Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

Irish May Sway Brexit Vote as U.K. Mulls With or Without EU

  • Some 380,000 Irish living in the U.K. can vote on June 23
  • Latest polls show narrow lead for the ``Remain'' campaign

Living in the English midlands, born across the Irish Sea, Gene Renehan felt an added urgency in getting his newborn daughter a passport from his homeland: fear of Brexit.

Renehan, 38, jokes with his English wife that she will languish in airport lines as he and his two children sail serenely through Europe on their Irish papers if the U.K. opts to leave the European Union in the referendum on June 23. Still, the broader consequences of a split are serious, he said.

“Brexit would mean massive uncertainty,” said Renehan, who moved to the U.K. nine years ago and now works in banking. “Would I need a visa to live and work here? What would happen to my house?”

Debating with his English in-laws and work colleagues, Renehan is pushing the “Remain” line, like many of his countrymen at home, whose jobs depend on Ireland’s biggest trading partner. Renehan though will have a more direct say -- he’s one of 380,000 Irish-born people living in the U.K. who can vote in the referendum. In all, an estimated 1.6 million Commonwealth and Irish citizens can join the ballot.

Every Ballot Counts

“It looks like a close race, so this group is potentially important,” said Pawel Swidlicki, an analyst at Open Europe, a London-based research institute, which is neutral in the campaign. “There’s a perception that the Irish might be more minded to support the remain campaign. ”

“Remain” campaigner Alastair Campbell, who used to advise Tony Blair when he was prime minister, appeared in Dublin on Thursday to urge Irish people to contact friends and work colleagues in the U.K. and encourage them to vote against Brexit.

“Get stuck in,” Campbell said at a conference in Dublin. “My country needs you.”

The Irish aren’t the only non-Britons to have a vote. Commonwealth members living in the U.K., along with residents from Cyprus and Malta, can all take part, and their votes may matter in a close race.

Bloomberg’s Composite EU Referendum Poll Tracker showed the “Remain” camp on 43 percent and the exit side at 35 percent. Renehan says all of the dozen or so Irish friends he has living in the U.K. will be voting to stay. The Bloomberg Brexit Tracker puts the odds that the “leave” side wins at about 20 percent.

One Irishman who won’t be in the “remain” camp is Richard Waghorne, a Dubliner living in London. Waghorne moved to the U.K. in 2013 and worked as a press adviser to the U.K. Independence Party after witnessing Ireland’s bailout by institutions including the European Commission.

“My view is that the EU has been unhelpful to the U.K. and Ireland,” said Waghorne, 32. “I was already skeptical about the EU, but the bailout was a moment of clarity -- essentially, the government was reduced to following orders.”

British Backlash

Some resist the potential Irish influence over the outcome. One tweeter suggested that Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, who’s also campaigning for the U.K. to stay, “should concentrate on the Rose of Tralee and let us look after ourselves.” Migration Watch U.K., which campaigns for stronger border controls, wants non-Britons barred from the vote.

Nevertheless, the Irish International Business Network is organizing a campaign pushing Irish people in the U.K. to register and vote. The group argues that the two countries’ overlapping interests in tourism, fisheries policy or border controls as well as their close, at times troubled, relationship means the referendum will have major consequences for Ireland.

“There is an element of people saying: how dare you tell us what to do?” said Liz Shanahan, who leads the network. “But we have a legitimate reason to be part of the discussion. It’s a huge issue for Irish people.”

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