Andrew Smith, a financial consultant, was speaking Russian to a contact on his phone during his evening rush-hour commute home from central London when another man overheard him and confronted him.
“He was a random white guy, same age as me; I am 50,” recalls Smith. “He said, ‘I voted so people like you would f**k off home.’ He then got off the train pretty quickly so I didn’t get a chance to reply.”
Smith speaks French, German and Russian for the consulting work he did then all over Europe. The incident happened a few days after the British public voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
“That really brought home to me that voters unleashed something that doesn’t feel like the country that I grew up in, particularly the climate of hostility towards foreigners,” Smith says.
The train encounter was a catalyst for Smith, a Londoner, to leave the UK.
“I am a middle-aged, white, public school-educated, male – every possible privilege you can imagine. I have never experienced any sort of harassment in the way that people of colour and other minorities would have done so. But that was just extraordinary, that just because I spoke in another language on public transport, somebody decided that I needed to ‘f**k off home’ when, in fact, I was going home to my house in south London.”
Since then, Smith, a Londoner, has made Dublin his home. He left the UK in 2017 and is now working as assistant professor of statistics at UCD. He admits Brexit was not the only reason for his move, but it played a large part for his relocation. His wife and youngest son will remain on in London until his son finishes school there in 2020.
Smith is not alone in deciding to pack up and leave the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote. The Irish Times has spoken to three others who say Britain’s departure from the EU – and the xenophobic fervour they believe it has awakened – were contributing factors in their decision either to leave the UK or to plan their departure.
There is no clear data on whether there has been a wider exodus of Irish returning from the UK in the aftermath of the referendum result. Central Statistics Office figures show that the number of immigrants to Ireland from the UK has steadily increased over the past six years, reaching 20,100 in the year to April 2018.
I voted so people like you would f**k off home
Since 2016, net migration from the UK has continued to rise. In 2016, 3,800 more migrants returned to Ireland from the UK than emigrated across the Irish Sea in the other direction. This rose to 6,600 in 2017 and 8,600 in 2018.
This trend, it should be noted, has coincided with a period when Ireland experienced superior economic growth over the UK, so the returned migrants may not be Brexit refugees or indeed “Brexiles” seeking to retain residency in the European Union or fleeing this new wave of British nationalism.
All of the people who spoke to The Irish Times for this article say they have experienced or witnessed racism since the referendum.
For solicitor Muireann Dennehy (37), it was an incident on a street on her way to a London train station one Saturday morning that convinced her that her decision to return to Ireland was the right move after living abroad for 14 years.
She says she saw an “English yob” verbally abuse a black English man who was out walking his dog. The “yob” directed nationalistic comments at the man – saying that he was proud to be racist and that the UK had won two World Wars – and then drove off.
“That was the point where I said I was making the right decision,” said Dennehy, who is originally from Cork. Her move home was “not the primary motivating factor,” she says, but the reason for “jumping” now.
“Brexit has justified people telling their real views. That was completely unjustified and not something that I want to be part of. It really scared me,” she says of the abuse she witnessed.
“For me, it was a horrific incident. It just made it very, very real.”
Dennehy says there have been other moments to reassure that her decision to leave has been the correct one and it is not just angry remarks directed at others.
“There was a growing anti-Irish sentiment because of the fact that the ‘backstop’ was causing a delay or disrupting the Brexit process,” she says, referring to the contentious solution in the proposed EU-UK divorce deal to avoid a hard Irish border that Brexiteers despise, fearing it could keep the UK tied to EU rules in perpetuity.
“I really didn’t like that. The way British people have dealt with me since 2006 is that I am very much welcome and I am as good as English. People did start to look at me differently and I felt that I wasn’t as welcome as I used to be.”
She singles out a cover story in the conservative political magazine, the Spectator, headlined “Divide and Rule: How the EU used Ireland to take control of Brexit”, published just before Christmas. She felt it conveyed an anti-Irish feeling during the increasingly bitter political wrangling around the UK’s departure.
“It was just the sentiment; it was pejorative in its tone. It just didn’t feel very friendly, to put it mildly,” she says.
The pull of Ireland is a factor too, she says. Brexit is “reflective of a country divided and struggling with its identity” and this has led to “isolationism and looking to the past”.
I felt that I wasn’t as welcome as I used to be
“Ireland stands in stark contrast to that. The ways in which Irish society has progressed since I left is astounding and it is one of the big drivers for my decision to return home. I expect that Ireland’s liberal and worldly outlook is one of the reasons it is so attractive for the Brexodus,” she says.
This was certainly a reason for Andrew Smith’s move to Dublin. Sitting in his UCD office, he says Ireland was a “very significant” factor in choosing a new post-Brexit home. He voted Remain in the 2016 referendum and wanted to live in the EU.
“I regard myself as European and really resent that part of my identity being taken away from me,” he says.
He felt that anti-immigrant undercurrents were there “a long time before the Brexit vote” in the British media and politics, and that the EU was a “convenient scapegoat” for healthcare and education policy decisions by the UK government. He says he would probably still be living in the UK if the British public had voted Remain.
“I knew some people who voted Leave but the majority of people that I knew, their view would have been that to vote Leave would be utterly self-destructive and stupid,” he says.
Caitriona O’Kelly (43), who is originally from Dublin, recalls seeing a photograph taken at Deutsche Bank in London, where she worked at the time, the morning after the referendum.
Someone had sprayed-painted “‘f**k off back to Germany’ or something like that,” she says, but it had been cleaned off before staff arrived at work. It was not the only incident.
“A good friend of mine who is Irish, one of his kids in school was told, ‘why don’t you f**k off back to Ireland?’” she says.
“It just became absolutely okay to make absolute racial comments in the UK. People just felt that the Pandora’s Box has been opened; they could now express things which they would not have expressed before because it was socially unacceptable.”
Brexit as ‘driver’
O’Kelly feels that the referendum has exposed “some underlying, hidden tension in the country that we really hadn’t been aware of before”, she says.
“It is still there. It is not like people got it out of their systems and it went away. We all realise that it is there.”
Brexit has been “a driver” in O’Kelly’s decision to move back to Dublin but there are other reasons for her return. She has taken a job in a new high-profile role as chief financial officer at stockbroking firm Davy. She has recently had a baby and, as a single mother, needed support at home and “grandparenting services”, she says.
A good friend of mine who is Irish, one of his kids in school was told, ‘why don’t you f**k off back to Ireland?
The UK’s referendum result to leave the EU was a defining moment for her, however.
“For about two weeks beforehand, I really thought it could go that way. I wasn’t somebody who thought it is never going to happen,” she says, given that she managed the bank’s immediate, overnight response to regulators around the globe as the Brexit votes were counted and the markets reacted.
Still, when the Leave side won, it shocked O’Kelly to wake up in a country that was not going to be part of the EU. She had a strong believe in the importance of the EU and its role in creating stability in Europe and in the peace process in Northern Ireland, having worked as a lobbyist in Brussels and grown up in Ireland.
“I had such a reaction to the fact that I now lived in a country which actually was quite racist. I think for a lot of Irish people and international people, the first reaction was we are really not welcome here,” she says.
Dubliner Conal Timoney (50), who has lived in or around London since 2004, remembers his half-Italian, half-English wife being in tears as the referendum results came in that night almost three years ago.
“I was not that surprised,” says Timoney. “I just think that it was more a process of realisation that this country wasn’t what I thought it was.”
The public policy consultant has decided that post-Brexit Britain is not the place where he wants to spend the rest of his life or raise his 10-year-old son given the anti-immigrant mood the Leave vote has stirred up.
“What is happening in Britain to any immigrant is happening to all immigrants. I think that the Irish would be codding themselves if they think they are not affected,” says Timoney.
“There is a second element to it: are you comfortable as an immigrant watching other immigrants being discriminated against and turning your back on it?”
Timoney has had a front-row seat on the changes Brexit has brought to the UK. He has advised anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who took a legal challenge in 2017 to give parliament a say in the UK’s departure.
“I am advising on Brexit now. Maybe that is one of the reasons why [I’m leaving]; I see Brexit up close and I see the full horror of it. I realise just how serious the impact is going to be,” he says.
He thinks the anti-immigrant sentiment will only get worse as the UK faces the “massive economic hit” from the UK’s departure.
I see Brexit up close and I see the full horror of it
“We have learned from the Brexit debate so far: there is always someone else to blame. I think they [Brexiteers] will double down on the Eurobashing and ‘the immigrants are to blame’,” he says.
Timoney has not finalised his move back to Ireland. He wants to get the timing right, he says, weighing up what’s right for his son’s education and when best to sell the house in London; should he cut his losses now and move quickly if there is a hard Brexit or use the 21-month transition that a soft Brexit will bring?
“If it is hard Brexit, I will try to get out as quickly as possible. If it a soft Brexit, I might give myself a bit more time. In any scenario, I don’t see myself staying here,” he says.
Caitriona O’Kelly has no regrets about moving home, particularly in light of the political turmoil in the UK parliament and last month’s rejection of the proposed EU divorce deal, which she considers “complete nonsense”.
“I am very glad to be out of the UK because I don’t think that it is impossible that this could end in conflict, in social upheaval, in riots,” she says.
A second referendum could result in a “very, very nasty situation”, she says.
Muireann Dennehy, speaking from London as she packs up her belongings for her move back home, considers herself a “Brexit refugee” rather than a “Brexile”.
“I am not being forced out in any sense of the word. I am not an exile. I trained here. I lived here. I consciously chose to return,” she says.
Timoney, on the other hand, considers the term “Brexile” a “very good definition” of what he will become when he returns to Ireland.
“It is an enforced move because of a dramatic change in a place where you had settled,” he says. “I guess having moved twice before, I never felt pushed out the way I feel now.”
Over the next few weeks, Irish Times Abroad will be focusing on the Irish in Britain in detail, taking a look at how the community has changed in recent times, the key concerns around Brexit, and what the future may hold. As part of the project, we are looking to gather the stories of Irish people living across the UK. Whether you moved there two years ago or 50, we’d like to hear about your journey across the water, and how Britain has become home (or not) for you. Click here to share yours.