1977 in the National Archives

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), News, Volume 16

Revd Ian Paisley, with deputy Peter Robinson, during the unsuccessful loyalist strike of 1977. (Victor Patterson)

Revd Ian Paisley, with deputy Peter Robinson, during the unsuccessful loyalist strike of 1977. (Victor Patterson)

Compared to the carnage of the previous year (221 civilians murdered), 1977 was relatively quiet in Northern Ireland (55 civilians murdered). May witnessed the failure of the second loyalist workers’ strike, led by Ian Paisley and faced down by the brusque secretary of state, Roy Mason. Peace People Betty Williams and Mairéad Corrigan won the Nobel peace prize. Queen Elizabeth visited Northern Ireland in her silver jubilee year (the first time in eleven years); republicans marched in protest up the Falls Road.
In the South a June general election saw a surprising Fianna Fáil landslide victory. Northern Ireland featured little in the campaign and Fianna Fáil’s success was attributed to the focus they placed on the personality of the amiable Jack Lynch, under the slogan ‘Bring Back Jack’. The first oil crisis of 1973 had produced international recession. Oil represented 13% of Irish imports and in monetary terms its cost had risen from IR£67 million p.a. in 1973 to over IR£300 million by 1977. An unemployment rate of 12% and an annual inflation rate of 18% were unwelcome features of Irish society.
Fianna Fáil had campaigned heavily on the issue of youth unemployment. The 1977 general election was the first to be affected by the lowering of the voting age to eighteen, and in fact a quarter of the electorate were aged under 26. The youth vote played a significant role in this election, but many other young citizens had been forced to leave the country. While the Irish were considered to have ‘built Britain’ in the 1950s and 1960s, high levels of emigration continued through the 1970s. Files from the Department of An Taoiseach give an insight into the relationship between the government and voluntary emigrant services in Britain, which are of particular interest considering the ongoing debate surrounding the plight of elderly emigrants living in Britain today.
By 1977 the London Irish Centre at Camden Square had been operating for 22 years. In January the honorary secretary, J. Nee, sent a memorandum to the Department of Foreign Affairs via the Irish ambassador in Britain, D. O’Sullivan, explaining the work of the centre, their future plans and funding needs. It is apparent that this was not the first time they had sought funds, nor was it to be the first time they failed to obtain them. The centre provided accommodation and found jobs for young emigrants, but it also dealt with older emigrants whose problems varied from destitution to mental illness. It describes how over the previous few months finding employment had become more difficult owing not only to economic stringencies but also to growing anti-Irish feeling. The ‘troubles’ had repercussions for accommodation as well, as many landlords were unwilling to take Irish tenants.
Two particularly vulnerable groups who regularly turned up at the centre were single pregnant women and people with psychiatric illnesses. Of the former, the memo reports how ‘the relentless war continues to rage between family decency as assessed by the neighbours and Christianity . . . The position of the pregnant girl who decides to take flight to London rather than endure the wrath of her parents is becoming critical.’ Over the previous thirteen years the centre had dealt with 1,101 people with a wide range of mental illnesses. The document refers to the existence of a policy of Irish ‘nurses/social workers’ discharging psychiatric patients from hospitals in Ireland and then dispatching them to Britain on the boat without notifying their relatives, and with only a minimum amount of cash and vague directions about contacts in London. The expectation that they would be cared for ‘by some kind person and supported by the welfare state’ had been a cause of grave concern for the centre ‘for a very long time’.
The memo described how the most distressing aspect of the centre’s work was the continual arrival of destitute people of all ages: ‘For generations the pattern is repeated. They arrive with only the clothes they were wearing, no money, no contacts, no plans, with a chequered work pattern and no references.’ Given the range of services required by those who arrived at the centre, a residential social worker and the provision of a 24-hour service were necessary—hence the request for funding from the Irish government. The centre had recently required premises at 50 Camden Square and needed a new kitchen complex and a multi-purpose hall to ensure a stream of revenue from reunions, benefits and other charity functions. A grant of £426,000 was requested. Fr Cagney, the director of the centre, explained how it was becoming increasingly difficult to secure funds from Camden Borough Council, which was reluctant to continue to assist the centre without some matching or parallel contributions from the Irish government.

Part of the ‘lost generation’—1977 is the year in which six young lads from Connemara take the boat to England in the film Kings, based on Jimmy Murphy’s play The Kings of the Kilburn High Road. (New Grange Pictures)

Part of the ‘lost generation’—1977 is the year in which six young lads from Connemara take the boat to England in the film Kings, based on Jimmy Murphy’s play The Kings of the Kilburn High Road. (New Grange Pictures)

Ambassador O’Sullivan interpreted the plan as having a dimension much wider than ‘welfare’, given the aspects of the proposal relating to the development of social activities. Even if the money was available, in his view there would be no justification for entertaining the application for the full amount. He also asserted that they only had Fr Cagney’s word for it that Camden Borough Council was reluctant to assist without similar assistance from the Irish government. On the advice of the ambassador, and given a previous decision by the government not to provide capital grants for an application from the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants, Garret Fitzgerald, minister for foreign affairs, wrote to Cosgrave for approval to inform the London Irish Centre of the government’s regret that it was not in a position to grant the application.
Phrases like ‘given present circumstances’ and ‘considering budgetary financial considerations’ are prevalent in government rejections of requests for assistance from numerous bodies in 1977. Given the state of the economy this was understandable. But the tragic postscript to this issue in 1977 is the situation of many elderly Irish emigrants in Britain today who can be found living in clusters in areas like Camden and who still depend on the hostels run by the Irish Centre. Assistance continued to be minimal for almost 30 years. In 2004 Paul Rouse reported on this issue in RTÉ’s Prime Time Investigates: Lost Generation, interviewing many who had arrived in Britain 30 years previously. Since injury and old age prevented them from working many had found themselves in a desperate situation typified by poverty and sometimes alcoholism. With neither the British nor the Irish state taking responsibility for their welfare, voluntary workers and centres continue to provide Irish emigrants with food and shelter. There are over 400,000 older Irish people living in Britain and they are disproportionately represented in the poorest classes of society.
Despite the difficulties faced by the Irish economy in 1977, Jacqueline Grapin of Le Monde ran with an optimistic headline: ‘The Republic of Ireland: Singapore of Europe?’ She noted that Ireland had been attracting the goliaths of international industry by means of generous tax concessions and described the country as a ‘fiscal paradise’. ‘Ironically’, she continued, ‘the fact that it is the least developed country of the EEC adds greatly to its prospects for development in the future.’ Ready-made factories were being bought or hired and the salary scale was attractively low (about 60% below the Continental average). Having interviewed a French businessman who had recently opened a factory near Dublin, Grapin commented that ‘one cannot but be disturbed at this outflow of job opportunities from France. Our industrial set-up is lacking in similar enticing incentives and French taxation policy reflects an atmosphere in no way amenable to enterprise. Must one despair for employment in France?’
Fast-forward 30 years and Grapin’s predictions appear to have come to pass. French youth have taken to the streets in protest at their lack of jobs while Irish youth experience unprecedented levels of opportunity. But there is little redress for many of the youth of a previous generation. Prime Time Investigates interviewed many who had sent remittances home, supporting dependent families back in Ireland. Surely the Irish economy can now afford to repay them.

Carole Holohan is a Ph.D student at University College Dublin.

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