavin Schaffer and Saima Nasar.

The article seeks to challenge the slippage between the Occidental usage of ‘whiteness’ as a unifying, hegemonic, totalizing category, which inevitably serves to essentialise the white subject, and ‘whiteness’ as an explanatory enterprise used to analyse multiple racial and ethnic identities.

Scholars have argued that ‘whiteness’ was the essential racial marker into which immigrants (Jews, Irish, Italians, East Europeans) pulled themselves, securing preferential status in the process, or what Gramsci has referred to as ‘consensual control’. The scholarship premise rests on the idea that ‘whiteness’ was a subjective category, malleable and ultimately lacking in objective meaning, just like the concept of race itself.

The article chooses to analyse Irish immigrants’ experience in Birmingham through two relevant case studies: Maurice Foley and the Birmingham Pub Bombings. Repeatedly, throughout the article, one is reminded that the experience of Irish in Britain, in terms of racial discrimination, was incomparable with those of black and Asian people. However, it existed, and the Irish were viewed as somewhat ‘favourable inferiors’. Foley believed that looking at America would help assimilate immigrants of color, as the challenges posed by colour were already being addressed. He visited the state eight times before taking on his new role, ‘to look at the problem of race relations’. It was clear to Foley that many more Britons were concerned with race than he was led to believe, ‘coloured people stand out as the most obvious newcomers.’ He aimed to help Irish immigrants assimilate as best as possible and erect several schemes to do so. He was largely successful.

Furthermore, the Birmingham Pub Bombings in 1971 was described as a significant topic to analyse the ‘whiteness’ of race. It was later confirmed that the bombings were the IRA. The bombing killed 21 people and injured over 200. The bombings caused shock and outrage due to the scale of death and injury mixed with the civilian casualties. On the streets of Birmingham, violence immediately erupted, targeting Irish people and places. Anti-Irish slogans were chanted, and the Irish Centre was repeatedly firebombed, and Irish businesses, schools, and pubs were attacked. In the meantime, six Irish men living in Birmingham were arrested and charged with carrying out the attacks. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was specifically intended to focus only on Irish terrorists. Its aim: ‘influence public opinion or government policy concerning affairs in Northern Ireland, and not ‘terrorists of other persuasions.’

The growing anti-Irish sentiment led to many Irish choosing when to be Irish in public; they could easily pass as British if they tried. The ability to choose where or when to be Irish, limited as it was by accent and other signifiers, seems to differentiate the Irish from black and Asian immigrants who could not decide when they wanted their blackness to be noticed as ascribed with meaning, a reality which led to contemporary observers and some subsequent scholars to observe better outcomes for Irish migrants. Yet passing as white British, and negotiating safe spaces to perform Irishness, took their own toll on Irish lives in Britain, shaping the consciousness of shame and silence.

In Conclusion, telling the story of white Irish migrants has the potential to clarify the significance of colour in migration history and improve historical understanding of the multiple processes by which constructions of racial difference have shaped Britain.

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