There are 12,000 people living in the Canterbury district with at least one Irish granny or grand-dad. I wondered how they reacted this week when they heard Boris Johnson’s comment about Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier — “Why isn’t he called Murphy like all the rest of them?”
People with ethnic backgrounds are used to dismissals and insults wrapped up as bad jokes, although the Irish attacks have declined significantly in the last twenty years. What is really surprising is that a Prime Minister comes out with such a poisonous barb.
And anti-Irish sentiment is increasingly apparent amongst people close to him. His Home Secretary Priti Patel suggested last year that delaying food imports into Ireland could be used to encourage the Irish to bend to the British will on Brexit. And the Sunday Telegraph talked this week of Leo Varadkar “abjectly doing Brussels’s bidding”, counselling him to “join the Commonwealth” rather than taking orders from “his new imperial masters” within the EU. For anyone with Irish blood (like myself), the allusions here are pretty obvious: Paddy, perennially slow on the uptake, was always better off with his old imperial masters in Britain.
The clique at the top of government now is not representative of Britain as a whole. And the unpleasant comments that they and their supporters make are an embarrassment to the rest of us. Johnson & Co even fall back on old-fashioned sexism, with our new leader famously laughing at hajib-wearing women because, as he puts it, they look like letterboxes. And his Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, recently said: “Feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots.”
Most of us will feel uncomfortable with the attitudes underlying such statements. And, for that reason alone, it is hard to see that this coterie will survive for long. We thrive in our diversity in this country and in this city. The Kent and Canterbury Hospital, for instance, would not function without the 14 per cent of its staff who are black, Asian or minority ethnic — and the others from the EU.
As well as having an Indian surname, Leo Varadkar is gay. And at least 20,000 people in Canterbury are totally happy with that, as they showed in June by going to Pride in the Dane John Gardens. And the new diocesan Bishop of Canterbury, also known as the Bishop of Dover, was born in Montego Bay in Jamaica. The Rev Dr Rose Hudson-Wilkin will in November become the country’s first black female bishop — and if you get a chance, go and hear her preach.
But with the Cabinet giving us such a poor example, the rest of us need to stand by one other. And we have numbers on our side. Just looking at the Irish, there are about six million of us with an Irish grandparent in Britain. Within Canterbury, we have 14,500 people living here who were born in the Americas, Asia, Africa, Continental Europe, according to the last (2011) Census. Anyone who has done a DNA test knows that we are all the descendants of migrants. And as a community we are the richer and happier for it.