OPINION: Where Next for the UK and Ireland?

Peter Burke was one of the participants in our first series of Faces for Europe, and is a long-time campaigner for a closer relationship with the EU. As a GP, born in Ireland, who has worked in the UK for 38 years, there are few people better qualified to look at the relationship between our two countries.

All views in the following article are Peter’s.

Having grown up in Dublin with a German mother and an Irish father, I am a proud European and part of the Irish diaspora.

What we learned at school about Irish people living in the UK, was that the generation before me was escaping the Irish austerity of the post war years, many to go over to work on building sites or on the railways, often leaving their families behind and sending home their wage packets. That was in the days when landlords could put up signs saying ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ with impurity.

Fortunately, those attitudes have gone, or so we hoped. The Irish exiles too have changed. Far more were university graduates. Many came back. It was to a great extent a triumph of the Celtic Tiger years that the brain drain has diminished and was even put into reverse. Ireland attracted back exiles as well as people from all over the world to work in the burgeoning new industries including IT and pharmaceuticals.

Even since the crash of 2008 Ireland has had one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, owing not (as English people often assert) due to EU handouts, but rather to the ability to attract multinational companies from a position of being the only English speaking country in the Eurozone, indeed now the only one, alas, in the EU.

My own first experience of working in the UK was spending six months as a casualty officer in East Belfast in 1979. Although it was the height of the troubles, and I was probably the only Southern Catholic for miles around in that part of Belfast, I was made welcome and made many good friends.

There was something other-worldly about this first contact with life in Northern Ireland. There were armoured cars at every street corner, and it was normal to be searched at gunpoint when going into the shopping areas of the city. I completed my hospital training in Ireland and my wife, Geraldine, and I moved over to Cheshire in 1982.

The intention was to move for one year, but that has turned into 38 years so far and counting.

The principal attraction for me was working in the NHS and being able to treat all patients equally regardless of ability to pay. General practice in the UK for me was more appealing than the predominantly private and single-handed practice then prevailing in Ireland. If I felt somebody did not need an antibiotic it was perfectly possible to say so without the thought that they might feel cheated. I was very taken by the go getting, joined-up and collaborative nature of healthcare in the UK and the strength of public health. Ironic to think of that now.

Over my 38 years in the UK we have hugely enjoyed living here. Both the environment and the people have been hugely inspiring, we have made many friends and all three of our children have grown up here. Although scattered about the world they still consider Oxford home, and therefore so do we.

For me, as for many European expats the 2016 referendum changed everything. At one level I knew a leave vote was possible, despite the bookies’ odds being 6:1 against. However, in my heart I thought such an act of xenophobic self-harm would be a step too far for any sensible nation. And up to that point the image of British people around the world was one of sense and pragmatism.

Perhaps I made the mistake of thinking that Oxford was typical. I certainly underestimated the ineptitude of the remain campaign led by David Cameron. I was part of that campaign and put every available hour into it, and, although it failed, I will always be glad I tried. I have continued to be an activist and am now chair of Oxford for Europe.

Obviously, it was doubly painful seeing the worst dregs of the Tory party winning the December election, stripped of many of its most competent MPs (for two of whom I campaigned vigorously in their new roles).

Many British people voted for this party on the grounds that it was now doing the Brexit party’s bidding, and their principle motive was that unicorn, ‘control of borders’ i.e. keeping out foreigners. For those who have come to live here and have put their lives into making this a better country, that slap in the face is hard to forgive. Yet we must remember that not all British people are hewn from that wood – indeed more people voted against the parties of xenophobic hatred than voted for them. Such is our electoral system.

Now that Brexit is a fact on the ground our mission is one of damage limitation. So, we are working to fight for an extension of the transition period, to maintain links with our friends in the EU27, and to help to protect the rights of European Nationals in the UK.

I continue to watch developments in Ireland with some interest. I continue to be a European first, an Irish citizen second, and a German third – and yet the UK is my home. It is very sad to think what has become of this country. I know many people here whom I admire and respect. But I can see the UK through the eyes of the many expats who live here, and of their host countries. And I am not just talking about Europeans. Some of the most cutting observations about British self-harm and contrariness have come from commonwealth countries such as Australia, India, and Canada, where mystification reigns.

I am proud of the mature way in which my country, Ireland, has handled the Brexit crisis, something which it had no part in causing, and yet Irish governments have put much more serious thought and preparation into the possibility of a no Deal Brexit than the U.K.’s government ever has. By the same token, preparation for the coronavirus in Ireland was vastly better, there was a clear plan in place, and to a great extent this was implemented, although far from perfectly. The PPE crisis in the UK has been largely avoided in Ireland, partly through participation in European joint procurement schemes and taking the initiative in purchasing from China and elsewhere.

For many reasons Brexit has put Irish unity back on the agenda, in a way it has not been since the Good Friday Agreement 21 years ago. This has no doubt contributed to the recent electoral success of Sinn Fein, which I regret. Despite this I do have the impression that the Irish body politic has grown up in the years that I have been away.

One of the most revealing things that English people sometimes say to me is “why don’t the Irish just do the sensible thing and follow the UK out of the European Union” – this shows ignorance at so many levels.

The negative role model of UK has been salutary for all other European countries, where pro-European sentiment has grown since the referendum. In Ireland opinion polls show 88% plus of people being committed to staying in the EU. And this is not simply because, as English people often say, of European largesse. Ireland has been a net contributor to the EU budget since 2016.

However, being part of the European Union has made Ireland feel like a grown-up country which can hold his head high among the many much larger democracies of Europe, and from the perspective of many Irish people it has taken the country out of the shadow of an overbearing neighbour.

It was striking that Ireland was one of the key issues – and the most difficult – in the negotiations over Brexit. I often feel that, had it just chosen to, the UK could have benefitted equally from the solidarity of its European neighbours. Instead it – or its malicious government – has chosen the path of enmity. This cannot end well.

‘Why don’t you go back where you belong?’ I can hear the Brexiter xenophobes say. There is no point in my saying that I have spent 38 years of my life contributing to the NHS. After all we are talking about people who have consistently shown disregard for the interests of their country. Nor is there a point in my saying this is my children’s home, they have grown up here. I might be tempted to invite them to go back where they belong, the Middle Ages. But I will hold my tongue. It’s not worth it.

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