Tuesday 17 September 2019

'I'd hate to let Brexit force me out of where I've chosen to make my life and career' - Irish people in UK revisited ahead of looming no-deal

Robin Gill with his wife Sarah at their restaurant Darby's
Robin Gill with his wife Sarah at their restaurant Darby's
Niall Burke and family.
Seb ODriscoll

Mícheál Ó Scannáil and Aoife Walsh

Uncertainty has been rife among Irish people living in Britain since a Brexit vote loomed in the beginning of summer of 2016. Three years on, that uncertainty has only intensified.

A total of 61 MP resignations, countless meetings with the EU (with few meetings of the mind), three years and as many prime ministers later, the Irish who emigrated across the Irish Sea are wary about what the future holds for the place they now call home.

As Brexit negotiations advanced and regressed in an ebbing and flowing of promises made and broken and backstops agreed and disagreed, the number of Irish passports issued has continued to rise. Last year 822,581 were issued Irish passports, with a total of 183,399 granted to those in Britain and Northern Ireland.

As Brexit etches into its 10-week countdown, we revisited four Irish immigrants, living across the Irish Sea, having previously spoken with them in 2016 about the potential consequences Brexit could pose for them. You can read that original article here.

Father-of-three and technology teacher Niall Burke: 'It is a complete mess... I have the paperwork to get my kids their Irish passports'

Originally from Dun Laoghaire, Niall Burke trained as an engineer in Ireland and went on to become a technology teacher in secondary schools in England. He has lived there for over 13 years, has been married for 12 years and currently lives in his own home in Winchester with his wife and his three young children. Since we first spoke to him, Niall has moved his technology teaching into special education.

Niall Burke and family.

When a Brexit referendum was first proposed, Niall believed it was a "cheap way of swaying people to vote Conservative". Now, Niall is still unsure if his day-to-day finances, savings or pension will be impacted if Britain leaves Europe.

"I still think it is the most ridiculous and stupid way of swaying people to vote for the Tory party. It's really not something I'm behind at all, still. Even more so now than when it looks like it's getting so much worse.

"It is a complete mess. It just seems a little disorganised. It seems scary when they said that they were going to end free movement on October 31. I had to check, because I know as an Irish citizen, I don't have to apply for settled status over here, but they are changing things like that, and it could be that they change the way that I live over here as well.

"I don't know if my pension or savings will be affected. I haven't got much savings but I know the value of the pound has gone down a lot so visiting home or going anywhere else is going to be a bit more tricky for me. Going back to Dublin is going to cost a lot more, but I don't really know how it's going to affect my pension to be honest."

Niall said that his major worry as Brexit approaches is what the future might bring in terms of, not only a border on the island of Ireland, but also border patrol in EU countries for UK passport holders. When we spoke to him in 2016, the father-of-three was resolute that he wouldn't get his children the Irish passports they are entitled to.

Niall admitted that he never took Brexit seriously and "just thought it was a silly thing" but after seeing first hand the UK's lack of historical understanding of borders, he now has the paperwork ready for his family's passports.

"The border in the North; nobody really seems to know or care about it because they don't know anything about Irish history. It's not taught in schools, so nobody over here seems to care. I know I was talking to my mum last week and she said that everybody at home is very concerned about it, unsuprisingly.

"I know the border passport controls are going to be a pain in the backside. We went to Turkey recently and had to go through all the border and visa checks which were not fun. My son is autistic so that's going to take a long time and those sort of delays really affect him, so any sort of travelling outside of the EU will be a bit more difficult for him.

"I have got the paperwork. Their passports are due up in two years so I won't spend huge amounts of money to get their's changed until they run out. But I have got the paperwork to get their Irish passports for them so it is something I have been considering."

Entrepreneur Ronan Connolly:' I’d hate to see a hard border come back, I’d hate to see the Troubles come back'

Thirty-three years ago, Derry man Ronan Connolly moved to England to study at Manchester University. After marrying an Englishwoman, the pair are currently raising their three children together in Suffolk.

His children, Tiernan (11) Lorcan (14) and Fiontan (16) all have Irish passports.


In 2016, Mr Connolly told Independent.ie that his family "feels safer" travelling with an Irish passport, and that his wife, Sally has considered applying for one.

Now, Mr Connolly still has no intention of applying for an English passport because he feels the Irish passport comes with a "soft power", and is part of his identity as an Irishman.

"There’s a soft power to Ireland and to Irishness which is not the same with British passports. But also, I think for me, the way things have developed now, the common travel area (CTA) agreement is only agreed in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between David Lidington and Simon Coveney in May.

"At the moment, there’s only an MOU. There’s a real uncertainty as to whether or not that will stay in place and the CTA was put in place between two sovereign countries before the EU existed."

Mr Connolly added that a recent announcement from UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel stating that freedom of movement between the UK and the EU will end overnight on 31 October "shows just how volatile the current government is, and how unstable they are in terms of making knee jerk policy announcements."

He continued: "For me, growing up in Derry, most of my family living in Donegal, my Irishness is at least as important to me as Englishness is to the English nationalists. I feel really uncomfortable now living in England and wondering will I be forced to, in the future, carry a British passport in order to get back into the country if I ever go on holiday.

"This all seems to be escalating, and the escalation seems to be accelerating and so that’s a worry. I worry about what’s going to happen in Northern Ireland again now. It seems like there is more and more activity from paramilitaries happening. I’d hate to see a hard border come back, I’d hate to see the Troubles come back. Immediately, the financial impact seems like it really could be huge and destabilising."

Mr Connolly has taken up boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu as it helps him feel "more secure" after noticing an increase of "people getting shouted at or attacked".

