The English ‘hate foreigners’? As an Irishman here I disagree

As an ethnically mixed family, we deliberately chose England for its diversity

"The Brits, or actually the English, hate foreigners," former leader of the Irish Labour Party Ruairi Quinn told a Tier One seminar on Brexit recently. "It didn't stop them creating an empire, but they hate foreigners."

As an Irishman in England who was a remain voter, I would have to say this oversimplifies a complex reality. Quinn makes valid points about the significance of Brexit for the Irish economy and the border between the two parts of Ireland, but the referendum results require a deeper analysis.

I write as someone who returned to England over five years ago, and I can honestly say I have never for a moment regretted doing so. I say this despite the enormous difficulties involved in obtaining work in journalism, the field in which I worked for most of my life, both in Ireland and London.

I also write as one of an ethnically mixed family, who moved to England precisely because it is a multi-ethnic society. We should not forget not only that nearly half the British voted to remain, but that many leave voters were not motivated by xenophobia and indeed many from ethnic minorities, for various reasons, voted to leave.

It is also worth noting that the large cities, like Liverpool and Manchester, London and Newcastle, voted to remain, and these are precisely the areas with experience of being multi-ethnic, by contrast to smaller cities where immigration is a new phenomenon.

Areas like Boston and Peterborough, which have absorbed large numbers of east European migrants, did not have the infrastructure that large cities had, which had helped the latter to integrate previous migrants from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

We should not forget that Britain has, however imperfectly, achieved a level of integration of minorities far greater than that of most other European countries. Whether in sport, politics or business, there is a recognition that one can be black and British, whereas this sense of varied identity does not seem to be so accepted in France, Poland or, dare I say it, Ireland.

In the last year, we have seen London and Bristol elect mayors from an ethnic minority background, and the whole country took pride in the achievements of Olympians like Mo Farah. Here in Liverpool, one cannot but be aware of the large and long-established mixed race population, many of whom have Irish as well as Caribbean or Nigerian roots, while the city has the oldest Chinese community in Europe.

The level of intermarriage, particularly in working class communities, defies the stereotype of the white working class as being racist, something ably challenged by Londoner Michael Collins in his book The Likes of Us.

Anyone who has witnessed events as varied as the Notting Hill Carnival or Liverpool’s Anthony Walker Festival, or who saw how largely working class Scousers prevented a march by anti-Semites, knows the reality of British life is more complex than presented.

Indeed, two of the city’s five MPs are of the Jewish faith.

For myself and my family, Britain has been a welcoming place. I have been working continuously now for over three years, even if some of the jobs were far from ideal, and this marked a major change after years of unemployment and short-term roles following redundancy.

I have worked with people from all over the world, with people of all faiths and none, with Christians of all kinds, Muslims, Jews and Hindus.

Anyone who tells me I would have been better off staying in Ireland is clearly a Rip Van Winkle, who is totally unaware of the difficulties the Irish newspaper industry has gone through, including the closure of Offaly Express, where I worked for over 18 years. As one journalist friend in Ireland recently said to me, print journalism jobs are everywhere under threat from social media.

But my biggest reason for being glad to be in Britain is personal rather than professional. As one of an ethnically mixed family, we have found multi-ethnic Britain a haven, to which we moved precisely because of its ethnic mix.

We returned there after an ill-fated return to Ireland, one I could have avoided had I listened better to my family and stayed in London.

I remain proud of my roots and am constantly struck by the great affection for the Irish among the Scousers.

However, Ruairi Quinn is not entirely wide of the mark in identifying a contrast between social attitudes in England and Scotland, and this poses a major challenge for the UK in the years to come.