On June 27th, 2016, a few days after the referendum in which the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, I published an article, headlined UK was groomed: Irish writers throw book at Brexit, which featured the response of a broad cross-section of leading Irish writers living north of the Border and in Britain to this momentous decision. To mark March 29th, the date on which the UK was supposed to leave the EU, I asked them to reflect again on Brexit.
Well, this has all gone really well, hasn’t it? Over the last two years, any hope of repairing the Brexit vote’s damage to social cohesion in the UK has been completely trampled on.
Homelessness is rife. Queues at food banks are growing ever longer. The NHS is wondering how it can possibly cope once all the immigrants, whose dedication and hard work make its existence possible, have been refused work permits. Mixed British and EU families are living in fear of being broken up. Young people have no idea whether or not they’ll be able to study abroad. Small businesses don’t know if they’re going to be able to open their doors come April and big businesses are preparing to up sticks for countries where the lunatics aren’t running the asylum.
The Irish are incandescent about the mess this abysmally-handled process is making of the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland and the difficult recovery of the economy, while the rest of the EU looks on with a justifiable degree of schadenfreude. And no one’s booking a foreign holiday for March 30th, that’s for sure.
Here in the Brexitverse, the answer to all these problems, according to the dinosaurs of ideologies past now running the Labour Party – while presiding over an upsurge in anti-Semitism unprecedented since the second World War and Stalin’s “Doctor’s plot” – is apparently “But Israel...” while the Empire-bereft aristos of the Tory Party seem to see the threatened chaos as little more than an investment opportunity.
I do feel bad about offering such a glib analysis of what’s going wrong in Britain, yet this is precisely the manner with which these issues are being dealt by those elected to power and those elected to challenge them. The constant push for “no-deal” over the last few months perfectly illustrates the madness. No one, not the Remainers or the Leavers, voted to jump off a cliff yet this is what we’re told we must embrace or face being labelled a “traitor”.
I grieve for what has been so carelessly and thoughtless thrown away
And how has this language become acceptable once more? It’s all over the press and on social media – I even got called it by a Dublin cab driver last week because I told him I live in London. Whatever actually happens on Brexit Day, and however its consequences play out over the next months, years and decades, I can’t help thinking this sanctimonious rage will be its most appalling, most damaging legacy.
And how can we ever get back from this dark place? From this childish, binary way of engaging with and talking about those we disagree with? How do we live with those who have embraced this breakdown of civil society to such an extent they feel free – emboldened even – to express their racism and anti-Semitism, their misogyny and homophobia, their angry, righteous ignorance publicly and with impunity? I really grieve for what has been so carelessly and thoughtless thrown away. For all those carefully constructed bridges between people, communities, countries, ways of life and thought, which have been burned, or are about to be burned, down. So when I look to the future my question is; will it ever again be possible for us not to be angry all the time?
Eimear McBride is the author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians. She has won the Goldsmiths Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, Desmond Elliott Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize
I’ve been living in the North East of England for just over a year and a half now, and in some ways it still seems a devastated place, somewhere that hasn’t quite recovered from the damage of the 1980s. On my way to work each morning, I pass homeless people – frequently young white people from the area, frequently women – and a couple of weeks ago my daughter and I walked over an overpass and couldn’t help noticing that the waste ground beneath our feet was strewn with hundreds of empty spirits bottles. People live here, I thought. Well, if I lived there, I’d be drinking spirits too, shooting whatever I could get my hands on into my veins. If only to block the cold.
Coming from Northern Ireland, so much of Britain seems broken, on the edge. My commute to work is twice as expensive and the trains are at least twice as unreliable. Some of the trains are so old they resemble buses. Library services in Northumberland have been devastated. Councils are declaring bankruptcy and the NHS is in crisis. It doesn’t seem to me like a country that can withstand Brexit, no matter how ardently roughly half of its citizens may desire it, and yet over the cliff we go. It’s a terrifying prospect, made more terrifying by the staggering ineptitude of our politicians and the chaos reigning in parliament. Go it alone? Right now, Britain doesn’t seem like a country that could fight its way out of a paper bag.
For most people in Britain, Northern Ireland may as well be the moon
And the Irish Border? Well, who would have thought it, say my husband’s genuinely baffled clients, over and over, that the Irish Border should prove the sticking point? Who would have not thought it? And that’s it, in a nutshell – the utter lack of regard for Northern Ireland and the peace process which has characterised the Leave campaign from the beginning. It’s extraordinary, in a way, to hear the words “Irish border” on everybody’s lips – from EU premiers to the housebound elderly in my new home town. The DUP are clearly enjoying holding the balance of power in Westminster (and the massive injection of cash into Northern Ireland which has followed as a consequence) and yet there’s an uncomfortable truth at odds with this limelight moment: for most people in Britain, Northern Ireland may as well be the moon, and the Troubles a grainy flickering on a TV screen from decades ago, (mostly) unfolding somewhere else.
If Brexit allows British people to stabilise their own borders, to “take back control” (really the Big Idea of Brexit, the one that still animates, the one that can’t be shaken by gloomy economic forecasts or the panic of remainers), this only refers to some of its borders of course – primarily the sea wall between eastern England and Europe and the Channel Tunnel. That Brexit does not allow greater control over Britain’s most westerly border, but instead radically destabilises it, is irrelevant.
I’m still keeping my fingers crossed Brexit won’t happen. But the underpass haunts me. Soon the wind coming in off the North Sea could be blowing even colder, and for what?
Sinéad Morrissey is Director of the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts at Newcastle University. Her last poetry collection, On Balance, won the Forward Prize in 2018
Rue Jo Cox, Députée Britannique,
the street sign in Burgundy reads:
Assassinée pour ses convictions.
No British road is named after her,
I found on returning home, for fear
it might have proved controversial.
I remembered in Shakespeare rue
even for ruth, called ‘herb of grace’
because it was used in exorcisms,
by the angel to clean Adam’s eyes
and Gulliver back home for his nose
against the smell of his countrymen.
My last piece here on Brexit invoked a new ghost at the time and this is Rue, a poor poem for a good woman, but I wanted to exorcise my feelings about how her memory and what she stood for is being repressed. In the past couple of years I have worked with a wide range of local immigrant and socially excluded groups in Leeds and all of them thought Brexit would be a disaster except one, in a direct-access hostel for the street homeless, among whom deaths have grown alarmingly in recent years.
I was working there when John Smith’s film Who Are We? was shown and an ugly mood grew quickly: it feels like some desperate people voted against distant and indifferent government, as if unaware that it is their own and not Europe’s which neglects them.
Far-right groups have worked with the homeless across Europe but caring only for “our people”, a form of weaponised compassion stepping into the breach of care. The withdrawal of investment in the UK’s institutions of care will surely accelerate if the national finances continue to be damaged, a useful smokescreen for ideological cuts to the welfare state as scavengers circle the crisis, like all the rich who emerged richer from the financial crash.
Countering this, the UK has a parliament that couldn’t run a bath never mind a programme of complex new political and trade arrangements. The negative effects this would have on its relationship with Ireland I feared for have come to pass, particularly over the border, where ill-feeling between the countries has increased, although it’s hard to know how much greater that ill-feeling is than in so many other countries alienated by the UK’s Brexit antics.
Of course, rue has another common meaning, regret: whatever the risk to post-Brexit shortages in food and medicine, generations of regret are being stockpiled now. Expert views were rejected because everybody was an expert, Dunning-Kruger’s disease at a national level: I freely admit that I don’t know where this will end, but it stinks already.
Ian Duhig was born in London to Irish parents and lives in Leeds. He has won the National Poetry Competition twice and the Forward single poem prize
For the past five weeks I’ve had a foot in plaster, an unfortunate time to be stuck at home in close proximity to rolling news. I’m reminded of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, only instead of intrigues in neighbouring apartments, I appear to be witnessing the dying throes of UK democracy.
Like most people, my head is deaved with all the noise. Three years of angry, oppositional voices, and even the language is beleaguered trying to keep up. Brexit. Regrexit. McExit. Brexodus. Post-truth was OED word of the year in 2016, and toxic the winner for the year gone by. This week, as we come to the endgame, the cliff edge, the crunch, or indeed go down to the wire, there’s a dizzying fear that anything could happen. The end of March. The end of May? Boris Johnson re-emerging from a special place in hell, primed with a bright new three-word slogan?
This is not the England I know, or thought I knew. The decent, creative, multi-cultural society I’ve loved being a part of, for 25 years, seems to have been hijacked by the Tory hard right and most of us are looking on in despair. I don’t recognise the views peddled by politicians in the name of “the people”. If I hear the phrase “the will of the people” one more time, I might throw the television out of the (rear) window. If that’s possible on crutches. Or maybe just the radio. Freedom of disinformation has wreaked havoc on our politics; and false balance, most worryingly from the BBC, continues to fuel division.
An exceptional example came on Saturday, when a million-strong march for a People’s Vote in London was “balanced” with a report of Nigel Farage addressing 200 people in a car park near Nottingham. The marchers are not the majority, he announced. His blackwhite soundbite was faithfully reported.
An effective opposition could have made a difference. As a long-term Labour voter, I don’t know where to turn. While the million people marched in London, and five million rising signed a petition, Jeremy Corbyn’s version of rearranging the deckchairs was to do a little light canvassing in Morecambe. And speaking of the Titanic (hell, we might as well): just at the point where we surely need a theme tune, like “My heart will go on” as the iceberg looms, the great Scott Walker passes away and “The sun ain’t gonna shine (any more)” is all over the airwaves.
The least worst outcome, apparently, is the best we can hope for now. And what that means, God help us, is anyone’s guess.
Colette Bryce is a poet from Derry, living in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her Selected Poems was published by Picador in 2017.
On March 29th, 2017, the day Theresa May sent a letter to Donald Tusk formally triggering Brexit, what I’ve come to think of as the defining Brexit sensibility was outlined in a YouGov survey which asked Leave voters what they would like to see re-introduced after Brexit.
In reverse order, the top four results were: the re-introduction of corporal punishment in schools (42%); of imperial measure in shops (48%); of dark blue passports (52%) and, at No 1, of the death penalty (53%). (A scarily predictable 9% opted for the re-introduction of pre-decimal currency.)
There you have it: Brexit is both inherently aggressive and dangerously nostalgic. Not to mention confused, to the point, I think, of delusion. The NHS website identifies delusions, confused thoughts and lack of insight and self-awareness as the prime symptoms of psychosis. That seems apt. Nothing about its way of handling the withdrawal negotiations would seem to suggest other than that Britain may be suffering from collective psychosis.
But what might the treatment be, and what is the prognosis?
Might one answer, amongst others, perhaps, be time?
Assuming the EU survives – and there’s every reason to expect it will, given its self-possession, authority and purposefulness these past three years – and assuming the UK actually leaves, I tell myself it will rejoin within 10 years.
Why? Because it can’t afford not to, and because every tin-headed argument for Leave will be exposed, post-Brexit, as just that. And because that 9% who wish to revert to pre-decimal currency will by then, likely be dead.
How much damage will be done meantime remains to be seen, and the seeing won’t be pleasant, especially if Trump gets a second term and brings his own peculiar mix of aggression, paranoia and opportunism to the trade negotiation table.
One thing seems certain: the UK is in for a brutal chastening. It can be difficult, sometimes, to differentiate between the “emergency” stockpiling of olives and merlot, and hard economic facts. If Chris Grayling is right (that more money has been wiped off the FTSE index since the Brexit vote than the UK has paid into the EU in 45 years), we’d better brace ourselves.
I say “We”, but I mean “They”: the Brexit vote did me one favour: it clarified my desire to return to Ireland to live. This is the year I move to rural Sligo: a safety valve, a bolthole, some respite.
Fine for me who has that option, but the 11 years I’ve lived in Manchester make me wish our neighbours better times. I hope the UK withstands what’s to come and can maintain itself for long enough to survive this episode, to heal.
Despite the results of that YouGov survey, there’s no going back to December 31st, 1972. There’s no rewind button in politics (or life), but I hope the FastForward button is functioning and that it won’t be long before we’re welcoming the UK back into our community which is, of course, and ought to be, their community too.
Poet Vona Groarke lives in Manchester where she teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.
In my despair after the referendum result three years go, I briefly deluded myself that Theresa May – newly installed as prime minister – might be playing some crafty game. She’d been a Remain campaigner, after all. What if, like a judge sounding severe but then handing out a light sentence, she intended to outmanoeuvre the hardliners in her party and negotiate a soft Brexit or even turn the tide towards Remain?
Duh: what wishful thinking that was. Anti-immigration sentiment was the single biggest factor driving Leave voters, and she had fuelled it during her time as home secretary, with her “hostile environment” policy and the nasty little vans she sent scurrying round the country with “Go Home or Face Arrest” written on the side. In my defence, I couldn’t have anticipated how inflexible a negotiator she’d prove to be, how charmless and unenterprising, half-bully, half-robot. But I should have foreseen where her red lines would be drawn.
It has been a terrible few years in the UK. Hate crimes have risen. Post-imperial tristesse had become neo-imperial grandiosity (we will go it alone and rule the world again! it’s only Brussels that’s holding us back!). Innocuous words such as “deliver” and “orderly” have been poisoned. The best politicians, or those (like Corbyn) we thought were good-enough, lack all conviction. And the worst are full of passionate hypocrisy, moving their assets overseas to protect themselves from the consequences of the No-Deal Brexit they’re busily campaigning for, or piously invoking “the will of the people” as a reason not to give the people another vote. Every opinion poll suggests that Remain would now win. And if it didn’t, at least no one could say that people were voting blindly or in protest against austerity, as happened in 2016.
I tell myself there have been upsides. I now have an Irish passport (my mother having grown up in Kerry). I also have a cause to fight for (environmentalism aside, the last one I felt so worked up about was thirty years ago, when the fatwa on Salman Rushdie made freedom of expression a matter of urgency even in countries that had taken it for granted). To walk through London last Saturday with a million others was exhilarating: so many witty placards, so few policemen, and all those EU flags.
If only EU flags had been proudly brandished during the Remain campaign three years ago. If only someone had thought to tell hard-done-by regional communities how much worse off they’d be without all the EU money that had come their way. If only we Brits had exercised some pragmatism, instead of ending up an object of global ridicule. If only…
Every nation has an if only on its conscience, a moment when it might have thought more inventively, acted more wisely, and avoided catastrophe. Catastrophe doesn’t seem too strong a word for what Britain is now facing. And even if we avoid it at the last hour, the place feels meaner, uglier and more stupid than ever before.
Blake Morrison’s books include the memoirs And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Things My Mother Never Told Me, the poetry collection Shingle Street and, just out in paperback, the novel The Executor.
One positive thing for Northern Ireland is that Brexit has actually made it visible. Mostly it feels like a little desert island and we jump up and down trying to get the attention of passing aircraft. Even our bonfires aren’t seen from the lofty heights you look down upon us from. The only other time we caught the eyes of you outsiders was when we used explosives. At least this is only a disaster and not carnage.
I taught 10 classes in a school in London this month. Having taught in England on and off for 15 years I was used to the daily explanation of Northern Ireland and our odd little lot. This time around every class, all age groups, knew about us, in detail, backstops and all. And the cherry on the cake, I watched the American Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Netflix on my way home and Jonathan Van Ness used little Northern Ireland to explain to a straight guy why it was so important he has soft borders on his walls. Maybe we could get them to come over, work on Arlene and Stormont, hell, the whole damn place needs a gaying up!
Paul McVeigh is director/co-founder of the London Short Story Festival and author of The Good Son, winner of the Polari Prize. He lives in Belfast
My six-year-old frequently likes to claim he can do things he can’t. Like speak French. Or juggle. Sometimes I encourage this wild optimism about his capacities, sometimes I ignore it, and sometimes I’ll hand him three apples and tell him to go on ahead and prove it. A second later, when the apples are smashed on the kitchen floor, he’ll still be insisting he can juggle. Another thing he likes to claim, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, is that he can swim without armbands. Brexit Britain reminds me of him, standing at the edge of the pool, shivering a bit, about to jump in. When it comes to my son, I let him sink for a bit and then pull him to the surface, but who’s going to drag Britain out if it jumps, having convinced itself – despite abundant evidence – of its natatory genius?
Part of me wants to see it happen, the country flailing, sinking, if that’s what it takes to realise the benefits of co-operation with our neighbours, access to the world’s largest free trade zone, a sense of community and openness. Another part of me thinks No, it’s crazy, it’s the poor who will, as always, suffer the most in some deregulated off-shore haven run by those entitled public school buffoons, Rees-Mogg and Johnson. The madness must be stopped. But how? A “final confirmatory vote”? Revocation of Article 50? It seems like every option plays into the hands of Farage and his mendacious populists.
It’s almost too depressing to try to put into words the sheer political fuck-wittedness of the last couple of years. Everything was both predictable, and predicted: the slowing of the economy, the intractability of the Irish border, the rise in racist words and acts, the incredible waste of time and money, the unravelling of lie after lie about easy trade deals and having cakes and eating them. We’ve seen the Leave campaign revealed as liars, fantasists and Russian stooges. We’ve seen report after report from independent organisations about the suicidal consequences of a no-deal Brexit. And yet, here we are, standing at the very edge of the pool, our hands tied behind our backs, pretending we’re Olympic swimmers.
Nick Laird is a poet and novelist who is on faculty at New York University, and Professor of Creative Writing in Poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast
Theresa May insisting on numerous occasions (apparently more than 100) that the UK would leave the EU on March 29th, and then at the last minute rushing to Brussels to beg for an extension; the cabinet minister for Brexit making a speech urging MPs to vote one way and then voting the other way himself; the DUP insisting that Northern Ireland must not be treated in any way differently from mainland Britain, except of course when it suits the DUP, on issues like abortion; Nigel Farage assuring a crowd of 200 Brexit supporters in a pub car park in Nottingham that they are the majority and the million marching in London for a second referendum are the minority.
The Brexit process has been rich in absurdities and revelations, especially the astounding arrogance of its advocates, the belief that England is so obviously superior and important that it is entitled to demand what it wants, and would be certain of getting it if its negotiators would just be firm enough – and that once tiresome European restraints have been removed, the grateful world will be queuing up to do business with England on England’s terms.
This attitude also explains the fixation of these supporters on the Irish border part of the deal agreed with Europe. Underlying this is outrage that an unimportant, backward little country like Ireland should be interfering in the negotiations with demands of its own.
The double whammy for these Brexit supporters has been that not only is Europe unwilling to make the concessions demanded, it is prepared to back the country that remained neutral during the war rather than the country of Winston Churchill, who singlehandedly saved Europe from Hitler. Has Europe no sense of history, no gratitude? But nothing is harder to change than a sense of superiority and the only effect of these shocks will be to make English nationalism even more angry and strident.
The UK in its hour of need is saddled with the two worst party leaders in living memory
Everyone wants to feel superior – and for once the Irish can enjoy this luxury. It’s terrific that Ireland has a leader who is gay and the son of an Indian immigrant, putting the country ahead even of Scandinavia for sophisticated tolerance. And Varadkar has performed with sophisticated tolerance, measured in his responses and sorrowful in his demeanour. In democratic disputes careful wording usually plays better than rhetoric and sorrow usually plays better than anger.
I shudder at the thought of someone like Brian Cowen representing Ireland. My abiding memory of Cowen on the international stage is the occasion when he was speaking at the White House and discovered that he was reading the wrong speech.
Ireland has been fortunate in having Varadkar, whereas the UK is also looking bad because in its hour of need it is saddled with the two worst party leaders in living memory – both narrow-minded, inflexible and embarrassingly inept, convinced that compromise means being polite to the other side when they do what you want.
In terms of international reputation, the strange outcome is that Ireland may be the new Denmark and England the new Ireland, patronised as stubborn, deluded and hopelessly out of touch with the world, a joke.
Michael Foley is a Northern Irish writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction who lives in London
In the park, being walked by the dog, we meet staffies, huskies, dachshunds, whippets, lurchers, wolfhounds and, more recently, quite a lot of rescue dogs. The dogs disgrace us, jumping on one another, ploughing into the mud, and landing paws-first on the chests of other people’s children. We talk about how old they are, or where they came from; many of them, their owners are happy to say, imported from Romania and Bulgaria. Before being pulled away, we might talk, tiredly, about Brexit, or the latest disastrous planning decisions made by an impoverished local council which is making up for lost funding with developments financed by Asian investors.
Theresa May’s Tory Party has succeeded. Succeeded in dragging the centre ground of political conversation away from austerity and public services, and towards questions of national identity and belonging.
Brexit is just one other iteration of her ideological, party-first ambition to change the political conversation: 18 per cent of the working age population was born outside the UK, but May’s government has relentlessly pushed the line that “citizenship is a privilege, not a right”, which means that anyone with dual citizenship may now, at the behest of the home secretary, be exiled to their “other country”, which may be Sudan, or Pakistan or Jamaica. A central part of her “hostile environment” strategy at the Home Office, this has led to the disgrace of her Windrush policy, the UK’s bizarre export-only response to Isis recruits, and also to the suitably red lines of her Brexit negotiations.
When some form of Brexit is in place, and if the Tory Party survives it, where will her party’s desperate primitive urge to re-make its constituency take it next? It seems impossible that a majority of UK voters will feel addressed by their tribalism.
Philip Larkin is sometimes suggested as some kind of Brexit laureate. Europe-averse, generationally stuck, self-hating and politically furious at everyone, he could, in Homage to a Government, write: “We want the money for ourselves at home / Instead of working”. But Larkin can seem like a paragon of open-mindedness when set against contemporary debates: he knew “the importance of elsewhere” and wanted more than just “my customs and establishments.”
And while the freakshow of Brexit occupies the political class, the civic subjects of Larkin’s still-amazingly lyrical poems – trainlines, big university cities, the green parks, nationalised healthcare – are being dismantled by a government of serial failers, Tory dogs of war like Chris Grayling and Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Whoever writes this sorry episode’s obituary – and the sooner the better – will need an iron constitution.
Poet John McAuliffe is from Kerry and lives in Manchester, where he co-directs the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.
In the last 32 months since the referendum result there have been quite a few surprises; or at least, moments that have been reported as surprising but which had already been predicted by many. Take the recent “surprise” that a vote can’t be taken twice on the same topic. It’s hard to belief that someone who categorically ruled out a second referendum on the grounds of democracy didn’t think of this.
It makes you wonder: what’s the real motive behind the chaos? But there was one genuinely surprising moment for me, which was hearing a BBC News reporter on the radio interviewing British people who’d supported the Leave Campaign. When he asked them how they felt now, they simply replied, “Bring in on.” I realised then that my assumption that a second referendum would reverse the result of the first was naïve.
Now I can only think that serious diplomatic intervention is required; open and sympathetic discussion between all sides. It’s like the country’s gone to bed on an argument, and can’t find a way to start talking again.
Surely it’s disastrous to let things go on this way.
Tara Bergin is a poet and teaches part-time at Newcastle University. Her latest collection is The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet).
The Brexit countdown has felt unreal at times. The no-deal Brexit been portrayed as an apocalyptic nightmare with empty shelves and long queues at ports. And after nearly three years, we’re still sitting in the port ourselves, in some interminable terminal, wondering if we should just cancel and turn back home, while postponement plays out on the departures board.
But how did we end up in the port? The whole idea behind Brexit was about freedom; to leave the single market and go on the singles market. The UK would strut round the world, hooking up with different countries, making new love matches. It would be like some extended 18-30 clubbing holiday. But all that didn’t factor in the spurned lover, the EU, exacting a price.
Nor did it factor in the Irish border. Here in Northern Ireland, the Brexit negotiations have smashed the peace process to smithereens and polarised British and Irish. It feels as if our country is being fought over by two colonial powers – EU/Ireland and UK/England. In regards to the backstop, the Irish Government, it has to be said, has quite enjoyed its playground display of “my daddy, the EU, is bigger than your daddy”.
If Brexit does go ahead, my personal hope is we have freedom of movement and the freedom to feel British, Irish or Britirish. I travel across the border frequently so I’d be deeply opposed to infrastructure holding up travel. I don’t want to pay extra charges when I go to Europe, but the world seems greedy now. People say it will be harder to get jobs abroad after Brexit, but why should it? I remember how easy it was to go and teach in Poland and the Czech Republic well before they joined the EU.
Brexit has helped to put Northern Ireland, quite literally, on the map
It’s been a long time since we heard the Brexiteer boast of £350 million a week extra for the NHS. Even if it had turned out to be true, our region would have been shortchanged. The fact remains, in terms of NHS spending, a life here in Belfast is not as valuable as a life in London. To paraphrase Orwell, some British are more equal than others.
One of the very few bright spots is that Brexit has helped to put Northern Ireland, quite literally, on the map. Right now, Brexit is said to be encouraging talk of a border poll, but I think with the demographics here pointing ever more towards a Catholic majority, calls for a border poll were always inevitable. Brexit just makes it easier for people to justify their demands and allows them to legitimize their nationalism.
For us, it’s unfortunate that Brexit has turned into a question of whether to remain in the UK or join a UI. The last thing we need at this time is more inflamed rhetoric and red lines from governments or political parties. More than ever, we need Stormont up and running to try and calm things, to work on the more important issues in people’s lives and to bring back a collaborative voice of reason.
Rosemary Jenkinson’s collection of short stories, Catholic Boy, is published by Doire Press. She recently received a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write a memoir.
It is hard to believe almost three years have passed since June 23rd, 2016, not simply because May’s Article 50 deadline has come around so fast, but because so few serious arrangements have been put in place towards smoothing the UK’s exit from the EU. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion, having watched the purposeful purposelessness of David Davis’s, and then Dominic Raab’s, so-called negotiations with the EU Commission, that for the right wing of the Conservative party, a No Deal exit has been the aim all along.
The atmosphere on the ground in Lincolnshire, which in 2016 voted Leave with the highest majority in the country, is eerily calm. But for me, as an immigrant, the loss of trust has been profound. Things that seemed charming or eccentric, when I first moved here, have taken on a sinister cast. One example is the World War obsession in this “bomber county”. The epicentre of this nostalgia is a village called Woodhall Spa, which lies about 15 miles southeast of Lincoln city. Woodhall Spa boasts, among other attractions, an outdoor heated lido and the only extant back-projecting cinema in the United Kingdom.
Opposite the war memorial there is a tea room; a place of doilies, homemade preserves, and wall-to-ceiling RAF memorabilia. It is a place to be conscious of one’s accent. Whilst using the ladies’ facilities here six or seven years ago, I was entertained by a passionately anti-EU poem pinned to the back of the toilet door. Incongruously, it also seems to be a favourite hangout of bikers; on another visit we could scarcely budge for Hells Angels. I haven’t returned since the referendum result; the quavering triumphalism would make me inclined to choke on my crumpets.
Woodhall Spa also hosts an annual “40s Festival”, which attracts thousands of visitors every summer. Over a weekend in July, people dress up in 1940s clothing, style their hair into regulation cuts and victory rolls, and parade up and down the bunting-hung streets to the sound of swing bands and Spitfires. It is a fascinating exercise in cultural nostalgia: an enactment of a national fixation which I believe contributed in no small part to the Brexit vote. That vote was also based on a confused and inaccurate notion of the relationship between past and present: plucky Britannia standing alone (except she didn’t) against the fascist EU (except it isn’t).
As for my neighbours, I have not broached, nor would I wish to, the subject of Brexit with them
Is it just that a demoralised people feel the 1940s were the last time Britain could describe herself as indisputably great: global top dog not only militarily, but morally? Much of the map of the world then was still pink. From there it has been an inexorable slide into the shade.
Which makes me consider that there is a darker side to the tea cakes and the victory rolls. Since 2016, it has been impossible for me mentally to separate the Brexit movement from the rise of the far right in the UK, despite the loud disavowals of “moderate” Leave voters.
Brexit is a deeply xenophobic project. In places like Lincolnshire that is blindingly obvious, and even the comments of an arch-Remainer like Michael Heseltine would seem to bear this out. “So Germany lost the war,” he remarked in 2017. “We’ve just handed them the opportunity to win the peace. I find that quite unacceptable.” That a respected senior politician could voice that opinion, 70 years after the end of the second World War, is astonishing. Perhaps the British are finally being eaten by the farrowing sow of their own imperial past.
As for my immediate neighbours, I have not broached, nor would I wish to, the subject of Brexit with them. I take into account the fact that probably upwards of 70 per cent of people on my street voted to Leave, and I keep my mouth shut. As it happens this is fairly easy, as Lincolnshire folk are notoriously uncommunicative; “mardy” with strangers, as the local dialect has it. It’s no coincidence Dickens placed his emotionally frozen Lady Honoria Dedlock on a rain-drenched country estate in Lincolnshire. “The waters are out in Lincolnshire.” The waters are out, all right.
Caitriona O’Reilly is a poet and a lecturer in creative writing at King’s College, London. She lives in Lincoln. Her collection Geis won the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2016.
Whatever happens with Brexit in the coming weeks and indeed years, it is easy to succumb to the belief that it is already too late, because so much toxicity has coursed through the body politic and poisoned so many parts of what any decent society needs to stay healthy and prosper.
The political process and politicians in general have probably never been held in lower esteem and while it may be the product of naivety, there is something deeply shocking at seeing so many of those elected to power prepared to put personal or party advantage above the collective good. Levels of hate crimes have risen since the referendum and a general air of xenophobia has infiltrated public discourse. And while understanding that great swathes of the north of England have over decades become socially and economically detached from London, Brexit was never the answer to their undoubted problems. The name United Kingdom increasingly appears like an example of irony.
Here in Northern Ireland we have the frustration of not having the majority Remain vote effectively represented at the heart of power and harbour a sense that our democratic expression can simply be ignored. And to predicate a political response to the backstop on your desire that we should be treated exactly as the rest of the UK but then refuse women and the LGBT community the rights they enjoy throughout the rest of the UK can’t really be defined as anything other than hypocrisy.
The word sovereignty is often heard in debate and you wonder how so many of its users are seemingly oblivious to the fact that we live in an age of multiculturalism and where everything we consume, everything our hand touches, is the product of collaboration and inter-dependency. It is too late to build walls and the ultimate futility to try. Surely too even the most ardent Brexiters cannot really believe that the current crop of politicians possesses any of the qualities needed to lead them to some sunlit uplands.
As a writer I console myself with the belief that the imagination is unfettered by borders, that it always seeks to reach outwards and words need no passport. And as someone who will never stop being a citizen of Europe, I cling to the enduring hope that whatever happens in the future, what is shared will always prove stronger than what divides. One world, one love.
David Park was born in Belfast and lives in Co Down. His latest novel is Travelling in a Strange Land
In a letter to Lady Gregory on May 11th, 1916, Yeats said of the Easter Rising: “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me.” This kept coming back to me in the days after the disaster of the Brexit vote, almost exactly a century later. Yeats was deeply moved by this cataclysmic event affecting his country and the relations between the two countries he lived in. But it was startling to realise just how shaken we all were by this contemporary political development – me, my sister in Manchester, and our Ireland-loving English-born families.
After all, what would change? In the course of the campaign, there had been some unpleasant and dishonest tactics by the English Right which was the home ground of the Brexiteers: a pretence that leaving Europe would make Britain richer and the noble NHS better funded (traditionally the NHS was the concern of the Left). Even more disturbing was the nasty mantra associated with the then home secretary, Theresa May, that it was desirable that Britain should become a “hostile environment” for asylum-seekers and economic refugees. It was the first instance of May’s disastrous weakness for facile catchphrases; the next was the Vaken project in which vans drove round London displaying slogans urging illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”. What kind of aspirations were these, in a period when desperate refugees were drowning in the Mediterranean?
So we should have been on our guard when May said there would be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. When she said that, we did all wonder how it could be avoided. Was it not normal to have hard borders between sovereign states? But there was plenty of time before the day of reckoning. We were assured that there would be a good deal because “no deal was better than a bad deal”. I was reminded of my father saying 60 years ago “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”. It goes without saying that a job is worth doing well.
Brexit has created resentment among people that will be hard to overcome
And now look! Three years on, on March 13th there was a vote in the House of Commons about taking “No deal” off the table. How can you do that? Isn’t nothing on the table precisely what “no deal” is? And it has proved politically convenient that it is the fault of the Irish again with their tiresome Backstop. In 1066 and all That, the authors note the nefarious Irish habit, when the Irish Question was resolved by decent and high-minded English politicians, of going back to the Bogs to think of a different question.
The worst thing about Brexit is the way it has created ill-feeling and resentment among people that will be hard to overcome. Interest in sport is salutary, it is often said, because it provides a ground for the expression of hostility that doesn’t directly impact on personal relations or reputation. The Cork and Meath footballers were bitter opponents in the late 1980s and 1990; but when the Cork goalkeeper John Kerins died, his coffin was followed by a phalanx of Meath players in Meath blazers.
But there is no escaping the divisions in opinion invited by the Brexit referendum. The most disastrous rifts caused are not between Britain and the EU, or even between opposed economic interests; they are between neighbours and relatives and friends and even passing acquaintances. Seamus Heaney’s great poem of good neighbourliness The Other Side shows how subtle and delicate and valuable community relations are, and how easily they can be threatened. Three years after the vote, it is hard to see where all this will end up.
Bernard O’Donoghue is from Co Cork and lives in Oxford, where he was a university lecturer for 40 years. He won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry for Gunpowder in 1995 and succeeded Seamus Heaney as Honorary President of the Irish Literary Society of London in 2014.
At this point, I can scarcely bring myself to think about the chaos and incompetence, the smirking idiocy of the principals – all those senior British politicians who know strictly nothing about the laws or even geography of their own land – and the sheer malignity of their desires. I’ve learned to ration the daily glut of Brexit bulletins: without TV or radio news, I’ve genuinely forgotten what the likes of May and Rees-Mogg sound like. (The ghastly, huffing Johnson lingers in the mind.) Instead, apart from the repeated morning wallop of an online update – surprise, shit is general all over England – I’ve tried to pay attention to more sober and synthesising voices, to those who can say how and why and what next.
And they tell us – what? That Brexit is a product of foetid infighting in the Tory party, first encouraged, now enacted, solely to keep that caucus of dolts intact and in power. That Leave voters are the provincial ‘left behind’: gulled, for sure, into Trumpian talk of ‘metropolitan elites’, but nursing real grievances ignored for decades. That Brexit’s dismal binge of self-harm derives from misplaced English nostalgia, involves shrinking from mature questions about what nationhood means today, and retreating into weepy nursery dreams about lost empire. Or, finally, that the blame lies with sinister types, domestic and offshore, who insinuated their algorithms into the democratic body like poisoned needles.
All of this is plausible, and all of it inadequate, because it scants a simple fact: that Brexit is also the result of a shameless choice by many people – the vaunted People and their Freedonian masters – to pursue xenophobia, racism and outright fascism. All the circumstantial explanations aside, you have to choose to be a bigot too. To look at the UK’s ordinarily vile treatment of asylum seekers and certain immigrants, and think: we have not gone far enough. To listen to Teresa May in her time as Home Secretary, describing her ‘hostile environment’, and conclude that this soft-pedalling needs to stop. Or watch the decade-long ascent of Farage – practically sponsored by a bored and cynical media – and arrive at the opinion that a nation must bow to the whims of a creep out of PG Wodehouse. Whatever may happen with the UK’s imminent or deferred exit from the EU, it is hard to see how those who made this choice will unchoose it.
Brian Dillon’s Essayism and In the Dark Room are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. After 23 years living in Kent, he recently moved to London, where he teaches writing at the Royal College of Art.
However ugly it looks close-up, the usual line is that, by global standards, Westminster politics never really leaves the centre ground. No bad thing, I’ve always felt. Compromise and common sense are the British way. There’s no chance of a bloody revolution, no populist swings at election time from one extreme to the other. Things nearly always get sorted out with a decent fudge that no one actually wants, but everyone can live with.
Not any more. Just like in my native Northern Ireland, there really is no middle way with the politics of Brexit. It was a stark binary choice. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. But sooner or later, popular sentiment always meets with political reality. And so for the last three years, the British government has faffed around, trying to keep the hardliners happy, hoping someone would come up with a decent compromise.
There isn’t one. Because in all their excitement about the new splendid isolation, how history and geography give Britain its own distinct identity outside continental Europe, the Brexiters forgot one important thing. Their beloved UK isn’t an island at all. It’s an island and a half.
The choice remains what it always has been: a soft Brexit and a soft border, or a hard Brexit and a hard border. That’s what the backstop is all about. And now, at last, it’s finally beginning to sink in. Parliament has taken charge, the extremes have shouldered the moderates out of the way, and – just like Sinn Fein and the DUP 20 years ago – sworn enemies have to sit down together and bash out a solution that everyone can live with.
And they will. Of course they will. It’s the only way these things ever get done. Then the carnival will leave town, and things will settle back much as they were before, with a few new faces at the top. That’s the British way. And a jolly good thing too. More fudge, anyone?
Michael Hughes is the author of Country. He lives in London
I live in Northern Ireland. My passport’s green. I voted Remain. I will vote Remain again if offered the opportunity. (I don’t think I will be). The whole sorry Brexit process had left me feeling traduced. Here is why:
Originally the referendum was advisory.
Then David Cameron, the UK prime minister, promised the result would be “enacted”; but when he made that promise none of the safeguards were in place that you might normally expect to be in play in a binding referendum, such as a threshold having to be reached; say a two-thirds majority if the UK was going to do something as major as exit the EU (whatever that meant) and walk away from a 43-year-old relationship. No, because of Cameron’s promise, issued by fiat, the decision would be made on the basis of a simple majority, meaning a one-vote majority could swing Brexit. This is not the way to make a crucial decision (the greatest decision the UK has made since the decision to declare war in September 1939) but that’s what was decided about how the decision would be made.
It was the will of some of the people, a little over a third of them
Then on top of the way the referendum was configured there were, during the referendum campaign, which further fuelled my incredulity as well as my deep feelings of resentment about the whole process, the lies told by pro-Leave politicians, the overt and disgusting racism of some of those on the Leave side (which has created a palpable attitude of hostility towards outsiders which is damaging civil society even as I write), the questionable use of personal data made by Leave organisations, the flagrant disdain for spending limits and agreed procedure shown by the two organisations agitating for the UK to leave the EU, and the refusal by the UK government to extend the franchise in the referendum to younger voters or UK citizens living in the EU.
Put all the above together and where you end up, inevitably, is with the result we got, obtained by a simple majority. This was trumpeted as the will of the people. It was not. It was the will of some of the people, a little over a third of them. You do not do something as major as leave the EU on a mandate of this size, and for a mature democracy to leave on such terms was and is imbecilic.
Since the referendum vote the UK has been in negotiation with the EU about the divorce. These negotiations (“The easiest in history”) have not gone swimmingly on account of Mrs May’s red lines (an idiotic political decision), Mrs May’s character (xenophobic, hard-hearted and obdurate), and finally, her unhealthy dependency on the Democratic Unionist Party (an insane fidelity which has totally hobbled her capacity for manoeuvre).
And as the negotiations have unfolded I have watched dumb-founded. How, I have frequently wondered, could our mistresses and masters be so inept, so stupid, so offensive and so reckless? How can they say what they say (“No deal is better than a bad deal”) and want to do what they want to do (leave with either no deal or an appalling deal) while ignoring the UK government’s own research which shows that we will all be harmed whatever kind of Brexit we have.
For me the last three years watching our politicians negotiate has been like the end of a terrible party where I’ve found myself stuck with a reveller talking absolute gibberish. Of course where this analogy breaks down is in terms of agency: you can slip away from someone spouting nonsense but it seems there’s no escape from the rhetoric of the Brexiteers or from those real-life calamities which we know will flow from their political ambitions.
The above is a summary of my retrospective feelings about the referendum’s organisation and the subsequent conduct of the UK’s negotiators in their dealings with the EU. However, the decision was made and we are where we are (as politicians might say). And where exactly is that?
Well, I believe the UK is quitting, and for whatever form that takes (soft, medium, hard or suicidal), I have another analogy. Brexit is a puncture acquired when we decided to drive over rather than around some broken glass on the road. At the moment, as I write, there’s just a tiny hole in the inner tube. Air is leaching out but the tyre did have plenty of air in it in the first place and so for a while the UK will roll on. Yes, we, who live there, will notice a bit of softening but, as the Brexiteers will murmur seductively, “A car factory closing here, an end to roaming charges there, it’s the way it goes, folks. We’ve left the EU, so of course what else would you expect but a little bit of softening?”
This will be a canard as well as a misjudgment of course. As Gertrude Stein might say, a puncture is a puncture is a puncture. Air will continue to leak until one day, way in the future, all the air will be gone, the rim will hit the ground with a horrible bump, and we’ll grind to a halt ... the flat, finally, will have hit.
Brexit is a slow puncture and its calamitous consequences won’t show until long after its agents and enablers and instigators have quit the stage, moved to their lovely homes in France or Spain, acquired a string of incredibly well-remunerated company directorships and been elevated to the House of Lords, leaving us to fix the disaster they’ve created.
Writer Carlo Gébler was born in Dublin and moved with his parents Ernest Gébler and Edna O’Brien to London in 1958. He now lives in Co Fermanagh. His latest book is Aesop’s Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods
Reading Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth to my daughter recently, I was struck by two things: the first was how much I remembered from the magical, mind-blowing film version I’d seen as a child; the second was how un-fantastical it now seems, how horribly familiar the Doldrums and the Mountains of Ignorance are.
The idea that we are trapped in some kind of fable, or that a terrible curse has been put upon us is actually the closest I can get to understanding the current situation. It feels dreamlike, endless. Everyone in despair. No one knowing how to break the curse.
While we are all trapped in the quicksand the landscape around us slowly turns to dust. From September my children will no longer receive a full-time education as their school can’t afford to open on Friday afternoons and their classmates with special needs face exclusion as there’s no money to pay for specialist provision.
It’s hard to see light at the end of this tunnel.
Catherine O’Flynn is a novelist. Her first novel for children, Lori and Max, is to be published in September
A couple of months before the 2016 Referendum a friend working in the DFA told me she was absolutely certain that Leave was going to win. So, the result, when it came, was not so much a shock to me as a horrifying prophecy fulfilled. I already had my solution ready: appoint only Northern Irish politicians to the negotiating team and append the word ‘Process’ to ‘Brexit’. That way it would go on for years with long gaps where the whole thing was suspended and shorter interludes where negotiators were travelling the world proclaiming it the Best Leaving Ever, while everyone else quietly forgot what it was we were processing from and processing to and simply rubbed along, until perhaps the centenary of the Referendum rolled around, at which point we would have some beautiful content of smiling, moderate-after-the-fact, elder statespersons (150 by that stage being the new 75) streamed on to our – possibly internal – 2116 screens.
Instead Theresa May called an election and put a single Northern Irish party – the DUP – in charge of her government, and the rest is… who the fuck knows.
Much of what has gone on since has appalled as well as saddened me and I include in that the scorn poured on people who voted the opposite way from me, among whom – I don’t think I am sticking my neck out very far in saying – were members of my own family. I am European to the core, but this bears repeating: it is all right to want to leave the EU (wrongheaded in my estimation, but still all right), as it is all right to want to leave any political arrangement, of which in the course of human history there have been many and of which in the centuries and millennia we will not be here to witness there will be many, many more. If you are going to leave anything, in fact, voting seems far from the worst way to go about it.
But I am still pinning my remaining hopes on process. Endless, endless process.
Glenn Patterson is a Belfast-based writer. His latest novel is Gull
In June 2016, I argued we might have to turn to Irish writers to best reflect the changed times that Brexit has landed us in. Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, certainly seems to have reached that conclusion. He recently said, “I have the feeling that I am in the waiting room for Godot and Godot is never coming.”
Whether Leaver or Remainer, there’s widespread consternation here with the shambolic, deceitful and grossly incompetent manner in which Theresa May and her government has handled Brexit. Apart from downplaying the economic consequences, which most experts indicate will be anything from damaging to disastrous, British politicians’ arrogant handling of the Irish border issue has potentially even more serious consequences, something the recent spate of letter bombs has graphically illustrated.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, there is now mounting concern within a disproportionately ageing Irish population in Britain about the impending impact of Brexit on healthcare and medical supplies. Meanwhile, the Irish government has assured its citizens in Britain that the Common Travel Agreement between the UK and Ireland will not be affected by Brexit. But many of us don’t feel we can trust the present British government to necessarily honour this agreement, especially given its record with the recent Windrush scandal. We also know that the oxygen of publicity is no longer entirely controlled by mainstream media, so we watch in horror as social media fuels the extreme right-wing xenophobia wreaking havoc in New Zealand and elsewhere. What, we wonder, will Brexit hate speech lead to here?
Before the next chapter plays out in this sorry political melodrama, I think we all desperately need some light relief and inspiration. So, let’s turn to the writers again, this time George and Ira Gershwin.
Goodness knows what the end will be
Oh I don’t know where I’m at
It looks as if we two will never be one
Something must be done
You say either and I say either
You say neither and I say neither
Either either, Neither neither
Let’s call the whole thing off.
Tony Murray is director of the Irish Writers in London Summer School and author of London Irish Fictions: Narrative, Diaspora and Identity (Liverpool University Press).
Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times