"Do Irish Votes Count?"

Prospective MPs take questions from Irish community

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As part of a campaign by Irish organisations to encourage the Irish in Britain to make their votes count in the General Election, local parliamentary candidates were quizzed by Irish residents from the Hammersmith area on Wednesday (April 28) - said to be one of the largest Irish communities in Britain.

In their opening addresses, the three candidates, Shaun Bailey (Conservative), Merlene Emerson (Liberal Democrat) and Andy Slaughter (Labour) were asked to respond to the key question of the evening: “Do Irish votes count?”

“Of course they do,” said Shaun Bailey. “All votes do, particularly in a marginal seat like this one.” As the child of immigrants himself, he said he could see similarities between the Black and Irish communities and cited the words of his grandmother, from whom he had first heard the phrase 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs'. “My and your communities' response to that has been robust. If you compare our Black community to your Irish community, I'd say you've been more successful. One of the best things about your community is that you're moving away from being dependent.”

Merlene Emerson also drew comparisons with her own background: “I can't help but compare the Irish community with the Chinese - you've had waves of immigration. The Chinese community are like you: we have been marginalised, we have been invisible.” However, she also pointed to the existence of a Chinese member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Anna Lo, who was elected in South Belfast in 2007. Emerson said the Hong-Kong-born Lo had won because, “she campaigned on bread and butter issues without a sense of tribalism”.

Andy Slaughter said the Irish community had a long history in Hammersmith, which he himself had played a major role in, with the opening of the Irish Cultural Centre when he was Deputy Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council: “The Irish Cultural Centre was opened in 1995 and was one of the proudest achievements of the Labour Council. It was completely opposed by the Conservatives and continued to be opposed by them and when they took over the Council they cut the Centre's grant by 100%.” He also pointed to his work as the Vice-Chair of the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Group, saying it was a “crime” that Travellers were “treated as second class citizens”. “With the collusion of the Tory press, a Conservative Government would want to leave it up to local authorities to decide how to deal with Gypsy and Traveller sites and I think we all know how that will end up.”

The candidates also congratulated the Federation of Irish Societies, which hosted the debate, for its work on changing the census questions to ensure the Irish community would be properly recognised – a feat which Emerson said the Chinese community had not managed to achieve. Since the 2001 census, the Federation has been campaigning for a breakdown of the 'Irish' category, which they say was submerged in the 'White' data. As a result of their campaign, the 2011 census will now offer new options under the 'ethnicity' category, with the 'White' category broken down into the following sub-categories: a) English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British b) Irish c) Gypsy or Irish Traveller d) Any other White background.

The issue of the cuts to come after the General Election was never far from the surface, with local housing, funding for the voluntary sector and local services all up for discussion and, in an almost desperate plea from the audience, one man expressed his concerns over talk of cutting waste: “One community's waste is another community's lifeline,” he said. Slaughter listed the services that had been cut by Hammersmith and Fulham Council under the Conservatives, focusing specifically on housing: “Not only is no affordable housing being built but also they're proposing the demolition of 3,500 homes. This disproportionately affects the Irish community, many of whom live in those homes,” he said. Bailey said the cuts had come about because the Tories had inherited a huge debt left behind by the outgoing Labour council. “Local people rejected the Labour council – they got rid of Andy, they got rid of the local Labour Party,” he said. The LibDem candidate indicated the current council was struggling financially: “I can assure you there will not be Council Tax cuts in the years to come: the Council won't be able to afford it,” said Emerson. However, she encouraged the Irish community to use their numerical strength to push for funding for their voluntary organisations: “I think the Irish community is quite mature, it's quite integrated. You should be putting pressure on your Borough to support your needs because the Irish community here has a strong voice.”

On more sensitive financial matters, a direct question to Slaughter about his expenses led to accusations and counter-accusations between the Conservative and Labour candidates. “You claimed for your car on expenses,” said the audience member. “What's wrong with the District line?” Slaughter answered: “People canvassing for Mr Bailey are making false allegations about me on the doorstep. I have claimed about £100 travelling between here and Westminster (by car) over the past five years. I only use my car if it's late at night or if I have heavy things to transport – I use the District line every day.”

However, reading from his notes, the debate's Moderator said Slaughter had claimed a total of £2,719 in travel expenses. “That would be a Travelcard and some motoring expenses,” said the Labour candidate, before turning the spotlight on Bailey who is facing scrutiny from the Charity Commission after the discovery of £16,000 worth of unreceipted expenditure at the charity he runs, My Generation. Clearly feeling the heat, Bailey ran down a list of the different groups his charity supported as well as the trips and outings they had been on. “That's where the money went,” he declared, adding that the issue was a “filthy political trick”. “Why aren't your expenses online, Andy?” he asked his opponent.

One member of the audience wanted to know whether the candidates agreed with ID cards which, he said “will persecute minority communities like ours”. The Conservative candidate gave a straightforward 'no'. “They were sold to us as a security measure and when that failed, they tried to sell it to us as an immigration measure. The government's record of keeping our records safe makes me feel like I don't want them having any more of my information,” said Bailey. Emerson also pointed to the “huge risk” of keeping so much information on a database, adding: “The LibDems are against this type of biometric ID card.” Andy Slaughter was the most positive on the issue: “In an age when an Oyster card can trace us all round London, I don't see a problem with I.D cards if people want them.”

Almost as an afterthought, the question of Northern Ireland came up, specifically focusing on David Cameron's suggestion that the province would be a primary target for cuts. In a BBC2 interview last Friday, the Conservative leader said that in some parts of the UK, the state accounted for a bigger share of the economy than in former communist countries. When pressed on which parts of the UK he was talking about, he said: “The first one I think I'd pick out is Northern Ireland.” He later denied that he was targeting Northern Ireland for severe spending cuts.

The local Labour and Conservative candidates had diametrically opposing views on the way forwards in Northern Ireland: “The peace process has matured to a point where it should be driven by Northern Ireland and that's what the people of Northern Ireland would want,” said Bailey. But Slaughter had his own interpretation: “When the Tories say 'Let Northern Ireland deal with its own issues', that's code for 'Let's cut the funding'. But I say: 'Let's not cut the funding'. The issues are not resolved there and I believe we have a continued responsibility there,” he said.

Yasmine Estaphanos

April 28, 2010