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Tuesday 23 April 2019

'I assumed I'd always be able to stay'

Britons are Ireland's second largest minority. As their country of birth's schism with Europe nears, how are our Brexiles coping? Regina Lavelle finds out

Changing perceptions: Davina Saint was recently advised to change from a British to an Irish driving licence. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Changing perceptions: Davina Saint was recently advised to change from a British to an Irish driving licence. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Citizen: Dr John McGilp got his Irish passport 40 years after moving here. Photo: Mark Condren

What does Brexit mean for Ireland? A difficult question to answer as we are yet to discover what Brexit even means for Britain.

There is the reputed 'Brexit dividend' in jobs and investment, but after 20 years of improving relations, Brexit has seen a rise of not-entirely compatible nationalisms.

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What does this mean for the large numbers of Britons living in or moving to Ireland in the face of the schism with Europe?

It is a pressing issue, with passport applications from Great Britain almost doubling from 46,229 in 2015 to 80,752 last year, to add to the 103,113 UK nationals resident in Ireland, as of 2016.

Citizen: Dr John McGilp got his Irish passport 40 years after moving here. Photo: Mark Condren
Citizen: Dr John McGilp got his Irish passport 40 years after moving here. Photo: Mark Condren

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, figures released by Ernst & Young showed that Dublin "remains the most popular choice for financial services firms to relocate post-Brexit with 28 firms having committed".

EY also reported that 7,000 financial services jobs are likely to leave London for Europe. How many of those jobs are headed for Dublin is unclear.

Jan Smullen, head of HR for EY Ireland. says they "haven't seen a huge uptake in interest specifically related to Brexit". It does seem increasingly likely, however, that for Ireland, Brexit means Brexiles.

Many of these nationals, having left Britain, feel a sense of estrangement from a political and social landscape they see as redrawn.

For Welsh architect Richard Bonney, it means Irish citizenship. "Getting an Irish passport is my little bit of a stand against the whole Brexit thing," he says.

"I'm a very proud Welshman but I feel more of an affinity to Europe now than to Britain. And I don't say that lightly," says Bonney (41) who is originally from Neath, met his wife, Olivia, in London and moved to Ireland with her. They have two children, Rhys and Lilly.

Bonney, who studied in Sheffield, fears that Brexit represents a resurgent English ­nationalism. He also understands the leave impulse.

"The South Wales coalfields had a strong leave vote. My family back home are Leavers.

"People say things weren't as good as 20 years ago. They voted leave because they felt they had nothing to lose. That's what Remainers didn't appreciate," he adds.

"When I was back in Wales for a rugby match, I took my wife down the Valleys and there were blue EU flags everywhere - new libraries, new community centres. The Valleys benefit a huge amount from structural funding. It's just people didn't realise it.

"During the referendum, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales weren't mentioned. All the boys in the Welsh society feel that Brexit is about English nationalism. I find the whole thing quite poisonous. There's a few people who have recently moved over and they're devastated."

Immigration into Ireland from the UK isn't a new phenomenon. Back in 2002, the UK community numbered 103,476, climbing to 112,548 in 2006 and remaining relatively unchanged in 2011, before falling by roughly a tenth.

According to the last Census, the UK community in Ireland is older than most other groups; 57pc are over 45, 41pc have an Irish partner and 62pc own their own home.

While these statistics point to a well integrated, settled community, they have benefited from both the EU and the Common Travel Area, (CTA).

Some fear this ease of movement will suffer some attrition.

"We moved to Ireland because my husband got a job here, and then I got a job," says Davina Saint, a banking solicitor living in Dublin. Before she left Britain, Saint had lived in London and Oxford.

Hardened rhetoric

"Before that we'd been living in South Africa, and everything was so difficult with work permits and visas," she says.

"Then we came here and it was just all 'Europe'. It was seamless and easy as both myself and my husband had British passports.

"Then last week I got a letter from my insurance company saying I'm listed with a British driver's licence and they couldn't say what would happen after March 29 so I had to get an Irish driver's licence.

"Suddenly I'm in a scenario where I've always assumed that I'd always be able to stay here in Ireland and it would always be the same. Now that assumption is challenged for me," says Saint.

There is more than paperwork to the changing Anglo-Irish dynamic of course. Recent months have seen a hardening of rhetoric with senior Tories exposing either staggering arrogance or cynical dog whistles.

In December, BBC political editor Nicholas Watt reported a 'Tory grandee' told him: "We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this. This simply cannot stand. The Irish really should know their place."

Many Irish in Britain, particularly those living in England, have expressed exasperation at such commentary and Tory outbursts including those of Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and, most recently, MEP Daniel Hannan's lampooned treatise on Fianna Fáil, provoked fury and anguish in equal measure.

Of course the Irish moral authority was blunted somewhat by Sinn Féin's "England Get Out of Ireland' St Patrick's Day banner, (albeit in New York) last weekend.

For others, the tone of the debate in the Republic raises concerns, and one academic says the conversation could benefit from less heat. "For British people living in the Republic of Ireland, one thing I notice is how strident and morally superior a lot of the commentary has become," notes Dr Bill Kissane, associate professor of Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.

Dr Kissane, who is Irish and undertook his undergraduate and Masters at Trinity, adds: "There's no critical thinking about what has produced this in the first place and what is going wrong with European integration.

"And what about the Irish attitude to European integration? It's not so long ago that we had a very deep economic crisis and the European Union was seen as one of the bad guys and it's all been forgotten.

"We use the term Brexit, Brexit meaning Britain leaving the European Union, but what's the difference between Britain, England and the United Kingdom?

"I think what's happening here is that English nationalism is reasserting itself and Britain, as a concept, is under a lot of pressure.

"So for people who moved to Ireland, I don't know how all this will play out. There is the Common Travel Area, which I suppose will remain.

"They are the second biggest minority in the Irish Republic [after the Polish]. Their rights will be respected and they will remain here - it's quite an old population profile. But one can't assume that just because people leave England and move to Ireland, they're indifferent to national pride."

Brexit has become something of a lightning rod, Dr Kissane believes, for those seeking to project a new kind of Irish nationalism.

"The European Project has allowed people to express Irish nationalism in a new way. In the past, Irish nationalism was the North or it was the GAA or it was the Irish language, but now people can be quite progressive and they can still be Irish nationalists by criticising Brexit."

The British in Ireland say this frustration with Brexit is entirely understandable.

Dr John McGilp (68) is a professor of Physics, originally from Langbank in Scotland's Renfrewshire - which voted 64.8pc to Remain. He moved to Ireland in September 1977 to take up a lectureship at Trinity and has been here ever since. He married an Irish woman and they have two children.

"I've had no experience in Ireland of any anti-British sentiment. A lot of people think Brexit is stupid. It was decision taken in the UK but I still think it entitles Irish people to have a view on it."

Despite having lived here for almost 40 years by the time of the UK referendum, McGilp only decided to apply for his passport after the Brexit vote and was made a citizen in April 2017.

'Cultures are not dissimilar'

"I never considered Irish citizenship before mainly because I found nationalism was less important as the EU developed. Then Brexit happened and I thought, this sounds really bad.

"So I had two problems after the result: Do I feel Irish or Scottish? The answer is I'm both. The test was when I wanted Ireland to beat Scotland in the rugby last year. The cultures are not dissimilar, which helps. Scottish people have a similar view on life as Irish people. You can tell that from the Brexit vote."

Scotland voted 62pc to Remain.

South of Scotland, the atmosphere is different.

"I've been following the way the British press has been treating Europe for 30 years. Most politicians, even Irish politicians, will use Europe as an excuse for unpopular changes," adds McGilp.

"And when people are doing badly, they look for someone to blame. The effect is they've given voice to a small minority who are very antagonistic to anybody who's not English."

Some say the relationship between Irish and English is more complicated. Laura is a 45-year-old civil servant from the south of England who has lived in Ireland for 20 years.

"I've lived here nearly half my life, but Ireland is a dramatically different place to the UK. Dublin, for example, is a much more distinctively European city. Most UK people would have no notion. They think it's like Scotland or Wales."

Laura says there are a minority from whom she gets a reaction.

"I'd say one in every 40 or 50 I meet, consistently over 20 years, visibly recoils at my accent." (Fleabag rather than Downton Abbey.)

Visceral reaction

"Everytime it happens, I'm shocked - because I've had it from the youngest to the oldest. And it's that from-the-mother's-breast hatred of the English, that hasn't particularly changed in 20 years."

Laura describes the reaction as 'visceral' and though not angry, she looks forward to hearing more accents like hers on the street.

"You hear every accent except mine," she says.

This is almost certainly set to be the case as large London-based institutions move their centres. "Some companies will probably seek to retain high-potential, high-performance individuals where professional skills are not freely available in the market," says EY's Jan Smullen.

Remote working, or commuting Monday-to-Friday, might be available to some, she says, on an assignment-by-assignment basis.

Housing is another matter.

"At a junior level, things like rental prices in Dublin can be prohibitive. If you're more high-end in terms of salary, it may not be such a consideration," she says.

"Dublin gets rated very highly in terms of quality of life, environment and socialising."

Now, for Ireland, it's a case of policy and preparation, says Dr Kissane.

"In terms of integrating people, three things matter - education, which isn't too bad, healthcare, which is a disaster compared to [the UK] and housing, which is also very problematic.

"Less than 10 years ago, people would have been saying that Irish attitudes towards the UK were fundamentally changing as a consequence of the queen's visit, that there was some kind of tangible reconciliation, but I personally think that the emotions that are rooted in the past of conflict are actually deeper, haven't gone away and they can be re-ignited if the political process works to that end."

Richard Bonney says that he doesn't feel any less welcome after Brexit, in fact he probably feels more so. "I think it did make me feel I wasn't British anymore. I'm a proud Welshman. I've got the language. I almost felt, 'Has my time in Ireland changed me?'

"Even when I go back, I've felt as I've moved on. I feel now more Irish than I almost do Welsh sometimes. Brexit killed my Britishness. But it hasn't killed my Welshness."

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