Ireland's exodus to London: Say hello, wave goodbye!

London is a home away from home for a growing number of Irish but will it stay that way?

The last few years have been tragic ones for Ireland. More than 2% of the population is now leaving every year.

Emigration is spiralling out of control, standing at levels not seen since the Great Famine in the mid-1840s.

The good times for the Celtic Tiger - which for the first time in centuries halted the mass population exodus that has marred much of Ireland’s history - have come to an end. House prices are down up to 50% since the peak. The banking sector collapsed, needing a mind-blowing bailout. Now the brightest are leaving.

Back in 2001, only some 25,000 people were emigrating a year. But in the 12 months up to April 2012, 87,000 left Ireland. That’s an annual amputation for country with a total population of slightly more than four million.

A significant number is coming to Britain, with some 1,000 arriving each week. That they’re doing this at a time when the UK is hardly a bastion of prosperity indicates just how bad the situation is.

Grim Ireland

Ireland’s international creditors might be thrilled Ireland is meeting the repayments on its IMF/EU bailout of 83 billion euro, but the national debt is exploding. It’s jumped from 25% of GDP in 2008 to over 106% this year.  

“The bailout is stitch up and not a rescue,” says Wes Dolan, who runs his family’s cleanroom supplies firm in Athlone, central Ireland.

“It’s a disgrace that Ireland is been blackmailed into paying off private bank debts of German, Belgium, French and British banks who all took a gamble on our property bubble. If we had refused to bailout our banks Ireland could have avoided the deathly embrace of the bailout.”

“It’s a disgrace that Ireland is been blackmailed into paying off private bank debts of German, Belgium, French and British banks who all took a gamble on our property bubble. If we had refused to bailout our banks Ireland could have avoided the deathly embrace of the bailout.” - Wes Dolan, Athlone hardware.

Unemployment levels are amongst the highest in Europe and rising. In September they stood at above 15%. If the Irish were not leaving in droves, the figure would likely be even higher.  

“Emigration is a terrible shame but it’s not so surprising in the larger scheme of things,” says Dolan. “The real shame is that it shores up our rotten political establishment. Our politicians are more than happy to see the young generation gone. Their absence improves the unemployment figures and they don’t have to accommodate the political demands of a pesky generation that does not know its place.” 

The push factors are well known. In the late 1980s Ireland boomed. Its GDP went from $20 billion in 1985 to $48 billion six years later. By 2001 it was $105 billion. At its 2008 peak, it stood at almost $264 billion.

But in just a couple of years, Ireland slipped from the poster child for globalisation, to trouble child of the European recession.  

“It has been bubbling away for the past three or four years and has been getting worse,” says Cormac Looney, assistant editor of the Ireland’s Evening Herald.  

The UK-bound exodus, however, might not be as bleak as it sounds. There could well be light at the end of the tunnel.

According to a study on London’s Irish population published this month by the London Irish Centre, the overwhelming majority of recent arrivals are determined to go back – even if they recognise that the economic situation will keep them in the UK longer than initially expected.

Forget the historic migration patterns which saw Irish workers flock to Liverpool and Glasgow. The new Irish immigrants are largely skilled and are drawn to careers in the service or tech sector, based in London and the south east.

Is time running out for Irish emigration?

“Ireland has a history of constant bloodletting with people leaving the country, but this time it’s different. It’s the young and educated that are leaving. Most have university degrees or some kind of higher qualification,” says Looney.

“Ireland has a history of constant bloodletting with people leaving the country, but this time it’s different. It’s the young and educated that are leaving. Most have university degrees or some kind of higher qualification.” Cormac Looney, Ireland’s Evening Herald.

“It used to be the case that when you left, you left. Now the perception on the whole is that people want to come back, even if they go as far as Australia.”

While people are leaving, many are doing so in order to grow their businesses, boost exports and find new markets, not to abandon Ireland altogether.

The London Irish Centre found that 90% of new migrants were between the ages of 18 and 35 and - whilst drawn to the UK out of hardship - had come to “progress” their careers of their educational levels.

Irish migrants by skill

Those who are older tend to come to grow existing businesses.

According to Enterprise Ireland, a government-funded trade body working to promote Irish businesses abroad, at least 100 Irish companies are setting up base in the UK each year.

And this number had not been impacted by the recession, with exports from Ireland to the UK growing year-on-year. They now stand at above 2008 levels, generating some five billion euro in 2011, a third of all Ireland’s income from international trade.

“We know we need to export. This is one of the main ways that we can grow jobs back in Ireland and create sustainability in the Irish economy,” says Enterprise London UK manager Christine Esson.

“At this point in time, Ireland’s only choice is to export. But exports don’t take jobs away from Ireland, they help sustain the Irish economy and through it Irish jobs.”

“At this point in time, Ireland’s only choice is to export. But exports don’t take jobs away from Ireland, they help sustain the Irish economy and through it Irish jobs.” Christine Esson, Enterprise Ireland.

And Ireland has a lot to offer. Even a concentrated, highly-competitive market like the UK has opportunities for Irish companies and workers.

The London Irish Centre found that 73% of recent immigrants managed to find work, even if they initially had to take a role demotion.

Irish firms have also played a big part in the Olympics and are key partners in the construction of London’s Cross Rail tunnel. They’re also moving in and swooping up contracts to help Scotland achieve its goal of generating 100% of its power from renewables by 2020.

