It’s three weeks until the first Christmas free of Covid-19 restrictions for two years. Across the UK, people are preparing for journeys back to their loved ones. Usually, this group would include thousands who grew up in Northern Ireland who now live and work in Britain – especially London – where it’s considered easier to find work and opportunity. The “brain drain” of Irish youth to Britain has become more pronounced in recent years: a 2020 cap on the number of student places in the north means leave for university in Britain with two thirds of us never returning. Except, of course, for occasions like Christmas.
But this year, travelling across a supposedly United Kingdom has become nigh on impossible. The main routes back to the six counties are either via plane or “rail and sail”. The former is self-explanatory; the latter means a train journey from London Euston to Glasgow and then getting the ferry from Cairnryan, a many-legged journey that takes just over 12 hours (the other option is a ferry from Liverpool, which takes eight hours in sailing time alone). But in 2022, prices and transport chaos have made both of these unviable for many.
A ridiculous situation has emerged where citizens are essentially unable to travel between two of the UK’s capital cities at one of the busiest times of the year – and politicians supposedly invested in preserving the political ‘union’ between the two regions have nothing to say about it.
Genevieve Taylor, a music PR originally from Belfast, says she’s skipping a hometown Christmas due to eye-watering prices. At the time of writing, a one-hour flight from Belfast to London will set you back £164 minimum for the week of Christmas. “I’m going home in January,” she tells Novara Media. “It’s so expensive.”
Others like writer and systems engineer Melissa Daragh have foregone checked and carry-on luggage to save money, meaning they can’t bring presents home. “[I] booked [my flight] in advance, still so expensive,” Daragh says. “Carry-on [luggage] was something like £40. No extra presents this year.” Many have been forced to construct increasingly complicated journeys to secure tickets at all. “I had to book flights from Birmingham to Belfast because they were a third of the price [of ones from London],” says 33-year-old Grant Cartwright, an actor from Northern Ireland based in London. “It’s an absolute joke.”
Nikki Osborne, 27, also had to find alternative means of transport after being quoted nearly £300 for the same route. “Luckily my friends are taking the car on the boat this year,” she says. “So I’m hopping in with them for about £30 each, plus chipping in on petrol.” She’s choosing to fly back to London though, totalling £122. “It’s still not great,” Osborne says, “But last year my partner and I had to pay £260 just to fly home, so it’s better than that, I guess.”
The standard rebuke to complaints surrounding the difficulty in travel between Britain and the six counties is for those affected to plan in advance. But this year, a looming recession and transport chaos has impacted costs all year round.
“I have been trying to do the ferry more, for sustainability [and] affordability reasons,” writes Sarah, another Belfast-to-London transplant. “But recently [I’m] finding the trains to Liverpool aren’t coming up as bookable in advance so I can’t make it work.” The functional collapse of train operating firm Avanti West Coast means that tickets to Liverpool – essential for taking the ferry – are only available to purchase a few days in advance of the journey. Sarah has settled for a £220 return ticket, flying to Belfast on Christmas Eve and returning on a 6am flight less than a week later.
Insecure employment has also put paid to booking tickets early. “The price increases over Christmas are gross,” adds Nikki Osborne. “My partner only got leave from his work [as a fibre broadband engineer] confirmed yesterday, so we couldn’t even plan in advance.”
I’ve lived in London eight years now, and travelling home for Christmas has always been a deeply stressful, expensive and complicated experience. Yet it still feels as if the situation is getting worse. In 2021, budget airline Ryanair stopped all services to Derry and Belfast airports, essentially using Northern Ireland as collateral in a tax disagreement, although they have promised a limited return in summer 2023. In October of this year, Aer Lingus also announced it would be dropping its London to Belfast routes, citing “Brexit-related” issues. It’s now easier – and cheaper – to travel from the UK to the Republic of Ireland than to somewhere that’s supposed to be part of the same country.
Whilst this is most obvious at Christmas, when a deluge of people book flights at once, the same problems carry over to the rest of the year too. Belfast to London and flights in the other direction are far more expensive year-round than equivalent routes to Dublin or from other English cities. And as the cost of living crisis continues, it becomes increasingly inaccessible for many young people from the north to return home at any point of the year, let alone at Christmas. An effective border is in place – but despite this being the supposed worst fear of unionist politicians, little attention seems to be paid to the issue.
Instead, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) is currently engaged in stonewalling the formation of a new executive in Stormont, ironically over the threat of a post-Brexit trade border in the Irish Sea. In practice, this means Northern Ireland lacks a government – even if the political will existed to address blocks on travel to the UK mainland, the ability to enact change currently doesn’t.
Yet it doesn’t seem like it’s an issue high on the agenda for either the DUP or Sinn Féin, now the biggest party in the six counties. Multiple attempts to contact representatives of both parties for this article went unanswered. Perhaps being sheltered from the impact of price gouging plays a part; MPs travelling between Belfast and London can expense all costs. Just two weeks ago, MP for Belfast East Gavin Robinson – who was contacted for this article, but did not respond – claimed nearly £550 back for the hour’s flight between Heathrow and Belfast International.
Despite inaction from the north’s biggest parties, there are political figures pushing back against price hikes by travel companies. “It is particularly galling that people will be left stranded during the holiday period, but there is a much wider issue at stake,” says West Belfast MLA Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit, a cross-border leftwing political party formed in 2005.
“This blatant profiteering is at the very heart of the existing economic system,” Carroll continues. “Crucial services are increasingly in the hands of private companies, whose primary concern is turning a profit.
“A wealthy minority have a virtual monopoly on airline travel and can raise prices without impediment. Many of these same companies have a disastrous record on the environment and on workers’ rights.”
Caroll wants a push first to bring airline prices down via regulation from organisations like the Civil Aviation Authority, the UK’s aviation regulator, and in the long term by bringing transport under public ownership. “We need to work towards an environmentally sustainable mode of travel that works for people and for the planet – not for profit,” says Caroll.
Carroll’s vision is compelling but one unlikely to be enacted anytime soon, as Westminster remains reticent to take action on extortionate transport operators, which can simply threaten to pull services – as Ryanair did – if profits are impacted. Failing train services also seem to have escaped sanctions; Avanti has been “challenged” to improve their operations but have still seen their contract extended by another six months. Meanwhile, Stormont remains in stalemate, awaiting another likely set of exhausting elections in 2023. Until then, it seems clear that despite what unionists might want us to believe, London and Belfast are further apart than ever.