Irishness and Britishness now sit more comfortably together than at any time in history

As the emigration route to Britain has become less trodden, the number of arrivals from our neighbouring island has been increasing

The updated information about religious affiliation in Northern Ireland is by no means the only aspect of the 2021 British census of relevance to Ireland. The census also indicates that the Irish-born population in England and Wales fell by a fifth between 2011 and 2021.* This reflects a much longer-term trend as the number of Irish people emigrating to the UK has declined. The census also surprisingly shows that over the same decade the number of Irish passport holders in England and Wales declined by only 2 per cent, perhaps reflecting in part the attractiveness post-Brexit of a European passport.

Against this background it is worth noting a remarkable if rarely-mentioned phenomenon, namely the large and increasing number of British people moving to Ireland in recent years.

For several years now, according to Irish Central Statistics Office figures, the number of immigrants from the UK to Ireland has exceeded the number of emigrants moving in the opposite direction, often by a large margin. These figures are not easy to interpret. They include some returning migrants in each direction. They don’t distinguish between arrivals from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

However, leaving aside how exactly to interpret the statistics there is evidence before our very eyes that, even as the emigration route to Britain has become less trodden, the number of arrivals from our neighbouring island has been increasing.


That evidence includes the fact that, when we watch or listen to any Irish news or current affairs programme these days we are likely to be struck by the number of Irish-based British contributors. I’m not referring to representatives of the British government or British-based organisations. I mean the British now living in Ireland, representing Irish businesses, trades unions, NGOs, the medical profession, as well as academic, cultural and sports organisations. British accents also figure frequently in random vox pop surveys on Irish streets.

The dramatic reversal of the flow of migration between these islands is even more remarkable when account is taken of the difference in the population size of our two countries. At a conservative estimate, the impact of the new British arrivals in Ireland, in larger numbers than those going in the opposite direction, is at least 15 times greater as a percentage of our respective populations.

We need only listen as we walk down any Irish street to the English, Scottish and Welsh accents that now form part of the rich tapestry of the new Ireland. If there is a business in Ireland today, or a course of study, or a sports club that does not include some British friends it is an anomaly.

British people have come to live here for a variety of reasons, including the success of our economy, the modernising of our society and the attractiveness of our culture. They have come to pursue careers, to form relationships, to raise families and simply to live their lives.

Nevertheless, we can draw four general conclusions.

First, the British in Ireland are making an enormous contribution to our society, as Irish emigrants have made, and continue to make, an immense impact in Britain.

Second, our new British residents are entirely welcome here and, as far as I can tell, made to feel so. All of our “new Irish”, whatever their country of origin, are equally valued and welcome. However, given the troubled history of our two islands, the arrival here of so many new British people, blending seamlessly into our society, is worthy of particular note.

Third, in the context of the marked deterioration in political relations between Britain and Ireland in recent years – as a result of Brexit and the general behaviour of the Johnson government – the enduring personal friendships between British and Irish people have assumed additional importance. While the mood music between the Irish and British governments has taken a turn for the better of late, the best hope of getting the bilateral relationship back on track over time is that, politics aside, we Irish and British get on well together.

Finally, there is an important message in this relating to Northern Ireland. Many unionists, although by no means all, believe that the form of Britishness they espouse is threatened by the Irish dimension of the Belfast Agreement and by any talk of a shared future. We must respect that. However, outside the specific Northern Ireland context the reality is that Irishness and Britishness now sit more comfortably together than at any time in history.

British-Irish friendship, at a personal level, runs deeper than the recent rifts at political level. It is reinforced by the presence of the growing British community in Ireland. It should be of some reassurance to unionists that Britishness, in the broader sense, is increasingly comfortable in Ireland.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome

*This article was amended at 11.30am on November 9th