‘UK was groomed’: Irish writers throw book at Brexit
A broad cross-section of Irish poets and authors add their voices to alarm over Britain’s vote to leave the EU
A demonstrator protests against the outcome of the UK’s EU referendum. “The vote for Brexit has turned this country into what it has always prided itself on not being: mean, narrow and unwelcoming,” said Irish author Eimear McBride. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
In an EU referendum campaign marked by mendacity, some of the pithiest truths have been uttered by writers. “If your head says Remain but your heart says Leave, remember that one is specifically designed for thinking and the other is a pump,” tweeted author Ros Barber on the eve of last week’s historic vote, quoting Dan Davies.
Now that Leave has triumphed, albeit narrowly, what is the response of Britain’s many Irish writers to this seismic event? I canvassed a wide number for their views yesterday, and it is indicative of the passion the debate has inspired that almost 20 responded that same day.
On the evening of June 23rd, I drove with the novelist David Park to Dublin’s Mansion House for the presentation of the Ireland Funds' Literary Award. At the same ceremony, two years ago, I had remarked that one of the good things about living in Northern Ireland was that you got to feel like you were two places at once, while over the previous decade it had become a whole new place entirely. This new post-peace process Northern Ireland hasn’t been without challenges: the application of market forces has made it a bad time to be involved in university teaching of the humanities over the last year. I was looking forward to a free dinner.
When this year’s winner, Emma Donoghue, announced that she would donate her prize to refugee charities, it was a reminder of the insidious strain in the EU referendum’s Vote Leave campaign. Still, I did not seriously expect Brexit. Returning to Belfast the same evening, crossing the border just after midnight, Sunderland had already returned its Leave vote by an unexpected margin. By 2.30 it looked bad, and by morning it was all over. Since then there has been disbelief and genuine panic. The Labour Party is tearing itself apart, and the engineers of the Leave campaign have been mostly silent. A social media from which it has been impossible to tear oneself away has both provided catharsis, and amplified the panic and sense of dislocation.
My family in London feel shocked and diminished by this result, but within the context of Northern Ireland, I have genuinely no idea what will happen now. On the way to her non-denominational and at-least-a-little-bit ethnically diverse school, my daughter wondered on Friday what it meant that her cousin in Kildare is in the EU but she won’t be. No one has the answer to this. It seems highly unlikely, though, that that easy, night-time drive across the border can be relied on in future (both border controls and no border have already been floated as possibilities). Despite my Irish passport, it just got harder to feel like I’m in two places at once.
Leontia Flynn has published three collections of poetry and has won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. She lives in Belfast
It occurs to me the social media cocoon we build for ourselves gives us a false sense of a world agreeing with us. We surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, unfriend and block dissenting voices, so our worldview is echoed back at us. Is this why the online forum is so ego-driven and addictive? It can leave us with a blinkered perception of the world and perhaps explains why my timelines are full of shock just as they were when the Conservatives were voted back into power last year.
I too find the result shocking. The subsequent behaviour of bigots against immigrants in England is deeply disturbing, like hooligans at a football match using the adrenaline of a contest to fuel and vent their hatred and thuggery. I hope this is not a sign of things to come. Though I understand frustration with politicians and the opinions of your own people (I'm from Belfast after all), I find it fascinating that a viable response from a Remain voter would be to apply for a different passport. It’s as if it - and your nationality - were a football top you could trade for another if your team doesn’t win. This seems as shocking to me as the decision to leave Europe. Argue, demonstrate, get angry… but become Irish? – because you can, because your granny was but you've only visited a couple of times on holiday when you were a child? And just when I thought this concept couldn’t get any odder, Ian Paisley jnr pops a cherry on the top by advising Ulster Unionists to apply for Irish passports. I’m still letting that sink in.
The Leave campaign was largely based on an appeal to nationalism, though its cannier supporters were careful to express this in the coded form of terms like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking back control’. And nationalism is an easy form of group narcissism that gives a sense of superiority just from being born in a particular place, a superiority that encourages hatred of anyone from outside the group. Already there has been an increase in hate crime in the UK. To a working class that feels impoverished, excluded, derided and abandoned, any form of superiority is attractive, as is someone or something to blame. Europe and European immigrants are the perfect scapegoats.
The belief that leaving the EU will make things better will soon be exposed. One of the most pathetic beliefs of many Leave supporters is that Brexit will take the UK back to how it was, in some golden past before EU immigrants and regulations. Another delusion is that they will somehow regain control. The reality is more likely to be an acceleration of current trends, with worsening economic conditions and even less protection and control. Many of the politicians in favour of Brexit seem to me authoritarian bullies posing as jovial men of the people – Boris Johnson, likely to be the next prime minister, is a perfect example. They howl with rage at European controls not from any love of freedom but because they themselves want exclusive control. It’s another example of the familiar command of nationalists, ‘Don’t do what they tell you, do what we tell you.’ This intolerance was obvious in the fury of Leave as they denounced the ‘interference’ of anyone who disagreed with them, from Barack Obama to the Governor of the Bank of England, and portrayed the entire Remain campaign as some sort of sinister conspiracy run by ‘stooges’, a ‘stitch-up’, a p‘p‘put-up job’.