"I’m going to the gym a lot, I’m doing boxing I’m doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu just because it helps me feel more secure when I’m out and about and in London," he said.

"Just in case because I see the mood of the conversation changing and I hear of people getting shouted at or attacked online more and more so it just makes me feel more comfortable.

"The mood has certainly toxified over the last few years. Because I grew up through the Troubles, I have a sense of where this can end up when people take sides in this extreme fashion."

Mr Connolly set up his company www.beatrustee.co.uk with his wife. The firm works for the HR and Learning and Development departments of firms in leadership development. Three years ago, he was fearful of the potential hit Brexit could have on his business - a fear that has only intensified.

"There are some clients that we have that have moved their headquarters back to Europe, so we haven’t seen the impact come through yet but there’s certainly worry whenever a headquarter moves into another country. Usually, down the line that means less business is going to be done in this country, so there are worrying signs," he said.

Chef Robin Gill: 'I hate to let the fact that Brexit is happening make me feel that I'm being forced out of where I have chosen to make my life and career'

Robin Gill is an award-winning chef from Dublin. Having worked under head chefs of the calibre of Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc, the Dubliner was recently voted Chef of The Year and, along with his wife Sarah, runs four of the hottest restaurants in the British capital - and is currently opening a fifth.

The Masterchef judge said in 2016 that he feared Brexit could have serious financial ramifications for his business, and the hospitality industry in general. Like Niall, he admitted taking Brexit lightly before the results of the referendum, but three years on, he says that his industry has seen a "definite downturn."

"It's the uncertainty, it's not knowing what's going on. To be honest, I've been just burying my head in the sand. It's like a bad dream that you just hope is going to go away, that you'll wake up and it's gone.

"I was shocked that it ever went through. I remember the (2016) interview very clearly and to be honest I didn't know much about it and that's the thing; a lot of people didn't understand what it means or what is going to happen. I just didn't think too much of it, and thought 'well it's not going to happen is it?' And then when it did, I was just in utter shock.

"I think there has definitely been a downturn. There's a lot of uncertainty, things are expensive. Speaking from my crowd, which is the restaurant and hospitality sector, there has definitely been a drop off. I've seen some casualties and I feel that people are just being that bit more cautious with their money. There's not that big spending going on."

Robin Gill with his wife Sarah at their restaurant Darby's

Robin said that he is trying to find a way around using produce on which tariffs may be imposed. In the meantime though, he is considering a move home amid the uncertainty of what Britain's departure from the EU may bring.

"Some of the moves that we've made is just to actually make contact with suppliers. Rather than trying to buy through a wine supplier, say, we've been going over and meeting with direct producers to try and cut out the middle men a little bit. That's the only way around it but it's definitely going to cost us more and it's not going to be as positive if and when whatever happens.

"We don't know what tariffs are going to come in and this is it; the government are withholding a lot of information. I have to say, British is definitely the minority in the entire workforce (in Robin's restaurants). There are Irish,a lot of Italians, French, Portuguese, some Polish, there's a whole mix of people from all over Europe and we'd be absolutely screwed without them. They're our backbone.

"I've always wanted to do something in Ireland and I've always been looking at it and from what I can see Dublin seems to be turning it into almost an advantage. The problem is, London is a home-away-from-home and I've got five businesses here and I have a responsibility to all of the people we're working with and I've built a life here. I hate to let the fact that Brexit is happening make me feel that I'm being forced out of where I have chosen to make my life and career."

Bar owner Seb O’Driscoll: 'It feels like various communities in England are further away from each other than ever before'

In 2016, Corkman and entrepreneur Seb O'Driscoll, told Independent.ie that he thinks Britain will vote to remain in the EU. Today, the bar-owner said he was "very surprised" at the result.

Seb ODriscoll

"I was very, very surprised but I’ve lived in London the entire time I moved over so I’ve very much seemed to have lived in that London bubble. I think pretty much everyone in London was surprised that it happened."

Mr O'Driscoll said he and his multi-cultural friend group are "all sort of dreading" Brexit together.

"Again, I’ve been sort of living in this London bubble.

"I’m sure if you speak to someone in Burnley or one of the areas that voted to leave, it might be different but one of the reasons I never saw it coming is because I did live in a very multicultural area and I’ve got friends and colleagues from all over Europe and all over the world. So, in that sense none of us really foresaw it but equally we’re all sort of dreading it together.

"I guess as well, it’s the classic echo chamber that we all exist within.

"It’s more sort of a media driven thing. Not media driven, but as I would say, watch the news, or read a newspaper or go online, you can sort of see how it it feels like a sort of zeitgeist of the country is clashing very heavily to what I experience here in London.

"It’s quite funny that, prior to starting my own company, I worked for a charity that was called Social Integration. It’s whole aim was to try to bring different communities who live in the same spaces together. Despite that forming in 2009, it feels like various communities in England are further away from each other than ever before. Not on a day-to-day experience, but on a kind of step back to broadly look at the country it does feel very divided or further away from each other than ever before," he said.

Seb added that since 2016, he has thought more about moving back home.

"My whole life is here, my partner is here, I’ve set up a business here, I’ve lived here most of my adult life now but [moving home] has occurred to me now, maybe in the past year, more than ever before.

"A lot of that is whenever I travel home or when I go to Europe the currency is devalued massively. There are tangible impacts on me in terms of, like it now does feel like I earn less or like what we’re doing is less valuable because the country is becoming more and more isolated."

READ MORE: Special Brexit report: Irish passport applications have jumped - but what do the Irish living in Britain really think?

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