‘Biggest disaster’: Luton’s Irish community is nervous as Brexit looms
Questions on pensions, passports and travel for Irish living in the London commuter town
’We were all told a different story’: Jean Scales of the Luton Irish Forum on the Leave campaign. Photo:Joanne O’Brien
More than two years on from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, Jean Scales is more confused than ever. Back in June 2016, she believed her vote to leave would benefit the country she has lived in for 50 years since leaving Belfast.
Now she has more questions than answers.
“I do think that when I voted to leave I didn’t realise all of this situation. We were all told a different story,” she says.
“Now it has all come out [about] industry, jobs, uncertainty, down to the Northern Irish Border – which I can’t understand [why] that wasn’t worked out at the very beginning. We were all told different stories.”
Scales, who like several other Irish emigrants of her years in the area visits the Luton Irish Forum to meet friends and play bingo, adds: “I thought it would be great when we came out, everything [would] be fine but it is not.”
She is not alone among those who voted to leave who now believe that the consequences of Brexit were not explained. For those who voted to remain in the EU, the current instability in British politics infuriates.
There is sympathy – of varying degrees – for prime minister Theresa May. “I think [she] is doing what she can – the others are leaving a sinking ship,” says Sheila McNevin, who is originally from Dublin.
Many of the Irish in this area came during the 1960s to work in the Vauxhall, Bedford and Chrysler car factories which were then at their peak. They went on to raise families in the Bedfordshire town at a time when there were few opportunities back home.
Many travel back to Ireland frequently. Some worry about benefits long-taken for granted, such as pension rights if and when they return to Ireland or their coverage with the European Health Insurance card.
Before the referendum, some of the Luton Irish worried about the impact of Eastern Europeans on the National Health Service (NHS), believing that a vote to leave would ease pressure on it.
Now the prospect of foreign staff quitting Britain, or being less willing to come and fill vacancies in the NHS, could have the opposite effect.
“There is already a big strain on the healthcare service,” says Noelette Hanley, the chief officer at the forum. “It relies on groups to come in and help with those services. I think there is a cynicism of whether they will have the same rights after Brexit. We have no test of that.”
Concerns about the Border come up frequently in conversation. John Hutcheson, originally from Derry, says he travelled home before Christmas, and found a palpable fear of a return to sectarian violence.
“I am shocked and amazed that [civil servants] did not advise our politicians about the problems that were going to occur in relation to the Border,” he says. “Over there [in Ireland] we are a laughing stock. They can’t believe that we are so stupid that we did not see that coming. They are not saying they are terrified but down deep they are worried, because the bad boys are sitting in the wings.”
Some of the Luton Irish, says Tom Scanlon, chair of the forum’s board of trustees, worry about what will happen to their children, all born in Britain but who have passport rights in Ireland.
“You talk to people here and they have family abroad, family working – how do they fit in? How do we deal with people who may want to go to Paris [or] go to universities?” he says.
Maybe we have come so far, maybe we should just go along with it?
Applications for Irish passports have surged. Last year, the numbers applying from the UK increased by 22 per cent, to 98,544.
In Luton, the number seeking information about going back to Ireland has increased, says Karen McHugh, chief executive of Safe Home, a Co Mayo-based emigrant support service.
Thirty people came to a meeting run by the service in Birmingham late last year. “That might sound small but that would not have happened two years ago. Brexit is one [reason],” she says.
“There is not a single conversation that you will have during a visit, in a home, during an information clinic where Brexit does not come up. It is just not possible.
“There is a bit of uneasiness, there is a bit of concern. There would be lots of phone calls: ‘If I’m back will my entitlements transfer under European legislation?’”
Brexit complicates a return to Ireland, says Safe Home’s Noreen Mulrine. Ireland has changed beyond measure while many of the Irish in Britain were away, so the move should always be treated as a new emigration experience.
But now simple worries loom.
There are concerns that an informal arrangement allowing newly-returned emigrants to use their NHS number in Ireland for three months will be stopped, for example, she says.
Scales is unsure how she would vote again, expressing contradictory opinions moments apart.
“Maybe we have come so far, maybe we should just go along with it?” she says.
Back in Belfast, her family thought two years ago that she was “silly” to vote to leave the EU, an opinion that has not changed.
“Now I’m thinking it is the biggest disaster ever.”