Report by Bernadette Hyland of a new archive in Salford.
Over the centuries the Irish have played a key role in the labour and trade union movement in Britain. The Working Class Movement Library has some of the most important archives documenting this and shows the continuous thread between generations of Irish and British activists.
The Irish in Britain Representation Group archive is one of the latest additions to the Irish Collection at WCML. This collection had its origins in the personal libraries of two noted historians of Ireland and Communist party members. The first was T A Jackson – a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Jackson was a speaker, organiser and writer and a lifelong campaigner for Irish unity. His work included Ireland her Own. The second was Desmond Greaves. In 1941 he joined the Connolly Association, three years after its foundation and became editor of its monthly paper, The Irish Democrat – a position he held until his death in 1988. His work included a biography of James Connolly.
My friendship with Ruth and Eddie Frow and their comrades in the Communist Party and the trade unions reminded me of the important link that there was and still is between the Irish and radical history in Britain. In the WCML they ensured that this history was collected, they wrote articles and pamphlets to promote this history and always encouraged other people to research and write up that history. They showed the continuity between generations, from the United Irishmen to their contemporaries such as Tommy Jackson and Desmond Greaves, while local activists such as Mary Quaile made a tremendous contribution to labour and trade union politics.
In 1981, a new wave of Irish activists became involved in not just the campaign for a united Ireland, but also for civil rights and equality for the Irish in Britain. The early ’80s were critical times during the conflict in the North of Ireland. It was a time of the hunger strikes when 10 young men died for their right to political status. The ’80s was also a time when 40,000 Irish people each year were making the journey across the Irish Sea to Britain. It was a time when second and third-generation Irish people became active in a variety of organisations, from the ‘Troops Out’ Movement to the Irish Abortion Support Group and the Irish in Britain Representation Group. It was a time when there was an active group of people in the Labour Party ( including the Labour Committee on Ireland) who fought for a progressive policy on the North of Ireland, supported the rights of the Irish in this country and most importantly, prepared to fund groups such as IBRG through local authorities.
Set up in 1981 the IBRG was a community-based organisation with branches across the country. There were several in London plus Birmingham, Cardiff, Coventry, Manchester, Bolton, N.E.Lancs, Leeds and Merseyside. Over the years branches flourished and declined by turn, reflecting the problems of organising events and activities and finding activists and funds to keep going.
This new archive will add to the Jackson and Greaves archives in telling the story of IBRG from 1981-2002. It has much material on the Manchester branch but there are Minute Books from other northwest branches as well, national documents, minutes of meetings, leaflets, reports, photographs, videos and ephemera. The personal stories of people who were members and National Officers also give the archive insight into why people were so inspired by IBRG to take part in the Irish renaissance during this era.
I hope the archive will show what inspired people like me to get involved in IBRG, but also why, as a working-class woman, it made sense for me not just to be a member of my trade union but also to follow in the footsteps of many other Irish people to campaign for equality for the Irish in this country and a united Ireland.
Bernadette Hyland is a writer, researcher and political activist. Born in Manchester UK she sees herself as following the footsteps of the rich radical history of the northwest. In the 1980s, she was the first woman to be elected as National Chair of an Irish organisation: the Irish in Britain Representation Group. She was active locally in Manchester and nationally in an organisation that campaigned for the Irish in Britain to be represented in all areas of society; this campaign challenged anti-Irish racism and discrimination and campaigned for a peaceful and just settlement in the North of Ireland. Bernadette has written one book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and co-wrote with Michael Herbert Dare to be Free Women in Trade Unions Past and Present. She can be contacted via her popular blog Lipstick Socialist