Brexit: Why the Irish in Britain need to vote ‘Remain’

Opinion: ‘We have a lot more than cheap flights to lose if the UK Brexits’

The Office for National Statistics recently reported that net migration to the UK rose to 333,000 in 2015 , 184,000 of them EU citizens, the second highest on record.

The figures come as the UK edges ever closer to making a decision that could change the course not only of their own future, but all of Europe’s and in particular that of Ireland.

Last month, as I sipped champagne at the very essence of the British establishment, the RHS Chelsea Flower show, having visited the two "lovely Irish" gardens, I asked my Australian, British and fellow Irish guests what they thought was the nub of the issue around Brexit.

The view was unanimous – immigration and xenophobia.


That, they said, would account for the strong Brexit numbers in the polls, despite all the evidence that it would be an economic disaster for the UK.

There is no denying the concern in the UK around migration and the fears about their fellow Europeans.

Thirteen per cent (7.5 million) of the resident population of England and Wales were born outside the UK. That rises to 37 per cent in London.

Britain has never fully embraced Europe the way Ireland has. Seventy one years after the end of the second World War, I still hear the chant “two World Wars and one World Cup” on an all too regular basis.

I have to remind Brexiteers that I am one of 892,000 people in the UK who consider themselves to be Irish, with 500,000 of those having been born in the Republic of Ireland. We are the very economic migrants that the Leave team have been describing as freeloaders.

“But you’re different!” they almost always protest, but we are not.

Data shows that EU citizens like us have contributed £20 billion more in taxes than they have taken out in benefits.

The facts are clear: the overwhelming majority of EU citizens in Britain are contributors, and that includes the Irish.

The xenophobia is slightly schizophrenic and puzzling. Vocal supporters of Brexit are not, as many might assume, all white van driving, tattooed hooligans who want to keep anyone who is not quintessentially English out.

Many are first and second generation migrants, themselves from Commonwealth countries.

There is a genuine belief that Europeans are taking jobs Commonwealth citizens might get if there was not freedom of movement.

That vote is a real concern. It is estimated that there are about 1 million Commonwealth born voters here in the UK.

One classic example is what is affectionately known as “the curry vote”.

'The curry vote'
It is Britain's favorite food but many traditional Indian restaurants are closing down. The new generation do not want to go into the restaurant business and visa restrictions have all but eliminated the ability to bring new migrants in to replace the retiring older generations. As a result, curry houses are closing.

For this reason alone, many first generation Asians I have spoken to are adamant they want to vote Leave.

There is an Irish equivalent, but not as vocal or as prevalent. Some older and second-generation Irish builders in particular are fearful of the “cheap” Eastern Europeans. Forgetting that we Irish were in the same position for generations.

Like many migrants, they work a lot harder to prove themselves, and frequently are more efficient and more reliable then their native rivals.

Most of the Irish here that I have spoken to are supporters of Remain.

There are no hard statistics on the Irish vote, but the Irish International Business Network (IIBN) which I chair, polled our membership and the vote was unanimous - 95 per cent in favour of the UK remaining.

Hundreds of thousands of us are embedded in British society. Whatever about the US-UK special relationship, we really do have a “special relationship”.

But we are not really much different to other European migrants in the context of this debate and we will be acutely affected by the outcome.

Our opinions and our votes matter. We estimate that 10 per cent of the UK voting public are either Irish citizens or are of Irish descent.

That makes the Irish vote not just the 500,000 or so Irish born, but a possible 4.5 million.

The Queen’s visit to the Republic was a pivotal moment for our relationship. The week the State embraced Britain and the final frost thawed.

It had more significance for the Irish living in the UK than perhaps anyone in Ireland has fully appreciated. Am I worried the love affair might end? Yes and no. I think the love affair might fizzle into a platonic and less cosy relationship.

Trade, currently €1bn a week between the Republic and the UK, will definitely be hurt. The many thousands who don’t really think about us being two countries will have to rethink.

Many members of the IIBN work in London Monday to Friday and fly home on the jammed Friday evening flights to be with their families for the weekend. Michael O’Leary warns us the ease and the cost may well change.

So now is the time to make our voices heard. We have a lot more than cheap flights to lose if the UK Brexits.

For those of us in the UK, we would lose easy access to 500 million EU citizens, incur spending cuts of £36bn and, according to the Treasury, leave every household worse off by £4,300.

The implications in terms of leaving for our Irish friends and families at home are equally disastrous.

200,000 jobs in the Republic are directly related to trade with the UK.

The reintroduction of border controls between the North and the South are a distinct possibility, removing the transparent border and impacting on multiple all-Ireland cross-border trade and tourism initiatives.

How many of the 4 million British tourists who visit the Republic every year will queue up at the Border to visit what will become an increasingly isolated Northern Ireland?

Already fragile, the hard-won peace process of the last 20 years could easily unravel if the economy in Northern Ireland is affected.

Crucially - the Republic would also lose its closest and most aligned, negotiating partner in the EU.

We might be migrants, but unlike many, we are in a unique situation.

The Irish in Britain can vote in this referendum, and we need to make sure we do.

Stand up and be counted - if you support Europe, make sure you explain why to your British friends and family. Make sure you register and vote. There are just hours left to do so.

Liz Shanahan is a businesswoman; global chair of the Irish International Business Network; Co-Chair of Irish For Europe.