What is worrying the Irish in Britain about Brexit?

Travel and healthcare are the biggest concerns among members of 120 Irish organisations

Despite assurances that no changes will be made to the Common Travel Area agreement, and that Irish people will retain the right to live and work in the UK after Britain leaves the EU on March 29th, the Brexit vote has led to a lot of uncertainty among many Irish about the potential impact on travel and healthcare, their job security and investments, as well as renewing the focus on their status as immigrants.

More than 120 Irish organisations across the UK are working to mitigate the potential impact on their communities young and old, from London to Birmingham, North Wales to Leeds, and ensure their voices are heard in the Brexit debate. Here, four people working with some of these organisations share the concerns of their members.

Brian Dalton

As chief executive of the Irish in Britain charity (Irishinbritain.org), which supports a diverse network of 120 Irish organisations across the UK, I spend a lot of time listening to the views of our membership and the wider Irish community in Britain.

The topic of Brexit and the future relationship between the UK and the EU is currently dominating our face to face and social media interactions with these organisations, as we consider the possible implications for Irish citizens, their families and spouses living in Britain.


As a community, the Irish have the highest median age - 53 years - of any immigrant group here in Britain. As a representative organisation, we must campaign for services that meet the particular health needs of this ageing population.

The potential impact on travel and healthcare is of particular concern. The renewed focus on our place within the immigrant fabric of British life has also been a source of robust debate, and for the older members of our community, this conversation can carry disturbing echoes of darker days in the relationship between our islands.

There are now tens of thousands of new Irish passport holders in Britain to be acknowledged, engaged with and offered opportunities to express their Irish identity

As a membership body and voice, we have never been as needed as we are now. In recent months, we have represented the views of our community on the impact of Brexit to the House of Commons Select Committee on Exiting the EU, and the UK Home Office. In turn, we have shared information and updates from both the Home Office and the Irish Government with our networks across the country.

Our constituency has grown significantly since the Brexit vote in June 2016. There are now tens of thousands of new Irish passport holders in Britain to be acknowledged, engaged with and offered opportunities to express their Irish identity, and connect with our community. We have already started to plan how to get our positive message across in the run up to the next census in 2021.

The Irish community holds a unique place in the fabric of British life. We have the longest history as immigrants here, and this longevity confers upon us certain responsibilities. We must lead by emphasising our positive contribution to this island in the past, and how we plan to continue to contribute to the future of this place we now call home.

We must also show solidarity with other migrant communities, whose contributions are increasingly under attack in the public forum. As a membership body representing diverse Irish constituencies in Britain, we will always strive to model better and more civil terms of discussion, for they are the values that bind us and define us.

When it comes to the tone of our participation in the debate around Brexit, we owe as much as we are owed.

Breege McDaid

Last week we welcomed President Michael D Higgins and Prince Charles to Liverpool, the most Irish of all UK cities with strong historical and contemporary links with Ireland. This joint visit was a tangible expression of the connectedness of our two islands, and the increasing importance of this in the current political, economic and social environment.

The President and prince met with members of our Irish and Irish Traveller communities, and were quite rightly impressed by the continued leadership, innovation, resilience and creativity of our people, particularly now in the challenging and uncertain times that Brexit brings.

The Irish community here is diverse and includes: an ageing group who have lived here a long time and have made a major contribution to building the infrastructure of the UK, now increasingly isolated and in poor health; new arrivals planning an exciting future; many struggling in an environment of austerity and welfare reform; people serving prison sentences, doubly isolated with family in another country; Irish Travellers facing increasing marginalisation, discrimination and racism; young professionals leading the way in business and entrepreneurship; and a vibrant student population attending univesrities in Merseyside and Cheshire.

We are also delighted that an increasing number of people of Irish heritage are asserting their Irishness and applying for Irish passports and citizenship, which has become a very positive outcome of Brexit.

From our daily conversations here at Irish Community Care in Merseyside (iccm.org.uk), we know people are worried about the future. What will Brexit bring? How will our status as Irish people here in UK be affected? What about our neighbours, friends and colleagues who have come from all over the world and have made their home in the UK? What will the impact be on community cohesion?

We have witnessed the challenges faced by Irish people  applying for services and entitlements. Many have been refused, accused of being a "health tourist"

Will the rise in the cost of living mean I might lose my home? How will my business be impacted? Will I still have a job, or will my company relocate? Am I entitled to work and study here in UK? Even, do I have to go back to Ireland? And how will Ireland be affected? They know how damaging a return to borders and divisions would be. People understandably want clarity on the arrangements which will apply after Brexit.

We have witnessed first hand the challenges faced by Irish people here applying for services and entitlements. Many have been refused entitlement to welfare benefits and accused of being a “health tourist”, putting huge additional stress and financial pressure on people struggling to cope with settling into life in a new city, a new country, far from family and friends.

Irish Community Care plays a pivotal role in liaising with Embassy of Ireland and Irish in Britain colleagues to reassure our communities in this transitional time. Staff have been instrumental in educating colleagues at Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and health services that the rights of Irish people are protected in law by the common Travel Area (CTA) a 100-year-old arrangement between the UK and Ireland, which means Irish citizens can move freely to live, work, and study in the UK on the same basis as UK citizens and vice versa.

