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Irish Voters Share 'Brexit' Opposition To Protect Economic Interests


This Thursday, voters in Britain will go to the polls to decide whether their country should stay in or walk away from the European Union. And citizens from the Republic of Ireland living in the U.K. will get to vote, too. The Irish government hopes they will not vote for the so-called Brexit. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that envoys from Dublin have been visiting the Irish ex-pat community, encouraging them to vote against leaving.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Irish and the British have been mixing for centuries. Well before the Great Famine scattered the Irish to distant lands in the 19th century, they were coming to Britain. They laid the rails, built the roads, sewed the clothes, bringing with them the energy of immigrants and an appreciation for a good old country waltz.


JIMMY BUCKLEY: (Singing) It's hard to imagine a baby so tiny and small.

KENYON: Dancers spin around the floor at the Irish Center in Leeds, a city in Northern England that's home to a sizable Irish community. Bernadette Wray, a retired seamstress, is sitting down for lunch with friends.

BERNADETTE WRAY: I've been in Leeds longer than I lived in Ireland. I came here when I was 21 years of age, met a Yorkshireman, got married. And I'm still here.

KENYON: She has a general idea why the Irish government has sent envoys to Leeds - to remind Irish citizens to remember their homeland when they vote Thursday on the EU referendum.

WRAY: Because things won't be so great in Ireland if Britain pulls out.

KENYON: As far as Ireland is concerned, that's putting it mildly. Since becoming an independent country in the 1920s, Irish citizens have enjoyed freedom of movement to Britain. And whether that would continue after a Brexit is just one of Dublin's worries. Ambassador to the U.K. Daniel Mulhall says the current Irish relationship with the U.K. is infinitely better than it was during what's known as the troubles, when the IRA staged a guerrilla insurgency against British rule in Northern Ireland. Mulhall says thanks to the E.U., trade is now booming.

DANIEL MULHALL: With the 1 billion pounds a week in trade back and forth across the Irish Sea, with the investment that's flowing in both directions and anything that risks or jeopardizes that is clearly unwelcome from an Irish point of view.

KENYON: Yes, he did say a billion British pounds a week. And that include goods crossing Ireland's 310-mile land border with Northern Ireland. What if that border were to become an EU frontier with Ireland in and Northern Ireland out of the E.U.? The leave camp says new arrangements would be negotiated. But the British government has said that border would need to be hardened. Irish jobs and innovation minister, Mary Mitchell O'Connor worries about that.

MARY O'CONNOR: It will be very hard, apart, you know, to kind of ensure free travel. And we have got used to it. I mean, I remember the time when you traveled to Northern Ireland when there was two and three hours' wait, you know, over and back across the border. And I wouldn't like to see that happen. I don't think it would help trade.

KENYON: But on this day, at least, the economic arguments weren't entirely persuasive. As Bernadette Wray finishes her lunch, she says she's got nothing against immigrants, being one herself. But she shares the same worries that have driven Northern voters toward the leave camp. The one she heard that morning was a charge that Britain couldn't even deport immigrants convicted of crime.

WRAY: That's wrong. If you commit murder and rape people, they should be able to deport them. But they can't because of the EU laws. What's the answer there? Put up with it, or vote to pull out. And have our own laws?

KENYON: The Irish envoys say they respect the U.K.'s right to make its own choice. But it's clear Dublin will be watching with more than a little anxiety when the polls open Thursday. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Leeds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.