The ageing Irish in London: confusion over Brexit remains

‘The NHS is like the GAA. Everyone talks about it and they love it because they need it’

Belfast-born Jean Scales is one of many volunteers who help out each day at the Luton Irish Forum – a body that was set up to help ageing Irish immigrants in the Bedfordshire city, but which has now expanded.

She was of one of many Irish living in Britain who voted to Leave in last year's Brexit referendum, concerned about immigration, and, particularly, the impact it has had on the National Health Service.

Today, she believes she bought a false prospectus. She believed the departure process would be straight-forward, but it has turned out to be anything but, since little progress has been made in the year since.

Equally, the implications of Brexit for the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic were not properly explained, along with the possibility of a return to checkpoints and lengthy queues.


She is now unsure about what will happen next: “We did not get the right information when we were voting. They should have told us what would happen when we were coming out,” said Scales.

Luton has one of the largest Irish populations outside of London per head, many of whom came in the 1960 to work in Vauxhall, Bedford and Chrysler factories when they were at their height.

Many of the Irish who came to work stayed, brought up families and retired there, but in nearly all case they retained their citizenship and still call Ireland home.

Company and chat

Today, Scales serves tea in the Forum’s Hitchin Road to many of those elderly Irish who gather every week for Wednesday morning bingo sessions, but, most importantly, company and chat.

Last year, The Irish Times listened to the opinions of some of the remaining community about Brexit: the theme that was evident then – confusion about the future – remains.

Then, some voiced concerns at immigration, with the belief that leaving the European Union would ease pressures on the NHS. Others scoffed that as Irish, they themselves were immigrants and should be more sympathetic.

Tom Scanlon, the chair of the board of trustees at the forum who voted to remain, said there was a belief among some that waiting times at hospitals would indeed change. "People believed that. The National Health [is like the GAA]. Everyone talks about it and they love it because they need it," he said.

Now the value of sterling is a talking point. Before the vote, each £1 got €1.30. Now, it has dropped to €1.15, meaning holidays home are more expensive which is sharply felt on the pensioners' income. Noreen Kellett flies from Gatwick to Shannon with Ryanair to see family in Limerick. The value of sterling being so much less could now stop people taking trips home, she said, and the fact that the budget airline has threatened to suspend flights. "They can't say [what Brexit] will look like when it happens," she said.

The Irish vote was important to the Remain side in the run-up to the June 23rd vote last year. A campaign group called Irish4Europe – backed by prominent figures in the community – was launched to encourage Irish people to register and vote for Britain to remain in the EU. Up to the recent election, the group was technically alive but dormant. The Irish ambassador Dan Mulhall said that Ireland should remain in.

Attract jobs

The view among many from the city of London, where thousands of Irish work in the financial services industry, was also to remain. With Ireland’s moves to attract jobs in the finance industry to Dublin and Cork, some of those professionals in London are now looking at the possibility of returning home.

I think some people who have been doing quite well in their careers here have made a conscious decision to start looking at Dublin as a potential option

“Some more experienced professionals are thinking maybe it is a good time to move back to Dublin. They may not have been thinking that before . . . they may have worked here for five years or 10 years. I think some people who have been doing quite well in their careers here have made a conscious decision to start looking at Dublin as a potential option for personal reasons as much as financial reasons,” said David O’Reilly, who runs Hampton Court Capital, an investment banking firm, and who moved to London in 2003.

“Some people are deeply disturbed at what they see as a slightly jingoistic tone entering British politics. That was one of the more unpleasant things about the out campaign. They made it all about immigration. Certainly in my circle of friends – one or two people I know who were fully intending to stay in the UK and build their careers here, it has made them think twice about ‘Do I want to stay here?’”

Rob O’Rahilly, a financial consultant, said there has been a muted reaction across the markets to Brexit, apart from the weakening of sterling. The real upheaval is expected when the talks to withdraw begin proper and the scale of the challenge becomes apparent.

“The amount of work that needs to be done and the level of disruption, I don’t think people comprehend just how big the disruption is to places like the UK and the level of work that has to be done.”

Changing tone

As a global city with a huge population, London remains a hub for Irish graduates and professionals to further their career. However, should the tone towards immigrants change, it could become less welcoming. “If the rhetoric gets ugly, then it gets less attractive,” said O’Rahilly.

“What would worry me . . . I think there is a risk to Irish people that negotiations with the EU go really badly and there are changes made, broadly speaking, to EU citizens being able to reside in the EU or taking up EU citizenship and that Ireland gets lumped in with EU citizens and it becomes a bit more difficult for Irish citizens to work here, live here or take up citizenship here. I had that worry. Whether that manifests itself is another thing but I can see the negotiations getting very acrimonious.”

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, originally from Co Kilkenny, created Sugru, a flexible silicone that can be manipulated before it hardens and is used for fixing and augmenting everyday objects. She feels that there may be an effect on the cultural aspects of London life if the talks do turn rancorous.

The culture of the UK may not be seen internationally as welcoming, interesting and creative. It may be perceived as this awful, right wing, unfriendly country

“I would still be worried that if Brexit goes ahead in the way that the government is talking about it now, that people will not feel welcome. Even apart from them not being able to come here, there is the softer side, the culture of the UK may not be seen internationally as welcoming, interesting and creative. It may be perceived as this awful, right wing, unfriendly country which is not the reality.”

The view amongst the Irish population is not universally negative. Brendan Dixon, who runs a financial planning company in Ealing, west London, voted to remain but had misgivings about the increasing political union of the EU. One year on and he says that he does not regret his vote but would change to leave were the referendum to be rerun tomorrow.

“This armageddon we were told about by the remainers – complete nonsense,” said Dixon, who is a member of the Conservative party. “I think it might be bumpy run in the short term. But I think when we look back at the monumental decision that was made, I think we will be better off. And I have only come to think that recently.”

Back in Luton and Tony Murphy waves his European Health Insurance Card in the air. The card gives rights to state healthcare when travelling in Europe. "What is going to happen to the card now? We won't be covered," he says. It is another uncertainty for the elderly people in the centre, one of many.

Roisin Scanlon, who is originally from Monaghan, remembers the days of Border checkpoints and long delays. She still has family in the area and fears the implications for free trade and security. "It is all now up in the air," she says.