Lost in the crowd


Paul Michael Garrett   is the author of
Remaking Social Work with Children and Families (Routledge, 2003)
and Social Work and Irish People in Britain (Policy Press, 2004).
He is the adviser on social services to the all-party Irish in
Britain group in the UK parliament. He lectures at the department
of political science and sociology at the National University of
Ireland in Galway.  

Changes introduced by New Labour and the publication of the
Children Bill are ushering in a “remaking of social work with
children and families in Britain”.1 These changes make
it a good time to re-examine social work and social care’s approach
to Irish children and families.

Social work’s drive towards more inclusive practice often fails to
incorporate Irish people. This is largely because the dominant
approach to questions of race and ethnicity often perceives black
and ethnic minorities as interchangeable. New research has begun to
examine how social work has engaged with Irish people in Britain,
both historically and to the present day.2

The largest Irish-born community in the world outside Ireland is in
Britain, according to the Irish government.3 The 2001 UK
census revealed that 1.2 per cent of the population of England and
Wales identified themselves as white Irish.

The Irish community in the UK is complex and diverse. But social
work has largely failed to recognise that there may be any Irish
dimension to theory and practice. Moreover, this oversight is a
particular problem, given the vulnerability of some Irish people in

It would, of course, be inaccurate and misleading to portray Irish
people in Britain as being entirely beset by discrimination and
multiple hardships. But it is important to recognise those in the
Irish community who are vulnerable. These include: children who
have been adopted or fostered; migrants, including children,
disabled people, lesbians and gay men; older people, including
those who worked in the unregulated sectors of the British economy;
travellers; drug users and people with mental health problems; and
homeless people or those in poor housing.

Irish people in Britain continue to have their lives impaired
across a range of indices, yet this is seldom taken into account in
most mainstream approaches to race and ethnicity.

Also, the resilience of anti-Irish racism in Britain is rarely
acknowledged. In particular, anti-Irish traveller racism, combining
anti-Irish racism with a more pervasive antipathy toward the
unsettled, strangers and migrant populations, continues to blight
the lives of many children and their families.

It has been argued that “British child welfare practice has
suffered from a lack of historical reflection”.4  If we
accept this, there is a need for social work and social care
educators to examine the history of their work with Irish children
and families. For example, since the 1960s, the idea of
repatriation has been associated with racist projects to create a
white Britain. But in the 1960s repatriation was applied to
pregnant, unmarried Irish women who had travelled to England to
have children placed for adoption. Indeed, thousands of migrant
unmarried mothers were repatriated to Ireland from the 1920s until
the 1970s.5

There is also a need to scrutinise how social work is responding
to Irish children and families. My research asked social services
directors to comment on their organisations’ attitudes to Irish
children and families. But there is also a need to listen to the
views of Irish providers and users of services. In this context, my
research provides insights into six themes:

  • The approach to race and ethnicity in social work
  • The complexity of Irish identities in Britain.
  • Racism and stereotyping.
  • Social services departments’ failure to “recognise” Irish
  • Children and families who are Irish travellers.
  • An agenda for the future.

    The wholesale changes to social work with children and families
    mean there are four main areas that warrant particular

    First, given the “evidence-based practice” agenda, there needs to
    be more research undertaken with Irish children and families who
    are engaging with social work and children’s services in

    Second, social services departments and other social care providers
    need to improve their monitoring of Irish people and enhance
    service provision. This should also occur in other departments,
    such as housing and education and the proposed children’s

    Third, and importantly, there should be improvements in the area of
    education and training for social work and social care. Within
    social work education, the General Social Care Council should
    ensure that providers of social work courses embrace, at the level
    of theory and practice, recognition of Irish people in Britain.
    Irish social work staff are likely to be an invaluable resource and
    social services departments need to recognise this and draw on
    their experience and skills.

    Finally, there is a need for the government and professional
    organisations to take a leading role and give more prominence to
    Irish ethnicity in policy documents that tend, at present, to
    render Irish children and families “invisible” in literature
    concerned with race and ethnicity. Within influential bodies, such
    as the Association of Directors of Social Services, there should
    also be a willingness to foster and promote best practice and to
    highlight those social services departments currently working hard
    to provide better services for the Irish community.


  • “We do not really differentiate between white Irish and white
    British. Our priorities for developing ethnically sensitive
    services lie elsewhere. We probably have a much bigger population
    of Irish extraction that is hidden in white British.” Social
    services director.
  • “We found the Irish dimension was neglected in the social work
    literature on anti-discriminatory trainingÉ Me and other Irish
    social work students on the course would be expected to place
    ourselves in the white group, yet we said we came from a particular
    racialised group. There were some lecturers on the course who would
    find this idea difficult to take.” Irish social worker.
  •  “I attended a case conference where the father of the children
    was Irish and one of the grandparents happened to be Turkish. The
    chair of the conference went on at length about whether the
    children had access to their Turkish heritage, but ignored any
    Irish aspectÉ There is an intolerance about raising the Irish
    issue and you’ll find there is often no recognition in the file or
    elsewhere, that a family is IrishÉ Irish children are not
    identified in the system. It may be professionals who are putting
    them down as English, but parents might put them down as English
    also. This happened with the 2001 census. There is a feeling that
    if they put themselves down as Irish they may well get
    discriminated against so they’ll say they were born here.” Irish
    social worker.


The dominant approach to race and ethnicity within social work
and social care in the UK has often failed to acknowledge the needs
of Irish people. This article argues that it is time to challenge
this omission and to examine how social care professionals are
engaging with Irish children and their families.


 1  PMGarrett, Remaking Social Work with Children and
Families: A Critical Discussion on the Modernisation of Social
Care, Routledge, 2003  2 PMGarrett, Social Work and
Irish People in Britain: Historical and Contemporary Responses to
Irish Children and Families, Policy Press, 2004  3 Task
Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants, Ireland and the Irish Abroad,
Government of Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs, 2002, www.gov.ie/iveagh  4
O Stevenson, “It was more difficult than we thought: a reflection
on 50 years of child welfare practice”, Child and Family Social
Work, 3: 53-161, 1998  5 PMGarrett, as above, Social
Work and Irish People in Britain


  • MJHickman and B Walter, Discrimination and the Irish Community
    in Britain, Commission for Racial Equality, 1997 
  • BGray, Women and the Irish Diaspora, Sage, 2004  l BWalter,
    Outsiders Inside: Whiteness, Place and Irish Women, Routledge – Two
    books examining the lives of Irish women, in Britain and elsewhere,
  •  Action Group for Irish Youth  www.irish.org.uk/index.shtml  
  • Traveller Reform Coalition  www.travellerslaw.org.uk/


Paul Garrett can be contacted at PM.Garrett@nuigalway.ie

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