On crunch Brexit vote, Irish could help swing close campaign

Perhaps as many as 1.5m people with Irish links are eligible to vote, writes Pat Leahy

The decision on whether Britain leaves the EU, say Irish political, civil society and business leaders repeatedly, is one for Britain. Ireland may have a view, but it does not have a vote. The British must make up their own minds.

But a lot of Irish people actually do have a vote. And a lot of British people living in Ireland have a vote. And a lot of people in the North have a vote. Whatever way you look at it, there is an Irish Brexit debate.

There are three distinct aspects to the Irish Brexit campaign – Irish citizens living in Britain, British citizens living here and everyone living in Northern Ireland.

Under long-standing arrangements between the two countries, Irish citizens are entitled to vote in British elections, and vice versa.


The last British census (2011) reported that there were over 400,000 residents of England and Wales who were born in the Republic, and a further 215,000 who were born in the North.

Here, over 300,000 British citizens who are residents of Ireland will be entitled to a postal vote in the upcoming referendum.

British citizens living in Ireland, as well as Irish citizens who lived in Britain during the past 15 years and registered to vote, can cast a ballot in the referendum.

The British embassy in Dublin will shortly launch a campaign intended to encourage British citizens living here to register to vote. They can register online and qualify for a postal vote, and registration remains open until two weeks before polling day.

Campaign to remain

About 1.2 million people are registered to vote in Northern Ireland. The largest party, the DUP, has recently come out in favour of Brexit, though the three other large parties – the

Ulster Unionist Party

, the SDLP and Sinn Féin – will campaign to remain.

The divisions in the British government are evident in the fact that although the North would be the part of the UK most obviously affected by Brexit, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers is an enthusiastic "outer".

A recent poll for the Belfast Telegraph suggested the Remain side was comfortably ahead in the North, with 55 per cent support, versus 29.5 per cent for the Leave side. The poll put undecided voters at 15 per cent.

The poll also showed the North was split along sectarian lines on the question. Analysis of the numbers showed 64 per cent of those who vote for unionist parties back leaving the EU, with 20 per cent wanting to stay and 16 per cent undecided. However, 74 per cent of those who support nationalist parties want to stay in the EU. A paper by the London think tank Open Europe highlighted how the big split along party lines showed how the Brexit vote could become an "incredibly divisive issue" in the North.

There is also a more intangible constituency – British people who have some connection to Ireland and who may take Ireland’s views on Brexit into consideration. Millions of people in Britain claim Irish descent.

In a presentation at the Institute for Irish and International Affairs in Dublin recently, the British campaigner Charles Grant urged the audience to contact their friends and family in Britain and urge them to vote to remain – an echo of tactics used by pro-union campaigners during the referendum on Scottish independence.

Clearly, there is some awareness of the debate and the Irish position amongst this group. The Guardian newspaper recently reported an upswing in the number of British people applying for Irish passports in anticipation of a British exit. Irish law entitles the children and grandchildren of Irish citizens to an Irish passport, and in the event of Britain leaving the EU, an Irish passport would still enable the holder to travel unimpeded throughout the union.

Irish involvement

All elections are about crunching numbers. Even with the huge Irish community in the UK, and the large numbers of British residents of Ireland who are likely to consider the impact of a Brexit on Ireland, the Irish involvement in the referendum seems proportionately small compared to the UK’s 65 million inhabitants. But is it?

There are about 46 million people eligible to vote in the UK. In the 2015 general election, about 30 million of them actually went to the polling station on election day – a turnout of 66 per cent. It’s early days but recent opinion polls suggest that the Brexit campaign is extremely close. This week, a poll for Open Europe reported that the Leave side was two points ahead of the Remain camp, 49 per cent to 47 per cent. Two per cent of 30 million is 600,000 votes. Suddenly the number of Irish- or Irish-influenced voters begins to look quite significant.

There’s another axiom of elections: every vote matters.

John McGrane, of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, says that the “Irish-linked cohort” (excluding the North) among the voting public “is a minimum of three quarters of a million people and perhaps as many as 1.5 million”.

“So we are definitely in swing territory,” he says.

The Irish campaign is overwhelmingly in favour of remaining. Officials in Dublin privately acknowledge that assisting in any way they can to persuade Britain to remain is the single greatest foreign policy priority for Ireland since accession to the EEC in the first place.

Obviously the target for any Irish message is Irish and Irish-linked voters. How to do that most effectively is a delicate question. "How do you connect with these people without provoking a headline in the Daily Mail about foreign interference in the campaign?" says one official. "It's tricky."

Expertise in Dublin

Campaign groups such as the recently formed Irish4Europe are likely to draw heavily on expertise in Dublin in European referendums. One source says there is a “stream of advice” from Dublin to London about the campaign. Part of that advice has been to emphasise the views of civil society groups and non-political figures to favour remaining in the EU.

Other groups such as the European Movement and the British Irish Chamber of Commerce will concentrate on providing information about the consequences of a Brexit, but it is clear the prospect is viewed with alarm by most of their members.

It might be a decision for Britain, but the debate is not just British. “This is an Irish issue,” says one campaigner. “We have skin in the game.”