Brexit: Divided Irish in Britain want clearer advice

Opinions vary in community yet all agree there is no impartial advice or information


As the bingo cards and markers are put away in the early afternoon, chat in a Luton-Irish forum turns to Brexit.

Richard Coogan, originally from Howth, moved to the UK in 1956, and is certain how he will vote on June 23rd.

“I think we pay in £6 billion every year, which I think would be far better off distributed in this country, building houses and schools. We are overrun in hospitals – you can’t get an appointment for a doctor for a month.”

Among many of the elderly who socialise in the forum, healthcare is a key issue and longer waiting times are often attributed to pressures from immigration.

Across the table from Coogan, Tony Murphy tries to balance the argument. “Don’t forget that when we came over here we were immigrants.”

Mick Maguire, in the UK since 1962, agrees. “We were immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, and we had to come in and depend on doctors. Just because we were Irish we weren’t told ‘you go to the back to the queue’.”

Luton, 30 miles north of London, is said to have the highest per capita population of Irish outside of the capital. With an estimated 20,000 of Irish descent, both first and second generation, the community blossomed in the 1960s as factories such as Vauxhall, Bedford and Chrysler manufactured there, employing thousands.

Almost 50 years on, that manufacturing pulse has gone but the Irish community remains. It is bolstered midweek by a new sort of Irish immigrant who travels into the local airport and stays in Luton to work in the City or locally, and then returns to Ireland at the weekend.

Like Coogan and Murphy, many of those who socialise in the forum came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s before settling in Luton. Of concern in the referendum debate is how an exit would affect not just healthcare but the Border with Northern Ireland, the working rights of their children and their freedom of movement.

Tom Scanlon, the chair of the board of trustees of the forum, said it would be a “tragedy” if Britain were to leave, citing the rights that workers have gained as a result of membership.

“There is still a section [of British society] that looks back to their days of empire, and they would have been better if they engaged and they could have in fact taken control of the European Union in the sense that they could have designed some of systems better if they had participated in a different way.”

Irish citizens

In a 2011 census over 400,000 identified themselves as Irish-born in the UK. Irish citizens, along with those from Malta and Cyprus, are the only citizens of other EU states who are allowed to vote in the upcoming referendum.

Although anecdotal indicators would suggest most of the Irish population will be in favour of a vote to remain, no extensive data exists as to what their intentions are.

In March a campaign group called Irish4Europe – backed by prominent figures in the Irish community – was launched to encourage Irish people to register by the June 7th deadline and vote for Britain to remain in the EU.

Ambassador Dan Mulhall has said that while the Irish government held a “dutiful silence” about the Scottish referendum, it would be “remiss of us not to express our opinion” on Brexit – and that opinion is that Britain should remain in.

At a debate last week organised by the London Irish Business Society, just five out a group of 100 said they would vote in favour of Britain leaving. In the audience of professionals, the number in favour of a “remain” is unsurprising given the concerns of what could happen the financial system should there be an exit.

“I don’t think you can fix the problems of the EU by being outside it. It is difficult to fix something once you leave it. I don’t think the UK has sufficient force as an outside body to have the same impact as it would do as being part inside. It is not the US,” said Sarah Ryan from Dublin, who works in banking.

Similarly, at an event for Irish graduates held in the Embassy this week, many from the younger audience stood behind the “remain” campaign.

Eoin O’Driscoll, who graduated from university in 2014 and now works in peace campaigning, said the EU had brought stability to Europe.

“What we created in this continent is something quite wonderful. It is quite unique. Both geographically and historically no one has enjoyed what we enjoy at the moment. I think Britain leaving it disrupts the whole process. It is a real step backwards. It is one of the big leading voices in Europe leaving but also a more liberal free-market voice.”

Beside him Conor Mohan, a PhD student at Kings College London who is studying genetics and neuroscience, said the EU allowed for science and academic research to be easily facilitated and co-operative.


Projections of the effects of a British exit have mostly centred on what will happen the markets in the immediate aftermath. However, Gerry Keany, who owns Harrow-based Cara Stationery, has already seen the effects on his business which supplies branded promotional products as well as office supplies.

When prime minister David Cameron announced the date of the referendum, the value of sterling fell against the euro, as did Keany’s margins on goods he was selling to Irish soccer supporters’ clubs in the UK.

“It made me sit up and see what could happen. A lot of the discussions here are very theoretical, we are talking about GDP…whereas when it hits you in the pocket just like that, then a better example is not required.”

Other members of the Irish community who own small businesses are more sceptical. Bryan Coleman, from Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, is involved in the gambling industry and is a strong proponent of Britain leaving, citing the perceived loss of independence that many on the leave side see as one of their guiding principles.

“I would be a strong independent thinker in that this great nation of Britain is able to operate on its own and do the deals it needs to do for trade and for economic reasons. A lot of negativity is talked about the out campaign, but I try and look at the positives. I am an entrepreneur myself. I think we can do a lot better out of the EU than in the EU. I think there is a lot of rules and regulations, and the fact that they can dictate laws and regulations for Britain, I would be very against.”

Brendan Dixon runs a financial planning company in Ealing, west London, and said that while he would vote to remain, he has misgivings, specifically about the increasing political union of the EU.

“If it was today I would probably vote to remain but I would not be dancing out of the polling station. I am doing this out of fear of loss as against being brave and going into the unknown. The idea that countries will have this vanilla approach to everything does not appeal and it does not work.”

While views may differ in different facets of the Irish community, there appears one frustrating unifier – there is no source of impartial objective information to allow voters analyse and then come up with a decision. The remain side has been accused of being involved in a “Project Fear” and the leave side of stretching statistics for its own agenda.

Scare stories

At the London Irish Business Society event, Sarah Ryan is of the same view.

“There is no impartial advice or information. At home in Ireland when we have a referendum we have the Referendum Commission that prints something out which says if you do this, something will happen, this is what you are voting on. Over here there has only been propaganda on both sides.”

In Luton, Marion Curtis, another trustee of the forum, said the people who are coming to the centre need to be given clear information on the issue. “They need to have something in writing, they need something explained to them. We don’t understand it so they are not going to.

“The problem you are going to have is that they are just not going to vote because they don’t understand it. It is like any polling station, if people don’t understand they won’t vote.”