Irish in Britain hosted a lively afternoon of discussion and debate in a packed room at the Resource for London centre at our event Brexit through the Green: Interpretation, Identity and Irishness. As a civic society meeting to address the Brexit process and the status and future of the Irish community in Britain, this event was the first of its kind.
The speakers and panellists were:
– Vikki Barry Brown, doctoral researcher at Queen Mary University of London.
– Pádraig Belton, journalist based in Dublin and London.
– Bill Corcoran, volunteer for Tyneside Irish Cultural Society.
– Emma DeSouza, immigration and citizens’ rights campaigner based in Belfast.
– Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the UK Traveller Movement.
– Bernard Ryan, Professor of Migration Law at the University of Leicester.
Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council and the son of Irish immigrants, chaired the event.
Our CEO Brian Dalton opened the event by describing how Irish in Britain is a ‘progressive alliance’ reflected in the diversity and plurality of our membership. He also welcomed the amendment passed in Westminster a few days previously that will see the UK government legislate for same–sex marriage in Northern Ireland after 21 October, unless Stormont reassembles before this date.
Speaking on the status of Irish citizens in the UK, Professor Bernard Ryan took us through the history of the Common Travel Area from 1922 to the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Irish governments this June which committed them both to maintaining its provisions. He noted that there are still concerns and a lack of legislation or agreement over some aspects of the status of third nationalities who live and travel between the two countries.
Next up was Vikki Barry Brown who expanded upon her research into new Irish passport holders living in England since the 2016 referendum. The majority of her interviewees, she told us, had always planned on getting an Irish passport with Brexit acting as a catalyst rather than the total rediscovery of their Irishness. Throughout her talk she explored the fascinating complexities of identity and authenticity presented by taking on a new or additional passport. In support of the event, Irish Times Abroad published a taster of Vikki’s research online. You can read it here.
The final presentation came from Emma DeSouza, originally from Co. Derry, about her concerns that Brexit will create different tiers of citizenship for Irish citizens in Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as highlighting her own ongoing case to be accepted as exclusively Irish by the UK Home Office. She wanted to see the rights of Irish citizens in the UK fortified by further legislative protections, particularly in the area of family reunification.
In the second session, a panel discussion, the three presenters were joined by Pádraig Belton, Bill Corcoran and Yvonne MacNamara. The new panellists gave us some thoughts before the audience was invited to ask some questions. Echoing Bernard and Emma, Yvonne hoped to see more legislative protection and also pointed to the difficulties experienced by some of the Traveller community, particularly on issues of digital exclusion and documentation requirements that can have an impact on voter registration.
Pádraig Belton described how Brexit has sparked some divisive language against Irish immigrants and others, but ended by adapting a Seamus Heaney piece to emphasise the strong scaffolding between our two countries – he tweeted his introductory comments here. Bill Corcoran gave us an impassioned appeal about the damage Brexit could have on North East England and the exacerbating factors it presents to Irish centres. He said that the Irish in Newcastle had built up a lot of cultural capital with other groups in the city which it would rely on to combat the challenges ahead.
Responding to questions from the audience, the panel discussion was wide ranging, covering the future of English identity and the United Kingdom after Brexit, questions of identity for Irish migrants in Britain as well as newer passport holders, and concerns about details of the Common Travel Area.
An overarching message from the event was the imperative for cross–community alliances and solidarity – whether it be with disadvantaged groups or other migrant populations. Irish in Britain will continue to seek and build cross–sector cooperation to mitigate divisions and challenge voices that seek to isolate communities as the Brexit process continues. We recognise that the long–standing history of the Irish community gives us entitlements and protections that more recent groups do not enjoy, however, our experiences of marginalisation and hostility in the past inform our sense of solidarity with others and this is a civic leadership responsibility of our community.
Patrick Morrison, the Chair of Irish in Britain, ended the afternoon’s proceeding by saying that the event had shown the diversity of challenges ahead and the importance of dialogue.
Irish in Britain would like to thank all the speakers and the audience, who engaged with passion and creativity, for coming and for their participation. We are also very grateful to our chair Maurice Wren for creating such an inclusive and democratic forum for discussion.
A sample of some of the feedback we received:
“A great event. Really enjoyed it, learned a great deal and have improved my understanding of Brexit in general and the Irish after Brexit more specifically.”
“Fantastic, concise and informative. The personal touch of each presentation made the topics even more relatable. The interlinking topics made their transition smoother.”
“Excellent presentations by a series of informed and educated contributors.”
“Great mix of speakers and panellists – different views and experiences.”
Vikki Barry Brown tweeted:
“What a terrific weekend – thanks @irishinbritain for asking me to speak yesterday alongside truly awesome people @BernardRyan1 @EmmandJDeSouza Yvonne MacNamara @GypsyTravellerM @BillCorcoran5 and Maurice Wren from @refugeecouncil. Superb audience, lovely people, new friends!