21 October 2016
An estimated six million residents of the UK have an Irish grandfather or grandmother, which entitles them to apply for an Irish passport. Photo: internet
An estimated six million residents of the UK have an Irish grandfather or grandmother, which entitles them to apply for an Irish passport. Photo: internet

After Brexit, British scramble for foreign passports

It is a story Hong Kong people know only too well — in the face of political and social danger, they move to acquire foreign passports to protect them in case everything goes under.

For the first time in history, many British are doing the same thing in the aftermath of the Brexit vote on June 23.

It is something that has never happened in one of the world’s most stable countries which has not suffered a foreign invasion since 1066.

Rare among European nations, it was not invaded in the two world wars, nor during the many wars with France in preceding centuries.

The global power and influence of the British state meant that its passport was one of the best to hold, bringing visa-free access to dozens of desired countries.

But not since June 23, when a majority of citizens voted to leave the European Union after 42 years.

This means that British people will no longer be able to live, work, settle and enjoy welfare benefits automatically in the 27 member countries of the union.

Those applying for a new passport are not the Brexit voters, who are very happy where they are.

They are from the Remain camp and they want for themselves and their children the choices they had before the vote.

According to the United Nations, 1.2 million Britons live in EU countries, of whom 400,000 are retirees and 800,000 are workers and their dependants.

The top three are Spain, 309,000; Ireland, 255,000; and France, 185,000.

For them, the easiest option is to apply for a passport of the country where they reside — provided they meet the legal requirements.

The number one choice is Ireland — an estimated six million residents of the UK have an Irish grandfather or grandmother, which entitles them to apply for an Irish passport.

In addition, anyone born on the island of Ireland, or whose parents were, is automatically an Irish citizen who qualifies for a passport.

On Monday, Ireland Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan appealed to British people to stop rushing for passports because the rush of applications since Friday had stretched consular resources to the limit.

How Brexit has turned history on its head.

The population of Ireland peaked at eight million in 1840. Then the Great Famine — which many Irish historians consider a genocide by Britain — cut the figure through death and emigration to four million by 1871.

Now it stands at 6.4 million, of whom 4.6 live in the Irish Republic and 1.8 in Northern Ireland.

Ever since the famine, Britain has been among the first choices for the migrants. They faced discrimination, ridicule and laughter in their new country; many learned a British accent to hide their origins, some even changed their names.

The number of jokes against the Irish is without number. For example: what is the difference between a smart Irish man and a unicorn? “None, because they are both fictional.” Why did God invent whiskey? “So the Irish would never rule the world.”

Even Irish gunmen were mocked during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A driver is forced to carry a masked gunman in his car. As he comes to a ramp in the road, he looks nervously at the bag the gunman is carrying and asks: is it safe? “No worries, I have another one in the boot.”

During football games between the two major Glasgow teams, one mainly supported by Protestants and the other by Catholics of Irish descent, the former sing, even to this day: “The Famine is over, it is time to go home.”

British civil servants trying to resolve the complexities of the conflict in Northern Ireland would say: “When we have solved the question, the Irish have changed the question.”

Now, for the first time in history, the boot is on the other foot.

Many British people who had no interest in Ireland and may not ever have been there will now queue quietly in front of its embassy and consulates, clutching their documents and hoping they are all in order.

Have they done their homework in case of questions from the consulate officer? Do they know the name of the Irish president and how he/she came to the office?

The answer is Michael D. Higgins who was elected by popular vote in November 2011; he is a poet, sociologist and author.

From which document do these words come?

“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

This is the Proclamation of the Republic, posted on the day of the General Post Office in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916. Six years later, it became the first country in the British empire to win its independence.

Now the son, mocked and rebellious, has become the rich uncle!

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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