The country so many Irish people came to looking work is on the cusp of rationing
|PETER FLANAGAN,THE IRISH TIMES|AIWA! NO!|I left university in 2011, part of the generation that had entered third level education at the height of the Celtic Tiger, only to graduate into economic purgatory. It was disorientating. A few friends and I soon found ourselves living in London. There was still plenty of work in the city, which made it easy to forget Britain was struggling too.
One night the English caretaker of our hostel confessed to me that he felt immigrants were to blame for the hardship. It took me a moment to tell if he was being serious – we were after all sitting in a hostel bar being served by a girl from Spain and surrounded by other international guests, while the owners of the premises – his employers – were Irish too. But he wasn’t joking.
“You realise I’m an immigrant, right?” I finally said. He considered this, and followed, “Ah, the Irish are alright”. It was a breath-taking double standard, and my first insight into the psychology that would sow the seeds of the Brexit referendum five years later. While in Ireland emigration was seen as the solution to the economic pain, in Britain, immigration was viewed by a significant proportion as the cause.
Seven years later, I’m back living in the UK again. Luckily my life has moved on since the backpacker existence that defined my first London experience, and Ireland’s economy is up from its knees. But as talk grows of food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it feels as though Britain is lurching even further backwards.
The economic crises in both the UK and Ireland were caused by the same thing – financial malpractice by people who should have known better. But while in Ireland the man on the street blamed “the Bankers”, in the UK, “mass immigration” has been the punching bag of choice. The great paradox is that by tackling the imagined cause of the initial hardship, Brexit will likely trigger a brand-new economic calamity.
Of course xenophobia was not the only reason people voted for Brexit, although I do believe that the result was carried by it. A spike in hate crimes in England and Wales followed the referendum, though barring the usual potato/Irishman jokes, I cannot say I’ve experienced any real hostility. Rather, what I’ve encountered more frequently is confusion as to whether I’m a foreigner at all.
After the England team’s victory over Sweden in the World Cup, a small group of England fans heard my accent in the supermarket and asked if I’d been supporting England that day. The group were young, giddy and boozed up, and it was clear that the wrong answer could provoke an ugly response. Channelling my inner Michael D., I told them I’d watched the game, and that England had played very well. Unfortunately, they picked up on my lack of enthusiasm and the tone of their questioning quickly turned.
“It’s all the British Isles mate. What’s your problem?” one of them said seriously, and I was reminded of the Irish government’s increasingly frustrating task of explaining to the Brexit negotiators that they have a border with Ireland to consider. “Well, you live here now. So you should be supporting England,” said another, effectively policing my nationalism and echoing the “Love it or leave it” sentiment often espoused by nationalists in the US.
I took this comment as my cue to leave; the mood was more terse than hostile, but was certainly one of the more uncomfortable conversations I’ve had while living here.
Perhaps a bigger concern for migrants of any nationality here, the Irish included, should be their prospects if they stay. It’s incredible to think that the country so many Irish people have come to looking for work now finds itself on the cusp of rationing food and medicine, while Ireland’s economy grows.
More remarkable still is the rate at which big business is fleeing to the continent. Thanks to Brexit, foreigners can now take British jobs from the comfort of their own home countries. While Irish citizens will be entitled to stay in the UK after it leaves the EU, we could be better off at home.
Peter Flanagan is writer and comedian based in London. He has performed across Ireland, the UK and Australia, and has appeared on Newstalk and BBC Radio