Four: ‘Race’, ethnicity and Irish ‘invisibility’

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Having put in place an historical foundation for the second half of this book, the focal argument in this chapter is that social work’s theoretical approach to questions of ‘race’ and ethnicity, associated with a more embracing academic discourse, fails to address the specificity of Britain’s largest ethnic minority, Irish people1. This is not to argue that Irish people are entirely omitted, even within Department of Health (DoH) publications that provide guidance for social workers (see, for example, DoH, 1991, p 106; DoH, 2001). Nonetheless, it is apparent that the hegemonic, or dominant, approach is apt to shrink the discourse on ‘race’ and ethnicity and does not allow for a more complex understanding. Similarly, there is a failure to examine some of the historical patterns of involvement with Irish children and families discussed in earlier chapters of this book.

Providing part of the context for an exploration of contemporary responses to Irish children and families, the chapter begins by briefly highlighting social work’s more general interest in promoting what is loosely referred to as ‘anti- discriminatory social work practice’. This has been subjected to a good deal of political criticism in recent years. Next, it looks at social work’s dominant orientation in relation to ‘race’ and ethnicity, then goes on to examine contemporary and official guidelines for practice, revealing how these have tended to ignore Irish children and families. It is suggested that there may be some signs of change with the evolution of newer approaches, which take account of the diversity within black and white categories.

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Social work and Irish people in Britain
Historical and contemporary responses to Irish children and families