Post-Brexit poll racism not extending to Irish in Britain

Irish Embassy in London yet to receive any complaints of harassment of Irish nationals

Last month's murder of Arkadiusz Jozwik, a 40-year-old factory worker from Poland, in the Essex town of Harlow was just the most serious in a spate of hate crimes against foreigners in England since June's EU referendum.

Jozwik was attacked while eating a pizza outside a takeaway by a gang of teenagers who apparently heard him speaking Polish.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has reported a surge in harassment and violence since the referendum, mostly against eastern Europeans, Muslims and Asian and black people.

“There has been a return to old-school racism, the racism of the ’70s and ’80s with the most common insults being ‘Go home!’ ” according to the Institute of Race Relations.


The Irish Embassy in London has yet to receive any complaints of post-referendum harassment of Irish people living in Britain, however, and ambassador Dan Mulhall says that the Irish no longer appear to attract such negative attention.

Popular targets

“I haven’t come across any negativity towards Irish people and even if you talk to those for whom immigration was a big bugbear and drives their attitude towards EU membership, they say, ‘we don’t mean the Irish, of course’. People can have all sorts of ideas in their own minds but in the public space at least there doesn’t seem to be the kind of negativity towards Irish people,” he says.

A YouGov poll before the referendum found that Ireland joint second with Canada, and just behind the United States, as the preferred source of immigrants for British people.

Some Irish people say they feel less comfortable living in Britain since the referendum but the fact that they are no longer popular targets for xenophobic hatred reflects a dramatic change in British attitudes in recent decades.

“What’s happened is that Ireland is being seen more as an interesting, different but comprehensible neighbour, whereas in the past we might have been viewed with a certain wariness. And I suspect that some other communities here, more recent arrivals, are probably confronting the kind of issues that confronted our people in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,” says Mulhall.

Irish areas

Older Irish immigrants recall the widespread prejudice they faced in the post-war years, when huge numbers came to Britain to work mainly in low-skilled jobs, often in construction.

“In the early post-war decades, the Irish were viewed as very different from the English and my sense is that the Irish also kept to themselves a lot in that there were areas of London which were predominantly Irish. There were always county associations which still exist but aren’t as central now to the life of the Irish community,” says Mulhall.

"And then people tell me that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in the 1970s, 1980s into the 1990s, people had to be careful about who they were talking to. People told me they weren't willing to say anything on the Tube because their accent would pick them out as Irish and might give rise to negative sentiments. All that seems to me to have completely gone."

Older Irish immigrants are now fully integrated into British society but there are 500,000 Irish passport-holders in the country, reflecting the fact that most immigrants retain a strong sense of Irish identity. If the first post-war wave of immigrants in the 1950s were mostly low-skilled workers, the next, in the 1980s were better educated.

From the late 1980s, the numbers reduced to a trickle, and the Irish who came to Britain after the economic crash in 2008 were often highly educated and ambitious. There are now over 5,000 Irish nationals working in financial services in the Square Mile of the City of London, most of them in executive roles.

When President Michael D Higgins addressed a state banquet at Windsor Castle in 2014, he spoke about the contribution of Irish immigrants to Britain down the years.

“It runs from building canals, roads and bridges in previous decades, to running major companies in the present, all the while pouring Irish personality and imagination into the English language and its literature,” he said.

Historian Roy Foster believes the Irish image in Britain is now one of sophistication, partly because Irish voices are now so widespread in the media and in the cultural and academic spheres.

"You turn on the radio and you hear someone being brilliant about human rights and it will be Conor Gearty. And he's doing it as a major international authority on human rights, he's not doing it as an Irishman. But the cadences are so Irish and he's so integrated into English and international intellectual life. On another level, the voices of people like Terry Wogan have become such an accustomed part of discourse in the British media world. Irish voices are a familiar and unremarked upon feature of public discourse in Britain" he says.

Close relationships

One of the unintended consequences of the conflict in Northern Ireland was that the peace process revealed to British and Irish officials and politicians and identity of interests between Dublin and London. Shared membership of the European Union also helped to nurture close relationships at the higher reaches of government and the civil service.

“And there’s the Celtic Tiger,” says Foster.

“The fact that the Irish were buying Claridges, were flying in their own private jets in and out of Heathrow, being it appeared wildly successful in global economic terms, all that tended to vanish like fairy gold but it did leave a residue that the Irish could do this, that you could be Irish and be a multimillionaire, or one of the most famous rock stars in the world. The country punched above its weight during the 1990s and early 2000s and it was still so closely linked economically and in other ways to Britain that this could not fail to be noticed.”

Irish ministers campaigned openly against Brexit during the referendum campaign but their interventions drew little comment from Leave campaigners. And nobody on the Leave side publicly challenged the legitimacy of the right of Irish citizens living in the UK to vote in the referendum.

EU exit

“I think there’s now a very straightforward position here now whereby the Irish in a way are not even regarded as immigrants but are seen as kind of part of an extended family of people living on these islands,” Mulhall says.

British and Irish interests, so closely aligned on many issues in recent decades, are set to diverge as Britain negotiates its exit from the EU. As Taoiseach Enda Kenny emphasised during a visit to oxford last week, Ireland will be with the remaining EU member-states in that negotiation, on the opposite side of the table to Britain.

Still, Mulhall believes that Britain will continue to view Ireland differently and will seek to maintain as far as possible the status quo in terms of free movement of people and mutual rights for the citizens of both countries.

“It seems to me that the relationship with Ireland is seen in a separate category to the relationship with the rest of the European Union,” he says.

“But of course it doesn’t take away from the fact that we will be a member of the European Union and they will not be at some point in the future but I think there’s certainly a desire here in official circles and political circles to minimise the impact of Brexit on Irish-UK relations.”

After Brexit: Relationship with the North

The British government must set out the future relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland and the European Union before triggering formal exit talks, Scotland’s external affairs minister has said. Fiona Hyslop said the Scottish government would hold Theresa May to her promise to involve the devolved administrations in Brexit negotiations before Britain invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which starts formal withdrawal negotiations.

“The EU will negotiate with the EU as the UK government so there’s a real pressure and time pressure to make sure that when the UK government goes to negotiate with the EU that the settlement for Scotland and indeed for Northern Ireland is resolved or at least set out or at least acceptable to those administrations,” she told The Irish Times.

The Scottish government has identified continued membership of the European single market as a key demand but Ms Hyslop acknowledged that the British government currently appears inclined to leave the single market after it leaves the EU.

“Our job within those negotiations is to try and move from that position and I think we can and will try to get the least-worst option. The least-worst option for us is one that’s far nearer to the one we’re in now. The best option is membership,” she said.

Ms Hyslop was speaking in Oxford, where she attended the annual meeting of the British-Irish Association, which brings together politicians, officials, business people, academics, religious leaders, writers and community workers who share an interest in British-Irish relations and support peace in Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach told the meeting last Friday that the possibility of Irish unity must be considered as part of any Brexit deal, so that both parts of a reunified Ireland could be within the EU.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times