By Shelley Marsden
Academics say remark reveals a wider attitude of people in Ireland to Irish with UK, US accents
A glib suggestion by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that a Manchester accent made a protestor in Galway somehow less Irish has provoked mixed reactions among the UK’s many Irish.
While canvassing in Galway for this week’s local government and European Parliament elections Mr. Kenny was confronted by a protestor angry at Ireland’s forthcoming water charges.
The woman, Dette McLoughlin, has lived in Galway for decades but grew up in Manchester to Irish parents and her accent – like that of so many Irish people in Britain – has become a bit anglicized.
Mr. Kenny, from Mayo and a TD since 1975, seized on her accent to say the protestor wasn’t really from Galway and, by implication, not Irish.
Dette McLoughlin, a campaign manager for the left-wing People Before Profit Alliance confronted Mr. Kenny and said he was “penalising people who cannot afford it” by introducing a water tax, he smiled, pointed his finger at her and said: “You’re not from Galway at all.”
A nearby protestor is then heard on the video saying: “Lots of Irish people have English accents Enda. It’s called emigration. Another generation is gone. Another generation will be coming back with English accents as well.”
Ms McLoughlin said afterwards: “He was really trying to undermine me, highlighting my accent to everyone around us. What on earth has my accent got to do with what we were asking about?”
Critics have argued that Kenny’s response undermines the legitimacy of Irish in Britain and elsewhere, and would seem to betray a deeper prejudice against those Irish who do not have an Irish accent.
Others have said it was simply a case of the Taoiseach trying to lighten up and bring to a close amicably what was becoming a heavy exchange with an admittedly ill-judged joke.
Jonathan Moore is a Senior Lecturer in Irish History and Politics at London Metropolitan University whose family is from Mayo. He has written extensively and broadcast about the Northern Ireland peace process.
He said the exchange betrayed a wider attitude in Ireland: “I know a number of people who are like me second-generation Irish, and most of the time it’s not an issue. But when you want to take someone on in terms of credibility, it becomes one.
“I used to do a lot of Adult Education teaching on the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and if I said anything that someone didn’t agree with, I would often get ‘Well you’re English, aren’t you’ to which I’d answer ‘No, I’m second-generation Irish’. In the end what I wanted to say was ‘What difference does it make?”
“For all the incredible transformation of Ireland, and improved relations between Ireland and Britain, there is still an attitude that there is such a thing as being ‘properly’ Irish.”
He added: “The number of people I know from London, Manchester and Liverpool with Irish parents, who would go back to Ireland from the UK every summer and have said to me over the years that when there was any kind of disagreement, they would immediately be reminded they’re not legitimately ‘Irish’. It shows that some things change, and some things don’t.”
Mr Moore said: “It’s a bit like the head of the premier league in this country making casual sexist comments about women footballers, as if it doesn’t matter.
“It does matter. It’s completely and totally unacceptable, particularly coming from a man in one of the most senior political positions in Ireland. There is no excuse for it.”
Lance Pettitt, Head of Arts and Humanities at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, lived in Ireland in the 80s and, as a graduate of NUI and a resident for five years voted in elections there.
“I don’t have an Irish accent. In fact, I’m not even Irish”, he told the Irish World. “Ms McLoughlin has Irish parentage yes, but importantly, she’s also campaigning on an issue in a city that she’s lived in and earned the right to ask certain questions about.”
Professor Pettitt says the issue of accents arises often and is a problem: “I’ve seen it in social situations, or at conferences, where people who don’t have an Irish accent or aren’t obviously Irish, sometimes get that knee-jerk sense that it is somehow not ‘legitimate’ for them to have a view.”
He compared the reaction to Mr. Kenny’s comments to those in response to Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s offensive comments about Romanians or other Eastern Europeans moving next door.
“That caused a huge furore. Farage has apologised and said it just came out wrong, he was tired and so on, but you could say the same about Enda. The point is, because it’s an unconscious comment, that means there’s still an unconscious prejudice there”, he said.
“From the conscious politician on the street doing a walkabout, I’m sure Kenny did use the question he did to block the speaker. When you have an armoury of things to use in a debate, it’s interesting that Kenny pulled that one out, rather than contradicting her with facts and figures. He went straight to the root of it and said, you’re not from here, so you’ve got no legitimate say.
“The comment from the Taoiseach, whether it’s representing a minority viewpoint or not, indicates a lingering belief that you need an Irish accent to qualify. It’s a reminder of the distance still to go.”