Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Spectre of no-deal Brexit puts UAE's Irish expats off return home

As the British and Irish prime ministers meet for last-ditch talks, fears of economic struggle and a return to the Troubles weigh heavily on the Emirates' Irish community

Matthew O'Hagan and his wife are worried by 'toxic politics' as a result of Brexit and are avoiding a return to County Tyrone. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Matthew O'Hagan and his wife are worried by 'toxic politics' as a result of Brexit and are avoiding a return to County Tyrone. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The prospect of a hard Brexit is creating turmoil for the Irish emigrants in the UAE who had planned to return home soon.

Recent developments suggesting the UK is likely to crash out of the EU without securing a deal have left these residents contemplating an uncertain future.

The National spoke to a cross-section of the UAE's 10,000-strong Irish community, many of whom worried about the return of physical borders between Northern Ireland the Irish Republic if Brexit continues on its current trajectory.

There are a variety of consequences if Britain leaves without a deal – from border control hassle, fear of political trouble, right down to roaming charges for mobile phones and cross-border medical facilities

Prof Kevin O’Rourke, New York University Abu Dhabi

Many remember paramilitary violence and British troops on the streets of home communities.

“If border posts come back up they could become targets,” said Stephen Reilly, 35, from the Dubai Irish Society, which was set up more than 30 years ago to promote Irish business, culture and heritage in the emirate.

“It only takes one mistake for someone to bring back years of violence.”

He, until recently, planned to return home to the border town of Clones, in County Monaghan, about 3 kilometres south of the border.

Checkpoints were commonplace on the border between the north and south of Ireland, during what became known as the Troubles.

During this period, which ran from 1968 until 1998, more than 3,600 people were killed, with thousands more injured, in acts of violence carried out by paramilitary groups and the security forces.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the border posts were gradually removed to allow free movement between the two regions.

When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, it reignited fears that physical border posts would return as the Republic of Ireland remained in the European Union while Northern Ireland left as part of Brexit.

But it is not just the threat of the Troubles that is casting a shadow over the plans of Dubai residents to return to their home country.

Boris Johnson appears exasperated during a joint press conference with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin last month. The two leaders will meet on Thursday as a British exit from the EU - with no agreement over trade, tariffs on goods or borders - looks inevitable. Getty
Boris Johnson appears exasperated during a press conference with Leo Varadkar in Dublin last month. The two leaders will meet on Thursday as an exit from the EU - with no deal over trade, tariffs on goods or borders - looks inevitable. Getty

“There is a real fear that Brexit could have an adverse effect on the local economy,” said Mr Reilly.

“My home town was badly hit economically when there were borders up between the north and south.

“A return to that could set the town back years.”

Mr Reilly said, when he was growing up, four of the five roads into Clones were closed off, funnelling traffic into one border crossing.

The plan was to return back to Clones after a while. I don’t know now because of Brexit

Stephen Reilly, Irish engineer

“Sometimes it might take an hour and a half just to queue at the border and get across to the other side,” he said.

“Many people work and live on different sides of the borders so you have to wonder what exactly is going to happen with Brexit.”

Like so many others, Mr Reilly came to the UAE from his own country with a plan to stay for a few years, make some money and return home.

“I have been in Dubai for five years; the plan was to return back to Clones after a while,” said the engineer, 35.

“I don’t know now, because of Brexit.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest attempt to secure a deal with the EU looked doomed to fail, with a Downing Street source claiming an agreement was “overwhelmingly unlikely”.

Another member of the Irish community in the UAE is Prof Kevin O’Rourke, 56, who teaches at the New York University Abu Dhabi.

Although he had no plans to return to his home county of Dublin anytime soon, he was uniquely qualified to speak on the subject, given that he had recently written a book called A Short History of Brexit.

“A no-deal Brexit is going to be very disruptive for the border regions,” he said.

“There are a variety of consequences if Britain leaves without a deal – from border control hassle, fear of political trouble, right down to roaming charges for mobile phones and cross-border medical facilities.”

Irish academic Kevin O'Rourke, who works as a professor of economics at New York University Abu Dhabi, has published a book entitled 'A Short History of Brexit'
Professor Kevin O'Rourke from NYUAD is author of A Short History of Brexit

Prof O’Rourke said one upside of Brexit for the Irish economy could be the number of UK firms that found themselves having to open offices in Ireland, due to their country’s exit from the EU.

“That’s likely to be of benefit to the likes of Dublin but small towns will still feel the impact,” he said.

Making special arrangements for Northern Ireland has long been a key part of the negotiations between the UK and their EU counterparts.

This would involve giving the region a special status to prevent the Irish border hardening if no other solution could be found.

However, a hard Brexit could endanger those plans, with a number of industries in Northern Ireland fearing the worst.

A report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy suggested the worst-case scenario would be 15,000-18,000 fewer jobs in agriculture alone compared to if there was no Brexit.

Teacher Matthew Hagan, 34, from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, has lived in Dubai for the past five years.

“I planned to head back after a few years. The North was an option but now it’s completely out of the question due to Brexit and the toxic politics [around it],” he said.

“I prefer if my wife and I have kids to raise them in the South.”

It was only last week that Northern Ireland's police chief said he told Mr Johnson that his force would not defend any new customs facilities that might have to be built on the border.

Eimear Smith, 51, has lived in Dubai for the past 20 years and works in the aviation sector. When she grew up in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, it was a very different place than it was today.

The success of the peace process led her to give serious thought to returning home with her family.

The Brexit situation has made her think again.

“I didn’t feel like I was necessarily in any danger growing up but you were always aware of car bombs and shootings on the news,” she said.

“I am not saying it will necessarily go back to that but there would certainly be a rise in tensions if a hard border goes up.

“We were planning on moving back there in the next year or two but I am really concerned right now.”

Updated: October 10, 2019 03:19 PM

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