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Irish in Britain being 'lovebombed' into staying in EU - but why?

Irish government is sending in the troops to support the anti-Brexit side, writes historian Bryce Evans, without giving Irish emigrants anything back.

Dr Bryce Evans

“YOU CAN’T REALLY speak of an ‘Irish vote’ in Britain: and that shows our success in assimilating”.

These were the words of Ireland’s Ambassador in London, Dan Mulhall, speaking a recent event in which he urged Irish citizens in Britain to register to vote in the coming referendum on European Union membership.

True, you can’t speak of an ‘Irish vote’ in Britain in the same way people talk about the ‘Black vote’ or the ‘Hispanic vote’ in the US Presidential race. And in Britain there are certainly more sizeable ‘ethnic group’ block votes to be had.

But with the latest polls showing a very narrow lead for Brexit, the ‘Irish vote’ in Britain could prove more important than anyone previously realised as the rival campaigns pick up pace before voting opens on 23 June.

The latest two polls, conducted by The Guardian/ICM, indicate that British public opinion has shifted towards the UK leaving the EU, with voters split 52% to 48% in favour of leaving.

It would be not only bad maths but highly presumptive to start calculating just how many Irish citizens resident in Britain would be required to tip the scales back towards a Remain result.

But let’s have a go anyway:

The 2011 census showed that 407,357 residents of England and Wales and 23,000 residents of Scotland were born in the Republic.

Add to that the estimate that 10% of the UK population has at least one Irish grandparent (good news for Republic of Ireland soccer manager Martin O’Neill).

Now add to this the very substantial number of Scottish residents who would identify as Irish rather than British (again, good news for Martin O’Neill).

You may also add in, if you like, the 300,000 or so British residents born in Northern Ireland and, for good measure, the expanding pool of British-born people driven by anxiety over the consequences of Brexit to recently apply for an Irish passport.

What you have, then – in fact – is a potentially pivotal ‘Irish vote’.

The Irish government realises this. What’s more, they are terrified about Brexit for three main reasons:

  1. the anticipated adverse effect on trade;
  2. the prospect of violence in Northern Ireland if the border re-emerged, and;
  3. the destabilising effects on the EU as a whole.

And so, as historian Diarmaid Ferriter has recently observed, the Irish in Britain are currently being subjected to a relentless campaign of ‘love-bombing’ which will extend over the next two weeks. Ministers are being parachuted in to British cities with substantial Irish populations to press the case for Remain. And, like commanders in a theatre of war, they are sending back despatches from the Front. You can follow these via Twitter.

At the time of writing Charlie Flanagan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, is soldiering manfully through a business breakfast in Manchester while Ambassador Mulhall is clocking up some serious Virgin Traveller loyalty points on the Liverpool-London train.

Amidst all this, even Bertie Ahern has surfaced, the former Taoiseach giving Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers a ticking off. The sight of Bertie, enough to raise ire at the best of times, has prompted some hostile Brexiteers to ask what exactly the Irish government is up to here. Ireland isn’t trying to sway the British electorate, Ambassador Mulhall insists, but in the role of “friendly neighbours” are expressing “very real concerns” about the consequence of a vote to leave.

But who are to be the front-line troops conveying these “very real concerns” with pencils in the polling booths? Why, the mass of the Irish in Britain, of course, who are expected – for the good of Ireland – to Do The Right Thing and vote for Britain to remain in the EU.

So what will the Irish in Britain get in return?

In return, the Irish government has promised to do absolutely nothing to address the lack of voting rights for Irish passport holders resident in the UK. Anyone who witnessed the huge temporary exodus of Irish citizens in British ports and airports around the time of the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum will realise how seriously many take their right to vote.

And yet the government continues to point to its pride in the Irish diaspora while denying them voting rights. It has not even acted on last year’s report urging that Irish citizens abroad be given the right to vote in Seanad elections. All of which smacks of hypocrisy of the worst kind.

Between 1951 and 2001 the Irish were the largest foreign-born group in Britain and being Irish in Britain wasn’t always easy. The recent news that fresh inquests are to be opened into the IRA’s Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 will have come as welcome news for many, but it is also likely to have reawakened uncomfortable memories for some of the Irish in Britain, who found themselves the victims of consequent anti-Irish violence and abuse in the street and in the workplace.

But you’re not supposed to bring up the Bad Old Days while the ‘love-bombing’ is in progress. Superficially, at least, all the children of the nation are being cherished equally. But only as long as the Brexit referendum debate rumbles on.

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