The consequence is likely to be all kinds of division, fragmentation, separation and resentment. The Labour Party, disastrously unable to address the concerns of its working-class support, and disastrously ineffectual in its support for Remain, is tearing itself apart and may even split. In Scotland those with an international outlook face an unwelcome choice between a relatively benign local nationalism and the uglier version across the border. I never thought I could say this but if I were Scottish I would now vote for independence. In Northern Ireland nationalists are using Brexit to renew calls for the province to leave the UK for a united Ireland, which could bring to a community slowly recovering from decades of disaster more destruction, death and suffering. In this case the local nationalism is even uglier than the ugly English version. But if Northern Ireland remains in the UK my home-town of Derry, which now extends to the border with the Republic, faces the prospect of a heavily-policed international frontier round its outer suburbs. And London, my adopted home, which voted heavily for Remain, seems more than ever a tolerant, open-minded city state ringed around by intolerance and closed minds.
Michael Foley is a poet novelist, and non-fiction writer. His latest book is Isn't This Fun? Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves
I’ve had a horror of provincialism all my life, from the neighbours shouting “Blow-ins” across the fence because my parents were from Co Antrim to those who persist in calling me a “British-Irish” writer because their conception of Irishness cannot encompass the idea of an Irish person willingly living abroad.
When I was a child I envied those for whom identity was straightforward: they were born in the place they lived, as were their parents, grandparents etc, presumably back to the year dot. I longed for their sense of belonging but not as much as I longed for the outside world. Moving to London at 17 gave me both of those things. A sense of community as choice in the cultural, religious and ethnic mis-match of daily life. Each individual was free to opt in or out of local life and local life’s default setting wasn’t to exclude.
On the day of the 7/7 bombing I remember walking home from central London along with thousands of others, because the transportation had been shut down, and knowing that young, old, black, white, Muslim, atheist, English, French – even the odd Irish lapsed Catholic with her British-Jewish husband at her side – were together in this and Londoners today.
That is the England I have known, which is not to say it’s a country without its faults and peculiarities. I remain baffled by the class system, their method of voting is patently ridiculous, the rabidity of their news media is frequently inexcusable – yet repeatedly excused – and they have a tendency to get a bit thick about sport. By and large, though, its predisposition for socially liberal attitudes has suited me, even while successive governments’ inclination for the fiscally liberal has not.
And this is where the UK has run into difficulties. These two positions are incompatible and the unceasing waves of austerity imposed, by the wealthy, entitled public school boys at the top of the Tory party on people with no fallback to fall back on has led to despair and and an ever-increasing atmosphere of xenophobia.
The right and far right’s great triumph has been persuading the poor and dispossessed to begin savaging each other. The left’s great failure has been not pushing itself in between. Not continuously pointing out that it is the Tory party’s refusal to scale back on austerity that has been destroying their hopes for financial security and ravaging the hearts of their communities, not the EU and most certainly not the person running the new Polish bakery down the road.
The vote for Brexit has turned this country into what it has always prided itself on not being: mean, narrow and unwelcoming. The far right has preyed on the fears of the disenfranchised and encouraged voters of the working class to adopt attitudes that are unworthy of their – until recently – proud traditions of co-operation in the face of hardship. It has made those most vulnerable terms “asylum seeker” and “refugee” evocative of ravening hordes of barbarians, whose only aim is to get raping and pillaging while simultaneously enjoying free plasma screen TVs in their luxury council flats. That the left have stood by while this has been happening, whining about their lack of media coverage, and muttering “Vote Remain” through clenched teeth is to their eternal shame.
I don’t know what will happen now but I am afraid for what lies ahead for this country. I’m afraid the financial effects of Brexit will further entrench the social and cultural divisions which already seem so unbridgeable. I am afraid of what will happen in Scotland and what Northern Ireland may have coming down the line. I am saddened that the country which once seemed wedded to the struggle for a modern, multi-cultural society now considers “cosmopolitan” a dirty word and I hope its people will not forget the frustrations that the cultural and intellectual cul-de-sac of homogeneity breeds.
So I am resolutely not one of the “decent people” Nigel Farage praised for making Brexit happen and I don’t mind at all about that because I don’t think he, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or any of that cynical band of reactionary bigots are decent either. I think what they have done to the UK is a disgrace.
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing has won numerous awards, including the Baileys, the Goldsmith and the Desmond Elliott Prize. Her second, The Lesster Bohemians, is out in September
“Let’s move to Ireland,” my wife said, last Friday morning. She isn’t Irish and nor am I. But my mother was, and as we sat there absorbing the terrible news, England no longer looked like a country we recognised. “Maybe you could get an Irish passport,” she said. “Or dual citizenship.” It seems we’ve been living inside a bubble. Nobody we know in London voted Brexit. Yet the Leavers – the majority of them from areas relatively unaffected by immigration – make up 52 per cent of the British electorate.
Let’s just get on with it, politicians and pundits are saying: the people have spoken. But when the words are an angry scream – Out, Out, Out – it’s hard to accept them. To put it less condescendingly: since the result was based on misinformation, why should it stand? Already the leading Brexit campaigners are admitting their two key pledges were a lie. They won’t be putting £350 million more a week into the National Health Service. And they won’t necessarily be bringing down immigration numbers. If they’d admitted that at the start of the campaign, the outcome would have been very different.
I’m more worried about the future my children face than I am about my own. Economically, the country will suffer. But it’s the severing of emotional and intellectual ties that really hurts. Islands don’t have to be outposts. But from fear, mistrust and bloody-mindedness, England and Wales have chosen to isolate themselves from Europe. And whereas disappointing election results can be shrugged off (in five years’ time, you can vote the enemy out again), this result is irreversible. It’s the most desolate moment I can remember in 45 years of having the vote.
Blake Morrison is a poet and author, best known for his memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? He lives in London
I think the result of the referendum was a huge mistake and one reached at hysteria point. No one during the debate remarked on the similarity between the ideology of Boris Johnston and his cohorts with that of Nigel Farage. It is no surprise that Marine Le Pen was so jubilant about the vote and it is salutary that when interviewed on TV on Saturday night some in Sheffield who had voted Out were already expressing their doubts. They voted Out believing it would not happen.
It was a vote of anger and revenge in some quarters and now the consequences have to be faced and not even that gloating, robust trio in the Conservative hierarchy have outlined the whole complicated process of exit and recommencement. Slogans do not convert into wise leadership. It was a leap in the dark and done for dark, ignorant and bigoted reasons. Amidst the weeping and gnashing, I must as a Labour voter say that blame for the result also rests with Jeremy Corbyn. His argument was lacklustre, he showed little appetite to rally his troops , unlike Sadiq Khan who was informed, vigorous and impassioned ... The hatches are down. England will be all the poorer, economically, culturally and spiritually, and victory already has a jaundiced tinge to it.
Edna O’Brien’s latest novel is The Little Red Chairs. She lives in London
My Dad would have loved Jo Cox. Finding no work on leaving the Irish Army, he brought his family over to Rachman’s London where employers and landlords exploited immigrants like us; in time, he found steady work and we proudly moved into our new council house (since sold off). He was an active trade unionist and Labour supporter, taking me to rallies, sharing with me his admiration for those within the party like Jo, hard-working, practical, doing good for everybody in a country where the Irish Catholics would suffer racism alongside groups such as Muslims from India and Pakistan, two communities whose contributions to English society she singled out for praise in her maiden speech to parliament.
Leeds, where I live, voted Remain, has a long history of taking immigrants and now operates a Syrian refugee settlement programme, something Jo strongly supported. I’ve been interviewing some of their therapists for a new project, a number of whom knew Jo and admired her as much as my father would have done and for the same reasons.
You can imagine their horror and mine to learn she had died in broad daylight at the hands of a little man with a knife and a home-made gun screaming “Britain First!” Farage alluded to this in his victory speech, saying this had been achieved “without a single bullet being fired”, embodying the post-fact denial Brexit represents here to an obscene degree.
Because of Jo and our Syrians, I re-read the poet Adonis where a line from Music in Mattawa’s translation struck me very forcibly: “In this house an immigrant lives and his name is meaning.”
What Brexit means for people in Yorkshire like us is very simple: we continue Jo’s fight, remind people that she too was a politician, doing important things within a rotten polity, hoping so to encourage the young so badly-served by Brexit that they might gear themselves up for the long struggle ahead real change will demand. I believe this struggle may well now have to be conducted against a background of slowly accelerating cultural, economic and political decline in England – “Ashtrayland” as some local young people already call the place – unless the political landscape here regenerates in ways I can’t see at present.
Having worked in Belfast during the Troubles, I fear shots being fired in Ireland too, maybe to encourage a unification many now see as inevitable, maybe to resist it, though I shudder to think of Jo’s death in Yorkshire foreshadowing more elsewhere. I hope I’m wrong but Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders couldn’t contain their enthusiasm for the Brexit result and the streets of Europe as well as its parliaments will also be theatres for its effects; foreign friends report increased abuse, typically shouts like “Why are you still here?” Over the next few years, many people will be asking themselves the same question.
Ian Duhig is a poet, whose latest collection, The Blind Road-maker, is his fourth to be shortlisted for the Forward prize. He lives in Leeds
Those stories of youngsters slipping out of home because they’ve been groomed by men in dark rooms, who have no good in mind? Well, I can’t quite shake off the notion that the UK has just been groomed.
It was a terrible campaign. When it might have identified problems with the EU and worked out strategies for dealing with them, it didn’t. When it might have emphasised the benefits of EU membership, it barely bothered. (When Sports Direct founder, Mike Ashley, admitted to a parliamentary committee two weeks before the vote that staff were paid less than minimum wage, it looked like the time to make EUnionist hay about its protection of workers’ rights. That didn’t happen.) When the issue of immigration needed to be discussed intelligently, and a distinction drawn between the cornerstone principle of free movement of labour and illegal immigration, it wasn’t.
Instead, we were subject to a drip-feed of xenophobia, sentiment, aggression, rhetoric and fear. And a campaign that, frankly, didn’t seem all that interested in EU membership. Instead, it was backward-looking, striking inherited poses and deploying the catchphrases of an imagined and simplified past. It was bluster and bravado; smoke and mirrors; a lost opportunity and a cheap trick.
Who wins? Not workers. Not young people. Not the poor. Who wins is a tiny group of far-right politicians who will use this vote to shimmy an inch or two up the greasy pole. And the rest of us will pay for that, as pawns and prey do. We will pay for it with our freedom of movement, intellectual energy, collective moral sensibility, job security, educational opportunities and, yes indeed, hard cash.
After a fearsomely noisy campaign, things have grown awfully quiet. Listen. You could hear a lot in this quietness. You could hear a country’s sharp intake of breath. You could hear a nation scratch its head. You could hear the shuffle of difficult questions. You could hear the ground under decent, centrist politics shift a little and give way. You could hear moist palms rubbed gleefully together. And you could hear the sound of a closing door behind a teenager heading into the night.
Vona Groarke is a poet and teaches at the University of Manchester. Her latest collection is X
11.10am, May 30th, 2016
When we pull in to Hartlepool there are no cabs to meet the London train. The main street is like the film set of a ghost town, deserted, windswept with abandoned shop fronts. This once thriving port and the Teesside steelworks that glowed molten against the night sky have been laid waste by decades of industrial decline and savage spending cuts .
We are here to bury my mother-in-law’s ashes. In the cemetery in the pouring rain I think about the Catholic nurse from Downpatrick who was forced to elope to marry the Protestant RAF mechanic from Hartlepool. Love across borders, now there’s a lesson – since we are just 23 days from a referendum that is tearing the UK apart.
The north east might have felt like a more hopeful place to raise a family back in the 1950s but these days the statistics tell a grim story of deprivation and decline. Unemployment is two and a half times the national average; 21 per cent of 10-year-olds are obese. In fact on every single measure from life expectancy to child poverty, self-harm, teenage pregnancy and alcohol-related hospitalisation, Hartlepool scores within the top 10 most deprived areas in the UK. The house that my mother-in-law cared for so beautifully lingers on the market for £150,000 (with no enquiries in three months). A car parking space in Knightsbridge has just gone on the market for £250,000.
Peter Mandelson was once parachuted in as MP to this Labour heartland but now it feels like the town that the party forgot.
8.40pm, Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
On Referendum night there’s a rain storm and chaos on the rail networks so my train out of London Bridge is standing room only. City workers, sleekly crumpled, some a little drunk. A young bond trader behind is lecturing his mute companion on the dead cert of Remain. “It’s in the bag,” he keeps repeating. Hubris hangs heavy in the scent of aftershave and alcohol. I’ve been watching the currency markets on screen all day and sterling’s heartbeat feels way too strong. Remain is talking its own book. Complacency is what happens when you sit in an echo chamber. When we pull in to the station, it’s 45 minutes to go before the polls close.
But I have already cast my vote for the future and the queasy feeling in my stomach wakes me at 5am.
The vote was always Remain’s to lose – and lose it they did, with a campaign that displayed utter contempt for the electorate. A politics of fear when the public were begging for facts and – crucially – some positive vision of a European future. A monstrous tactical error in recruiting an elite of bankers and CEOs to tell voters what to think. A Labour party that failed to convince their traditional supporters that Europe offered a brighter future – which meant that a town like Hartlepool returned one of the highest Leave results at 69.5%.
Three days on it’s still an ugly aftermath of recrimination and blame. My son is a year below voting age and tells me everyone he knows thinks Leave is irresponsible. “A leap into the unknown” on behalf of the next generation.
I am heartsick at the bile that has risen to the surface, at the failure of imagination and negotiation skills in the UK and the EU leaders with their head stuck in the sand and fingers in its ears. The UK has always struggled with an identity crisis – its fading footprint on the world stage, the imperial legacy, the odd, uneasy unities beneath the umbrella of the union, the colonial whispers, haunting memories of finest hours that may never be repeated. But I have lived in this country for 30 years and I do not recognise the picture of racism and xenophobia that is being touted in the media. The real crisis in the UK is the widening gap between rich and poor, between opportunity and despair. This referendum was a story of the Haves and the Have Nots and a ruling class in the UK and Europe who are spectacularly out of touch with the people.
Aifric Campbell is a novelist and a former managing director at Morgan Stanley. She teaches at Imperial College, London
In what may prove to be one of the worst political hangovers in history, the UK awoke on the morning of Friday, June 24th, to find it had voted by a narrow but decisive majority to consign 40 years of EU membership to the rubbish heap.
Lincolnshire, which I have called home for the past five years, voted with one of the largest percentages in the country to leave the EU. In Boston, in the south-east of the county, where immigration has been high, a massive 75.6 per cent voted to leave. South of industrial or post-industrial urban centres such as Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Gainsborough, Lincolnshire is predominantly an agricultural county.
The influx of Eastern European migrant workers, many of whom have sought work in the arable fields of the county, has come as a shock to the generally mono-ethnic and very stable population. Local services have undoubtedly felt the strain, but instead of blaming government, both regional and national, for years of mismanagement and structural underfunding, there has been a lamentable tendency to scapegoat the newcomers, most of whom make a significant contribution to the economy by way of their labour and taxes.
The shameless populism of artfully dishevelled, monstrously ambitious Boris Johnson and crypto-fascist golf club bore Nigel Farage discovered fertile territory to exploit here: xenophobia and racism have been allowed to fester unchallenged.
Being Irish in a place like Lincolnshire puts one in an odd position: one is less visible than, say, a Polish or Lithuanian national, but an Irish accent is frequently commented on. Most of these comments are unselfconsciously friendly and occasionally followed by “my gran was from Cork”, but they reinforce a sense of otherness. The Irish have enjoyed “special status” in Britain since the foundation of the State, but many of us born since 1973 readily identify as European and feel solidarity with our fellow Polish and Lithuanian emigrés.
Already, there have been reports of racist incidents inspired by this vote; but this should not come as a surprise to a political class that has failed abjectly in accountability, leadership and judgement. Listening to the debate amongst the British commentariat, I have frequently been reminded of WB Yeats’ lines from The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. The shade of Enoch Powell has frequently stalked this campaign.
It is notable that the few conciliatory voices now calling for people to accept the result and to start building bridges are being drowned out by a collective howl of pain and rage, chiefly from the young, a majority of whom voted to remain, and who have seen many of their future educational and employment opportunities trashed by this decision.
As an Irish national resident in the UK, I enjoy privileges denied to other EU nationals, among them the right to vote in general elections and referendums. (In the case of referendums, incidentally, this is not a courtesy we extend to Britons living in the Republic). Of course, I voted Remain. It feels, at present, as if the 48.1 per cent of us who did so are being forced to drink the Kool-Aid. And despite the desperate, post hoc cries of “foul” from the Remain camp, we will in all likelihood have little choice. That, for better or worse, is democracy.
Caitriona O’Reilly is a poet and critic. Her collections include Geis, which won the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2016
“Europe, without navies, without shipping became for England a mere westward projection of Asia, dominated by warlike peoples who could always be set by the ears and made to fight upon points of dynastic honour, while England appropriated the markets of mankind. Thenceforth, for the best part of a century, while Europe was spent in what, to the superior Britain were tribal conflicts, the seas and coasts of the world lay open to the intrusions of his commerce, his colonists, his finance, until there was seemingly nothing left outside the two Americas worth laying hands on.”
Thus Roger Casement in his book about the coming 1914-’18 war, The Crime Against Europe, adding that it was possession of Ireland that made much of this gleeful plunder possible. Unfortunately for today’s inferior Brit there is now no commerce, no colony and there will soon be no finance. No wonder people are walking around looking very depressed, some weeping openly in the streets. The only good thing could be a further strengthening of that species of Irish modernism that was more concerned with the European than the Anglo-Saxon, but since it depended on a repellent magnetic force against the same Anglo-Saxon, that too may have been flushed away.
Giles Foden’s novels include the multi-awardwinning The Last King of Scotland
Three scenes from Manchester and a poem
I was queueing for my polling card on Thursday morning when the woman in front of me, a parent I recognised from the school, said to the polling officer: “This is my first time voting but it is time we got our government back.” She paused when she was told what to do. “You expect me to vote with a pencil!?? I will only vote with a pen.” The officer explained that they only provide pencils, though she would be free to use a pen of her own. “But if I use a pencil, the government can rub it out and change my vote can’t they. I can’t do that. I’m not voting unless I get a pen.” She walked out, calling over her shoulder: “I will be back.” And back she must have come.
On Friday evening, I picked up my daughter from the same school and was talking to the school caretaker as he locked up for the weekend. He’s a retired soldier who served for years in Germany and in Northern Ireland. I asked him about his plans for the weekend, if he was going fishing. “I am,” he said, “I’m off to a private water tonight, out for big bream,” all by himself with his bait and bedding and gas stove cooker. “How are you?” he asked me, and I told him, and he said it was the saddest day he could remember. And he said that when he had told other parents this, they said, “But what about the immigrants coming in?” And he said, “Do they not see the children in this yard that their children are playing with?”
Two weeks ago, Manchester felt like a part of the Republic. The morning after I saw Anu’s new show On Corporation Street at the HOME theatre complex, I attended a breakfast held as part of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s contribution to the Remain campaign. The event was a muted affair, given the murder of the MP Jo Cox the previous day and the temporary cessation of referendum campaigning. But, as Denis Staunton reported in The Irish Times next day, the Taoiseach announced the introduction of a vote for emigrants in the presidential elections, an acknowledgement in this digital age of how close emigrants can be to their native country, and of how the contribution of the Irish in Britain – in the arts, in business – has positive effects both here and there.
The building in which we stood around shaking hands and drinking tea and coffee is the Irish World Heritage Centre, where I run occasional workshops with first- and second-generation Irish people, where concerts and plays are hosted, where Irish-language classes draw learners from all around the northwest, and where big soccer matches or GAA championship games bring crowds from the Cheetham Hill side of town as well as the Irish communities. “Where are you from?” is how conversations began that morning. “I’m from here.” And, of course, “I’m from Kerry”, or Mayo, or Tyrone or Dublin, an easy doubleness to which we had become more and more accustomed. But the question many Irish people in Britain will be asking this week, having seen the country they work in tilt and move: where do we go from here?
A year ago, the Tory party won the UK election on the back of their promise to hold this referendum. The EU was in crisis (as it usually is), but the Tory referendum promise was an attack on one of the EU’s few unalloyedly good ideas, its commitment to free movement and borderless relations between like communities. I wrote the poem From Here, which was first published in this paper a year ago, with this in mind as I spent a week at Annaghmakerrig, an artists’ retreat in Monaghan which is jointly funded by the Arts Councils of the Republic and Northern Ireland. Then, as now, the prospect of returning borders felt both imminent and terrible. The form the poem took is a villanelle, a French form now more common in English and an example of the kind of free movement of ideas which referendum results will of course, for all their intricate legal efforts, be powerless to stop.
The word for it might disappear,
the road run through its invisible wall.
The view from here is the border
vanishing around an otter,
swallows, tractor, trailer and damsel-
fly, not so much law as a stretch of water.
Mind your footing on its thin air.
There’s the fault whose tremor you feel.
The view from here is a border
gone over and over, a fact of nature,
an impression that’s begun to snowball,
not so much water as law and order,
a wavering queue, a detention centre,
a dotted line turned block and fractal:
the view from here is the border,
law and order written on water.
John McAuliffe is a poet, chief poetry reviewer for The Irish Times and teaches at the University of Manchester. His latest collection is The Way In
I have never felt the need to obtain a British passport. What would be the point? We have been one Europe for so long-- a red passport is enough. And I believed the converse about my daughter not holding an Irish passport. But what now? Now I am living in a country in which I am not a citizen and where I suddenly feel unwelcome. The Irish haven’t to deal with the same treatment as the Polish or Romanians, but what is clear is that nationality suddenly matters here. I’ve considered a move to Dublin. I’ve wondered whether I should ever have left New York. But for now I’m sitting tight and hoping there’ll be a way to reverse this.
Sarah Crossan’s latest YA novel, One, won the Carnegie Medal, the YA Prize 2016 and the CBI Book of the Year Award
Newcastle, where I live, was first to declare and the narrowness of the Remain win was to augur badly for the night ahead. Like so many Remain voters around the country, I watched through my fingers as the full horror of what was happening hit home. I saw Brexit supporters cheering in neighbouring Sunderland, a city that relies heavily on European funding and could stand to lose thousands of Nissan jobs as a result.
What it means for the North of England – along with a rise in far-right confidence – is the renewal of Scotland’s bid for independence, which will permanently disrupt the mental unity of this island. While not wanting that to happen, I fully respect the Scottish will to reject England’s decision. My Geordie friends wonder if the new Hadrian’s Wall might be stretched a little lower to let us join with Scotland. But really, there’s little cause for humour. Everyone I know feels shocked and angry. Neighbour looks askance at neighbour and wonders, did you vote for this? Politically, for the first time in my life, I feel there is nowhere to go.
But half of my mind is on that other frontier, my hometown of Derry that voted to stay in the EU. The border, that has calmed so much in recent years, is likely to be re-inflamed like a wound. For the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, our shared EU membership with the Republic has been one of the few psychological consolations since Partition. It has made it easier to live with a fractured identity. For Northern Ireland to move forward as an unhappy outpost of an isolated Britain is a profoundly depressing prospect. As with Scotland, the local electorate hasn’t voted for that. For an emigrant in my position, “home” is harder than ever to define.
Colette Bryce is a poet. Her latest collection, The Whole & Rain-domed Universe, was awarded a special Christopher Ewart-Biggs Award in memory of Seamus Heaney and short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection, The Costa Poetry Award, and The Roehampton Poetry Prize
Since checking my phone at 4.30 on Friday morning I’ve been buzzing with a destabilising combination of fury, grief and shock. I’ve started talking to myself in the shower – we can add that to the long list of unforeseen consequences.
I find a lot of the analysis pretty infuriating. I keep being told that we need to listen to working-class fears about immigration and take them seriously. I have listened and what I hear doesn’t make any sense to me.
I keep being told that it’s patronising to say that swathes of voters had their justified anger shamelessly manipulated and fell for lies and insinuations. I think it’s patronising not to say that. I’m sick of a certain kind of middle-class guilt that holds this superficial reverence for “working-class” views. Yes we need to listen but we also need to challenge. I’m the child of immigrants. I grew up in the middle of a council estate in inner-city Birmingham. Racism is neither inevitably nor exclusively a “working-class” delusion. But anger, despair and poverty make the perfect compost for fascists like Farage to sow the seeds.
So, yes, like everyone who’s lucky enough to be able to I’m finally getting around to getting Irish passports for my kids, but that offers no solution to the state of the country in which they’ll grow up. No one in government or opposition seems to have any idea of how to deal with this Colossal Goatfuck, or any appetite to do so. Meanwhile if Scotland ditches us we’ll be left with the bulgy-eyed lunatics in charge, gleefully taking apart any last vestiges of a welfare state and making the already gaping chasm between haves and have-nots utterly unbridgeable.
Catherine O’Flynn’s novels include What Was Lost, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2008. She lives in Birmingham
On June 24th, following the referendum, I read part six of Yeats’s Meditations in Time of Civil War: The Stare’s Nest by My Window. It’s a well-known poem, but seemed, in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, to take on new meaning. “We are closed in,” writes Yeats in stanza two, as though he were looking up the long dark corridor of history, “and the key is turned on our uncertainty.” It’s an astute, devastating, accurate depiction of a divided nation, and it captures an atmosphere of deep despair that comes with the news of Britain’s referendum result. The final lines of this poem, probably among Yeats’s most famous, seem particularly applicable: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
Today, it feels like the key is turning on all of our uncertainties.
Tara Bergin is a poet. Her debut collection, This is Yarrow, won the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for Best First Collection 2014, and the Irish Shine/ Strong Award. She teaches at Newcastle University
I flew from Luton to Belfast on the morning of the referendum, spending the day in Cookstown in Mid-Ulster, complacently optimistic – like everyone I met – that the Remain camp would win. But the coalition of those supporting Leave – dissident republicans, the DUP, Ukip, the BNP – harnessed the disaffection of the English working class whose jobs – and dignity – Thatcher’s de-industrialisation long ago destroyed. Blair’s financial deregulation didn’t help either. Half the population felt left behind. The Conservatives’ austerity and refusal to adequately fund the NHS was framed as an argument that the immigrants had overloaded the system. No-one addressed the lies the Leave camp – those three stooges of Gove, Farage and Johnson – propagated. Corbyn was pointless, lacklustre, uninspiring.
I think Boris Johnson, in particular, deserves enormous opprobrium. This is a man sacked by both the Times and Michael Howard for mendacity, and he was a clear Europhile until he calculated that leading the Leave campaign would bolster his prime ministerial credentials against Osborne, automatically gaining him the Eurosceptic wing of the party. He was also obviously betting on a Remain win. He looks now like a fat kid who’s lost his balloon.
Will Scotland secede? Will the Irish border be reinstated, now the only land boundary between the UK and 400 million Europeans? Will the Good Friday agreement collapse? I don’t know. It’s terrifying. It seems the personal rivalry between Cameron and Johnson – two arrogant public school buffoons who’ve been jockeying for position against each other since Eton – is going to destroy now both the EU and the UK. We’re living in a Jeffrey Archer novel. I’m in Paris now teaching for a month, and Marine Le Pen of Le Front National is calling for a French referendum, describing the result of the British referendum as a “victory for freedom”.
And all of this is a distraction from the real and urgent problems of climate change, and makes it much less likely that we’ll ever be able to come up with a united policy on switching to a low carbon economy. I don’t know what’s wrong with us. A tidal wave is coming and we’re sitting on the beach fighting about pebbles.
Nick Laird is an award-winning poet and novelist from Cookstown, Co Tyrone. Married to fellow writer Zadie Smith, he lives in London and New York
The triumph of Brexit and the decision to leave the EU is appalling. A catastrophe. And the worst of it? The Labour Party (the Socialists, so-called, who I always voted for when I lived in England – since 1989 I’ve lived in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland) is wot won it. For the Brexiters. And why should that be? The answer comes in two parts. One, the dereliction of the Labour leadership down the years: Blair, Brown, Miliband, and Corbyn. They were and are useless. They took their core vote for granted. They didn’t listen. And they lost touch with their voters. The second part of the answer concerns Corbyn’s performance during the referendum. It was pusillanimous, spineless, useless, weak, watery, pointless. So then, when you put one and two together, the years of neglect and Corbyn’s pitiful referendum performance, what you get are the circumstances necessary to produce what happened: large numbers of Labour voters lining up with the Leave neo-cons and voting Leave.
The immediate consequence of Leave’s triumph (catlaysed by Corbyn’s dereliction – and the sooner he is dethroned the better as far as I am concerned) is that our new masters will be Johnson, Gove, Grayling, Villiers et al. I’d love to say they’re dunces all (that would be some consolation) but they ain’t dunces. Oh no. They’re calculating lowlifes who, at a stroke, have seized power in the UK, destroyed the only counterbalance to their own power (the EU) and managed to spin themselves as our mandated liberators when in truth they are not. On the contrary, they are right-wing, anti-foreigner, anti-culture Know Nothings.
A nation run by Boris Johnson and the other mediocrities will be appalling: one because their vision is so narrow and nasty, and two because they will do nothing for the Labour voters who lent them their vote to enable Brexit. Of course they won’t, they’re neo-cons. Johnson et al will make the lives of the Labour voters who supported them even worse. You can be assured of that. This, in turn, will initiate the second act of this horrible play. When those Labour voters who lent the Brexiters their vote realize their lives have not been materially improved by leaving the EU or by Boris Johnson’s or whomever’s government, where will these disillusioned voters go? Back to Labour? I don’t think so. No, the Labour vote (or a large part of it) who voted for Brexit is going to switch to UKIP and once UKIP gets MPs in to the House of Commons (even say a dozen of them) it is going to make this disaster even worse. So welcome to the future. Or perhaps I should say welcome to the past because if this smells like anything, it smells like Weimar.
I haven’t mentioned Northern Ireland and Brexit. For what it’s worth, I cannot for the life of me understand why Arlene Foster and Teresa Villiers remain in authority when Northern Ireland voted to remain. I always understood that in a democracy leaders, once they realise they are out of synch with their electorate, take the hint and depart the stage. But apparently not in Northern Ireland. Oh well, maybe we’re not a democracy.
The other thing is border controls: worry ye not, nothing will change, there won’t be a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, say (and said) Foster and Villiers and all the Leave people. Nonsense. Nonsense. Go to Switzerland’s land border with the EU: there are controls, checkpoints, police, et cetera there. It is inevitable, post-Brexit (unless something is done) that the border will be back and its coming back is all down to the Leave people. As for what our dissidents will make of the return of the border, I am sure they can hardly wait.
Carlo Gébler’s latest work is The Wing Orderly’s Tales. The son of Edna O’Brien, he was born in Dublin, grew up in London and now lives near Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
I came to live in England in 1962 when I was 16, along with my Manchester-born mother, when my father died suddenly in Co Cork. Coming back to Ireland regularly was essential to my sense of well-being, but I liked living in Manchester. There was the Halle orchestra and Man City at Maine Road, and the excitement of living in a big, cosmopolitan city. After three years of residency at school in Manchester, I had free university education in England, as well as free health care and free movement between England and Ireland. It all seemed the ideal polity, underwritten and reinforced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
I have been a member of the Labour Party for practically all my years in England (with a brief withdrawal prompted by Iraq), and for 30 years I worked for the party at every election. So it was very strange last Thursday to be back canvassing in Oxford, along with my North of England wife and my Canadian daughter-in-law, for Tory leader David Cameron’s campaign to keep Britain in the EU. It is hard to express the devastation of the vote to Leave: not just in itself (the European Union is obviously an excellent idea), but in how it changed my feelings about my adopted and adopting country. There had been anxious times before: most obviously during the period of the Northern Troubles in the 1970s and ’80s. But I had always felt safely settled in this richly international part of the world. I was an immigrant, of course, but it didn’t weigh heavily.
And now – suddenly we see the force of the expression “Little Britain” as traced by English artists in works like This is England. Given the opportunity to express it, large numbers of voters – not only in the North and the Midlands and Essex: look at the returns along the South Coast – vote against the openness and cosmopolitanism we had taken for granted.
Was this feeling always silently widespread, not just in the ranks of the despised National Front and English Defence League and their offshoot in Ukip? One of the proudest claims of the UK was “it couldn’t happen here”, referring to the terrors across Europe in the 1930s. I have always believed that, but since last Thursday I am a bit less certain. I fervently hope England earns its reputation for fairness and openness again quickly. But there is now ground to make up.
Bernard O’Donoghue is a poet and an academic. He lives in Oxford, where he is a fellow at Oxford University
I was afraid Brexit was going to happen and yet I was strangely hopeful when I went to vote with my daughter at the local primary school in Hackney – probably because I found it impossible to imagine the alternative. The hope didn’t last long. I stayed up all night in disbelief as the results unfolded. Like many people around me in London including my daughter, I am in a state of shock. I am particularly sad for the younger generation who face the prospect of living in a smaller, poorer, divided Britain having lost the opportunities that came with being part of the European Union. It’s a great pity too that so many people voted to leave because they felt this was the only way they could make their disaffection heard – a reflection of the deepening class and race divisions. Brexit will only make these divisions worse.