John Keohane, director of Verde LED, a Cork-based LED lights producer, opened a London centre a year ago. In January Verde LED will branch out to Manchester and Birmingham and expects UK growth to continue. “We’re growing month-by-month. We just took on 15 new employees and are still hiring on a monthly basis.” This has left Keohane jetting around all over the place.

“The flights back from Dublin to London on Mondays are like getting the bus to work. You see the same faces every week,” he says.

And once companies like his take off, they act as a magnet for others to come over. This raises the profile of Irish businesses and helps open doors for young Irish talent. 

Lights are turning on for Irish business as they go abroad

“Ireland has a great education system, a young population and we, on the whole, have fantastic inter-personal skills,” says Barry O’Neill a managing partner at foreign currency exchange firm Clear Currency who immigrated to London more than a decade ago.

“The native command of English certainly helps, but it’s more than that. We are very confident, introduce ourselves and chat. That is not the case with many people from other countries. Companies like to hire Irish staff and have Irish clients.”

This offers a good opportunity for Irish immigrants to get a foot in the door, get retrained and help other Irish businesses - back home or in the UK.

“We stick together,” says O’Neill. “There is a very tight-knit community and we all try to help one another when we can.

“If someone is in recruitment at the big banks, and we know an Irish person is looking for a job, we use these connections and see if we can get them help. At the very least, we help people get their CVs looked at or get called for interview.”

“If someone is in recruitment at the big banks, and we know an Irish person is looking for a job, we use these connections and see if we can get them help. At the very least, we help people get their CVs looked at or get called for interview.” Barry O’Neill, Clear Currency.

This kind of networking is really taking off at events like the Irish International Business Network which this month hosted its second annual conference to boost ties and introduce Irish businesses to opportunities in London.

Ireland’s famously low corporation tax of 12.5% - compared to 24% in the UK and up to 35% in the US - has helped it become the European base for big multinationals like Google. It is also crucially seen as a key driver for future growth, with little public resentment emerging over the low rates.

For now though, London continues to have an edge.

“The corporate tax structure is much preferable in Ireland, but there the level of regulations and such like is pretty similar. The personal tax structure is also pretty much the same, but in London you get a lot more choice. There are so many companies and more employment opportunities and it definitely compensates,” says O’Neill.

“I would say that the ratio of jobs in Ireland to London is 1:5, especially in financial services so that continues to be a pull factor.”

But the UK work landscape is changing. Not a week goes by without someone warning that incoming financial regulations and taxation reforms will drive away foreigners.

Lorraine O’Neill, founder LA Creative Academy, a professional makeup artist school headquartered in Dublin is shunning UK expansion for now.

Her company has shared retail space in Covent Garden for over a year and has been looking for a permanent London location. High rents, however, which are around 40% higher, plus the difficulty in battling for store locations with big names such as Virgin inspired Lorraine to turn to emerging markets instead.

Within the next six to eight months, LA Creative Academy will become a franchise in India and Brazil. “The costs in London make it harder to set up shop here. At the end of the day, it is a balancing act between the market you want to be in, and the market where you see the most opportunity,” says LA’s O’Neill.

 “The costs in London make it harder to set up shop here. At the end of the day, it is a balancing act between the market you want to be in, and the market where you see the most opportunity,” Lorraine O’Neill, LA Creative Academy.

This doesn’t mean that London is off the cards though. It just means that priorities have to be shifted. O’Neill hopes growth elsewhere will allow her to launch with a strong presence in London this time next year. That’s good for Ireland, and good for the UK.

“Times have been tough but there is a very entrepreneurial culture in the Irish community,” says Esson. “They’ve always known that in order to grow, they will need to export. Ireland has always been an island, off an island, off Europe. That has instilled a very entrepreneurial spirit and made them more willing to seek out new markets and new opportunities.” 

Ireland is fighting back

Other factors could also be working for Ireland.

“One of London’s big attractions is the big student population but we are seeing a very worrying trend is the tightening up of visas,” says LA Academy’s O’Neill. “This could be really bad for the UK and bad for business.”

Foreign students make up 40% of the postgraduate student body. Making it harder for them study and then stay after they graduate will lose the UK a lot of potential skilled workers, she explains.

Ireland looks willing to fill the gap. “The government has recognised that university education is a potential area for growth. Dublin could be the next London,” O’Neill adds.

“The government has recognised that university education is a potential area for growth. Dublin could be the next London.” Lorraine O’Neill, LA Creative Academy.

Indeed, in some sectors, optimism seems to be reemerging.

“Things have been difficult but there is movement,” says Clear Currency’s O’Neill. “People who have been working in financial services for 20 years are being made redundant, but they’re using their redundancy cheques to do something different. They’re setting up restaurants or B&Bs with their wives, or investing in start-ups or just using the money to try something new.

“In the long term, I think it will be a huge, huge benefit to Ireland and the Irish economy.”

Combined with low corporation taxes, lower rents and housing prices, and a booming tech sector, this could well push more recent migrants to go home.

“This is a very different wave of migrants to what we have seen before,” says London Irish Centre’s Jeff Moore.

“We work with migrants from the Bangladeshi community as well, and when they move over, it is a permanent move. There is no such sentiment with the Irish. They come alone or in pairs and leave family behind.”

So while our economy and businesses might love them, don’t get too used to the newest Irish London-bound bonanza - they’re saying hello, waving goodbye all the while keeping one foot in Ireland.

 

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment