Caroline O’Donoghue: I resent Ireland being treated like a tax haven for EU mobility

I had a meeting with the Irish embassy in London this morning in order to secure an emergency passport for my trip to Ireland. It’s no fun to lose a passport, obviously. And in my case, it isn’t even lost: it’s with the driving license office, so I can finally get a provisional and learn to drive.

Apparently, lots of people want a provisional license — unsurprising considering how many Londoners have moved out to the sticks post-pandemic — and there’s a backlog. So here I am, with no passport, and a flight to Ireland tomorrow.

Luckily, everyone who works at the Irish passport office is really, really good at their job. There’s a 1970s fustiness to the place, and your heart sinks when you walk in, because you immediately assume you’ll be there for three hours and have to fill in piles of pointless forms. But no: I’m waiting for 10 minutes, dealt with by an extremely nice woman, and told to get a coffee around the corner while they process my documents.

They’ll phone me when it’s ready.

This column isn’t intended to function as a TripAdvisor review for bureaucracy. I’m actually more interested in what happened during the 10 minutes while I was in the waiting room.

I met a man, late 60s-ish, wearing a flat cap, a trenchcoat, and a red poppy. We did the thing: you know, the thing, where you meet a sort of erstwhile Michael-Caine-in-Alfie, Bob’s-your-uncle, said-the-actress-to-the-vicar type of older gent and you have to briefly pretend like you’re both on a date in 1963. Your job is to be charmed by him; his job is to say you look like Rita Hayworth.

We chatted, and while I waited to be compared to movie stars of yore, he said, exasperated: “How did you get an appointment, then?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. “I rang ahead,” I said, and explained my situation.

“They’ve given me the run around for months,” he said. “My mother was Irish, but they won’t give me a passport. They’re so disorganised.”

I smiled blandly, because they had not been the least bit disorganised with me.

“My mother used to say,” he went on. “That they needed to send down all the Protestants into the south, to organise the place.”

“Is this a Brexit passport?” I asked.

The tone of the conversation immediately shifted. I was not going to be compared to Rita Hayworth today.

“I’m entitled to it,” he said, with emphasis. “And anyway, I wasn’t even here for the vote. I was in France.”

The whole story became very clear to me then, because it’s a story I have heard so many times from my friends whose parents voted to leave the European Union, but want to shore up their cosy lives in the south of France, or the coast of Spain. It’s become a huge cliché of the Brexit era, and it’s not just limited to the entitled baby boomers who think that the Irish still require a sort of benevolent stewardship from the English, and that we should be honoured to grant them citizenship. (Not that they would spend any time in Ireland, of course — they just want to spend less time at the airport when they fly in and out of France.)

It’s also amazing to me how many people my own age will say to me, quite casually, “oh wow, you’re Irish — I’m just waiting on my passport!” as if I’m supposed to be delighted by this.

It’s one of the areas of my life where I am the biggest hypocrite. Like any liberal millennial, I want there to be fewer borders; more relaxed immigration rules; an end to Direct Provision; indefinite leave to remain for the many non-nationals in Ireland who live and work there. I have, obviously, benefitted enormously from my right to live and work in Britain.

I realise that it’s not the fault of English people with Irish ancestry that the Irish Government spends years and years ‘processing’ the refugees who live in the country, but someone who has never been here can get a passport in 18 months.

But it still annoys me. It infuriates me, in fact. I resent Ireland being treated like an offshore tax haven for EU mobility. As I looked around the waiting room, I noticed at least two other people who were folding their arms crossly and nodding vaguely at my friend who was complaining about how crazy it was that they had to wait for their Irish passports.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” my companion suddenly says to me. “I just think it’s very lucky that the Irish have such a good sense of humour.”

There’s very little anti-Irish prejudice left in England, but when you get it, it looks and sounds a bit like this. Once, years ago, I was told in a job interview that Irish people were “great fun around the office” but were “notorious liars, in my experience”. It is repeatedly implied that you are all slightly useless, somewhat dishonest, childishly disorganised and simultaneously great fun, great chatters, very musical, and a lovely addition. This observation is both a judgement and a prison: the fact that you are charismatic lends itself to the notion that you are untrustworthy, and if you behave in a way that suggests that you do not have ‘a good sense of humour’ — say, if you don’t laugh at their crap jokes — you are actively degenerating the One Good Thing about Irish people.

And perhaps this is why the passport entitlement annoys me so much.

It’s the sense that the function of Ireland and Irish people is to make things more pleasant for them, and any suggestion that we might be more complex than that is irritating and ridiculous. When I leave the passport office, there are yet more pissed-off-looking English people. I wonder how many of them will be successful. And I wonder how many of them will visit.

  • Novelist & award-winning host of Sentimental Garbage. Her novel, All Our Hidden Gifts is out now

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