As austerity continues amidst the imminence of Brexit, people from all walks of life are increasingly worried and vulnerable. Our role here at Irish Community Care is to continue to work in partnership with community and statutory services and also local and national Government to make sure that all people can be safe and well and have the opportunity to build a positive future. That’s a tall order, but we will rise to the challenge as we always have done. Neart Le Chéile!

Catherine Hennessy

In 2016 I believed that leaving the EU was the worst possible thing that could happen to Britain. Having voted to remain, I watched in disbelief as the result became clear. The 32 months since the referendum have been the most depressing of my now 31 years living in London. The leaden mediocrity of political leadership of all hues, coupled with the jingoistic wartime-like rhetoric of the popular press, have polarised an already divided nation that now sits on the precipice of a no-deal exit and likely recession.

I came to London in 1987. The EU has always been a benign presence in my life. As a child growing up in rural 1970s Ireland, I have clear memories of the infrastructure projects and monetary benefits to agriculture that followed Ireland’s membership of the EU.

As an Irish emigrant in England, being a citizen of Europe was a kind of meta-identity that helped to transcend the traditionally oppositional nature of identity relationships between our two Islands. As a charity worker with vulnerable groups, I saw the value of EU grants in alleviating poverty and disadvantage in the inner city.

The 32 months since the referendum have been the most depressing of my now 31 years living in London.

Of course I fully respect the democratic wish of the British people to leave the EU, but it’s hard not to feel angered by the deceptions of the leave campaign (£350 million extra per week for the NHS, anyone?)

As an Irish citizen, I feel deeply concerned by the apparent disregard of the hard-line Brexiteers for the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland, and appalled by the ignorance of the physical and geo-political reality of the Irish border. As an immigrant myself, I am especially troubled by the speed with which discussions of sovereignty have inevitably transformed into debates on border control and migration. With such anti-immigration rhetoric, it is unsurprising that the last year alone has seen significant increases in anti-Semitic hate crime in Britain.

In these divisive times, I am grateful to live in remain-voting London. Yesterday, I walked around Spitalfields, in the East End of the city. Over the centuries it has welcomed Romans, French Huguenots, Irish weavers, Polish and Russian Jews and now Bangladeshi restauranteurs. In the space of a single mile it is possible to visit Christian Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, a Jewish Bagel shop and hauntingly beautiful Huguenot merchants’ houses. It is also possible to see the pulsing mercantile heart of this global city. Centuries of upheaval have not halted flows of people to London. It seems unlikely that Brexit will create the island fortress of Brexiteer imaginings.

Sarah Owen

Like many others, I could not believe the news when I heard the UK had voted to leave the EU. This disbelief was soon replaced with confusion and worry. Worry for what it would mean for my family and friends in the UK, worry for what it would mean for the UK, for Ireland, and ultimately for the EU.

Almost three years down the line and the ramifications of Brexit are broad and overarching. Yet speaking to friends in the UK, I sense many believe things will work themselves out.

For my own family however, things are less than clear. As French citizens they will have to apply for ‘Settled Status’ from March 30th if they wish to remain in the UK. Even for my fiercely independent mother, the prospect of this is daunting, especially after almost 20 years of calling England home.

This contrasts to the situation for Irish emigrants in the UK, whose position is somewhat more secure, due mainly to the provisions of the Common Travel Area (CTA) agreement and the Ireland Act of 1949.

I work as the Irish Abroad Networking Officer with Crosscare Migrant Project (migrantproject.ie), a Dublin-based organisation funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs to provide supports to Irish people emigrating from and returning to Ireland. Last week I was in London delivering an information session on the practicalities of returning to Ireland. A joint initiative between ourselves and Safe Home Ireland, it was provided in partnership with the London Irish Centre and Irish in Britain.

With just over a month to go there are still more questions than there are answers

Brexit was the elephant in the room, as with just over a month to go there are still more questions than there are answers. In Ireland, headlines predicting an impending catastrophe are becoming a daily occurrence, but (as I was told more than once at this session) not a lot has changed in day-to-day life in the UK.

There have been some reassurances that social security between Ireland and the UK will be safeguarded, but we continue to be contacted by Irish people concerned about what will happen to their British state pension post-Brexit. Though the majority of these queries come from retired people, we are also receiving queries from Irish people currently working in the UK who are unsure about the recognition of their UK-based social insurance contributions. Significantly, we have noted a small but growing number of queries from intending Irish emigrants re-considering a planned move to the UK.

Since the end of 2018 we have also had a few queries from Irish families in the UK exploring the option of returning to Ireland after Brexit, with their main concern being access to employment and immigration permission for non-EU partners and spouses. In a similar vein, our immigration information team has increasingly been hearing from British citizens contemplating a move to Ireland with non-EU family members.

More often than not, we are signposting Irish people making a planned move to or from the UK to official channels for further information. As part of our remit of supporting Irish emigrants in vulnerable situations, we are actively monitoring developments while maintaining communication with our UK counterparts.

From a personal point of view however, it’s likely that I will continue to be a useful source of Irish passport related information for friends, and even friends of friends.

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine