Monday 28 May 2018

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

Niall Hannah Finn Ruarí (Baby Kitty-Rose came later)
Niall Hannah Finn Ruarí (Baby Kitty-Rose came later)
Emma Butler
Pro-EU campaigner Ronan Connolly (l) with pro-Brexit Andrew Rosindell (r)
Cormac Breen
Cara Stationery director, Gerry Keany (right)
Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

Uncertainty is perhaps the primary concern among Irish people living in Britain as the outcome in the vent of a Brexit in so many respects remain, for them, unclear.

Figures obtained by reveal that some 535 adults born in Britain of Irish parents applied for an Irish passport in April this year – application figures that haven’t been reached since 2008.

But is this a true reflection of how Irish 'on-the-ground' there are feeling? Are they really concerned about the impact on the economy, border controls and the relationship between Ireland and Britain?

As hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants living across the Irish Sea could decide the referendum, and as polling day grows ever closer, we spoke to a number of them to find out.

1) Father-of-three Niall Burke

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 a decade, been married for 9 years and currently lives in his own home in Winchester with his wife and his three young children.

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Niall Hannah Finn Ruarí (Baby Kitty-Rose came later)
Niall, Hannah, Finn (7) and Ruarí (4) (six month old Kitty-Rose came later)

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

“I work in a private school with lots of foreign (mostly outside the EU) students. My previous pension pots have all been through national schools so I think they will be safe – maybe I should be worried!”

He remains unconcerned over the possibility of increased border controls when travelling between England and Ireland. “You have to queue up and have your passport scanned anyway. I never do any last minute travelling anyway so there is always time to prepare.”

Having three young children might have spurred others to apply for their Irish passports but Niall is not one of them. “I can’t imagine that the restrictions that may be put in place would be too stringent. All counties need tourism to survive. I don’t know why they couldn’t get one after an exit referendum anyway if it turned out that it was beneficial to them."

2) Secondary school teacher Emma Butler

Emma Butler has lived in Britain since 1999 after moving over from Co Tipperary to go to university. She stayed on as she was offered a permanent teaching job and currently has a mortgage on her own home in Bedford. She said she has seen significant changes in the UK over the last 14 years and is concerned that there is currently a discussion about cutting the NHS.

"Having to pay to have a free medical service is significant for the people of Britain - coming from Ireland, I have to agree with this. Europe has an influence on where our money is spent and if Britain left, and the NHS was promised more money, then that would be very positive," Emma told

Ms Butler said she was concerned that British government did not offer enough information when a Brexit referendum was announced - and since then she believes the argument is very one-sided.

"It is concerning that the government gave more more to the 'Stay' campaign than the 'Leave' so how is this fair? However, I would also be concerned about the UK being independent of Europe, especially as regards the relationship between Ireland and Britain.

"Ireland and Britain has had a significant history and the historical right of passage has meant that millions of people had emigrated to Britain throughout history. What would this now mean for passengers?

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Emma Butler

Emma Butler

"Campaigners say that they can set up new border control agreements but it still makes the Irish apprehensive about it all. The Irish government are urging Irish passport holders to vote to stay and I read a lot about the different reasons everyday."

While worried that British exports to Europe and related employment would be impacted in the event of a Brexit, Ms Butler said the the 'Leave' campaign have promised benefits for the education sector. 

"There is a significant lack of core subject teachers - science especially. Leaving promises to fast track science graduates so this also is something that people in education would be thinking about."

However, Ms Butler maintains that her overriding feeling is of uncertainty as she is unclear what the impact of a Brexit will be and believes that many people in Britain have the same concern.

"I can see both sides of the argument and I feel there is a need to compromise. Migrants put a great deal of pressures on the country and in some case British citizens suffer (not getting priority in some situations) that makes some people in the UK angry. 

As for the outcome - I honestly believe this is hard to call - people will make decisions based on their own individual circumstances so I just hope that everyone will vote and give there opinion!"

3) Self-employed Ronan Connolly

Father of three Ronan Connolly went to study at Manchester University in 1986 after a childhood in Derry. He married an English woman and currently lives in Suffolk with his wife Sally and sons Tiernan (8) Lorcan (11) and Fiontan (13).

The children all have Irish passports, and Mrs Connolly is considering applying for one if Brexit goes ahead. 

"We feel you are safer traveling the world with an Irish passport, reflecting the fantastic soft power of Ireland and how the Irish are respected and liked throughout the world," Mr Connolly told

"A bigger passport fear for them is the closing off of opportunities like going to study in EU Universities. We don't know if their Irish citizenship would protect this EU right for them. No-one knows at this point."

Mr Connolly owns several properties in the UK and has spent the last two years setting up his company with his wife. The firm works for the HR and L&D departments of firms in leadership development.

"A hit on the economy after a Brexit will impact all of us, including new businesses like ours. We're at the point of starting to employ people, and that will be postponed," he said.

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Pro-EU campaigner Ronan Connolly (l) with pro-Brexit Andrew Rosindell (r)
Pro-EU campaigner Ronan Connolly (l) with pro-Brexit campaigner Andrew Rosindell (r)

He speaks of his fears of increased border controls and the related impact on the job security of cross-border commuters.

"The Irish are in a position of authority to talk about this. Hard borders existed BEFORE the troubles, and we know our mothers and grannies smuggled sugar, butter etc across the border in the 50s and before, and there were 'approved' and blocked roads where today there is free movement across a virtually invisible border.

"I'm fearful for the 30,000 commuters and their future job security. I'm more fearful that we will return to the bad old days of 'acceptable levels of violence' in Northern Ireland."

Read more: Impact on Ireland: Five things that may happen if Britain leaves the EU

4) Young midwife Emma McGrath

Emma McGrath has lived in Britain for 3 and half years. She works as a midwife with the NHS in an NHS Trust hospital and lives in the Olympic Park in east London with her partner. All of her family lives back in Co Cork. When it was announced that Britain would hold a referendum to decide on whether or not to leave the UK, Emma told that she hoped Britain wouldn’t leave.

“However, the opinion polls are fairly evenly divided at the moment so I registered to vote because I would like Britain to remain in Europe. This is the first time I have registered to vote here.”

Emma has very real concerns about her job and the future of the NHS should Britain leave Europe. “I think the NHS would be badly damaged if the UK decided to leave, especially if the current government remain in power. Jeremy Hunt has warned that there would be cuts, the ‘Leave’ campaign claim there would be an extra £350m to spend on the NHS but this isn’t necessarily true and I think with such a big company like the NHS it would be too much of a risk to take.”

“I have a good pension scheme and I would be afraid it could be affected by leaving the EU. It was relatively stress free for me to come to London and start working as a nurse in 2013 and I then got an opportunity to do my midwifery training over here.

“There are so many opportunities for Irish nurses and midwives here , it would be a shame if there were restrictions put in place if Britain chose to leave.”

However, increased controls between Ireland and our closest neighbour is not one of Emma’s concerns more of “an inconvenience”. 

“When we land at Stansted, we usually can just walk straight through customs and don’t have to go through passport control. It would mean longer waiting times if the UK increased its security but I think, no matter what way the vote goes, it will remain relatively easy to travel between here and Ireland.”

5) Freelance director/copyeditor Cormac Breen

Freelance bid director and academic copyeditor Cormac Breen moved to Britain in 1984, and has lived there since, aside from a few years spent in Central and Eastern Europe.

Mr Breen believed that it was "inevitable that a referendum would be held at some point" but is coming more concerned as the voting date approaches.

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Cormac Breen
Cormac Breen

"There is real passion amongst 'Leave' supporters. On the other side, I come across many, particularly younger, voters who are leaning towards 'Remain' but who seem disengaged and don't think the result will affect them much either way. At the moment, I think the chance of a leave vote is just above 50pc."

Moving elsewhere is a possibility for Mr Breen if Britain leave Europe as he believes that a Brexit will result in a "lot of disruption and confusion across most areas of life for a long, long time"

"Countless decisions, big and small, will be delayed. So an economic slowdown is inevitable," he said.

6) Accountant/business owner Gerry Keany

Gerry Keany qualified as an accountant in Dublin and went to London over 25 years ago. He founded Cara Stationary, currently employing 12 staff, 20 years ago this year.

He was unconcerned when the idea of a Brexit was proposed.

"Like most people it didn’t concern me a lot as it was just an idea dreamed up for political purposes that might never happen. I also thought that the status quo would be easily maintained," he told

However, he now believes that there will be "major implications" if Britain leaves "both on a personal and business point of view".

"Already there has been a discernible downturn in business activity levels especially in the construction and property sector since the referendum has been called. Cara Stationery has a lot of clients in these sectors. Our clients tell us there has been a slow down in activity as investors wait to see what happens next."

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Cara Stationery director, Gerry Keany (right)
Cara Stationery director, Gerry Keany (right)

"Sterling has been fluctuating and this leads to uncertainty. Will London be the main financial centre or will it lose out to Frankfurt? Dublin hasn’t the office space or residential accommodation so it won’t benefit from a Brexit.

Hailing from North Leitrim, Mr Keany was born only 5 or 6 miles from the border with Fermanagh.

"I’ve seen what the border was like in the dim and distant past and what it looks like now. And I certainly prefer how it is now. The 'Leave' campaign says there will be no change ,but they don’t know and can’t know what will happen.

"For a lot of reasons but for economics, tourism and the peace process principally, the island of Ireland does not need border controls. The Dublin – London air route is one of the busiest in the world with thousands of Irish people commuting to London for work purposes. A lot of my friends who commute weekly are apprehensive about the impact a Brexit would have on their travel arrangements."

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