It’s a tough economic blow for Ireland after its strong recovery and the effect of Brexit on the Irish border is even more worrying. As an Irish person living in London since 1988, I’ve witnessed a wonderful sea change in Anglo-Irish relationships. It’s beyond painful to think that all the work and diplomacy that went into this change might be thrown away. Having said that, I never thought I’d see the day when Irish passports would be all the rage in London!
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest collection is The Windows of Graceland
A couple of years ago, I decided to give up news for Lent. And though I still look at headlines and read the odd piece, I’ve never taken up the habit again. So I was rare among my friends, especially on social media, in not following every twist and turn of the referendum campaign.
But I felt I didn’t need to. I knew I was going to vote Remain as soon as the referendum was announced. I’ve never doubted that the EU, whatever its flaws, was driven by one fundamental purpose: to make sure there can never be another war in Europe. France and Germany have always understood the importance of this in a way that my adopted home never can. For all that England suffered in both world wars, its people have never known the visceral horror of the blood of millions shed into its soil.
From Henry VIII to Churchill, a favourite national fantasy is the plucky British bulldog who faces down a bullying European despot, and emerges on the right side of history, a beacon of liberty and independence. This is what the Leave campaign tapped into, to huge effect, with Boris Johnson embodying the myth. But acting out your fantasies is always a risky business.
My greatest fear now is that Britain’s exit will lead to the slow dissolution of the EU itself. Whatever shape a future Europe takes, its leaders must make sure that the twenty-first century cannot repeat the catastrophic mistakes of the twentieth.
Michael Hughes’s debut novel, The Countenance Divine, is out next month. From Keady, Co Armagh, he lives in London
For over 20 years I’ve lived in Kent, the corner of England closest to continental Europe, thus a vexed and vulnerable county when it came to last week’s referendum. Historically it’s been a place where invaders, migrants and refugees arrived, but also where the English nursed fond as well as fretful dreams about France, whose coast you may glimpse on a clear day. Kent is where Nigel Farage failed to win a Commons seat at the last general election, where a decade ago Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative party, campaigned with a sinister anti-immigrant populism that at the time seemed exceptional: ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Today – thanks to a crude plebiscite, confected solely to settle scores inside the Tory party – it is hard, even as a long-term resident, not to wonder what one’s neighbours are thinking about outsiders. That you might be, for some, the right kind of outsider – this does not comfort.
The Brexit-voters of Kent, as elsewhere, have been promised a great deal. If the chaos of the past few days is anything to go on, they may well rue their ‘independence day’. What strikes me is how much of their own abiding and obvious connection to Europe they contrived to ignore in order to vote Leave. Eurostar trains charge across the river in the old naval town where I live. Along the estuary from here is one of the largest container ports in the country, and beside it the remains of the jetty where Queen Victoria’s private train once joined a ferry to the continent. I look up from my desk at the spire of a Norman cathedral, to which a relic of St. Thomas Becket was recently brought from its centuries-long safekeeping in Hungary. There are Huguenot almshouses around the corner, Polish shops at the end of the high street, and all summer long groups of French and German tourists will stop on my street and recall its appearance in Dickens’s last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
In recent months it’s been said that those voting to leave were ideological and cultural throwbacks, yearning for an insular past. They even embraced the idea, with their talk of taking Britain back. In truth even their heartland, where I’m writing this, has always been European.
Brian Dillon's latest book is The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War and a Disaster on the Kent Marshes
I was born an Ulster Protestant and brought up in that faith and culture.
But even from an early age I felt a discontent with the strictness and narrow vision of that culture.
As a young man I left Northern Ireland to live in London and so began to realise I did have a (basic human) right to think things through for myself; I determined I would not be what that society which I had left tried to make me and wished me to be - basically insular and conformist.
Like many migrants I found freedom with a British passport.
And I have enjoyed that freedom and have felt content (even sometimes proud) to live in Britain which I perceived as a self-emancipating society.
In my lifetime I have seen an end to much prejudice; NO BLACKS! NO DOGS! NO IRISH! I have seen an end to the criminalisation of the gay community and even now an acceptance of gay marriage. These have come about by changes in the law which make people feel it is wrong to do (or even think) bad things. It is basically patronising, philanthropic, liberal and compassionate. But it worked. It had nothing to do with referenda.
Until we came to BREXIT …
When the British people - in a referendum - voted to leave the European Union, I felt a sense of anger and betrayal. It was as if that old hound dog - insularity - was chasing me again. And looking more deeply into it, maybe the undoing of all the liberal agenda, I have described. But it might well be wrong to insult an electorate by saying their only (or main impulse) was anti-immigration and anti-immigrants already here. The simple X which marks a name, an identity, could well be a very sophisticated, private and multi-pixilated semantic cross.
But since Brexit - immediately afterwards and now in sustained force - there are so many examples of publicly expressed (and criminally expressed) feelings of xenophobia and racism, it is as if a bin lid had been lifted; the bully in the playground has been allowed back, unchecked.
So my first reaction was to think, “OK. From here on I no longer want to call myself British. I don’t want to travel to Europe and around Europe with a British passport, Britain having said – democratically - they don’t want to be part of Europe.
So what to do?
Get an Irish passport and be part of a much wider and more cultured community? European again… but then also to be Irish? Becoming Irish might be the rub.
So, being that Ulster Proddie-boy, born and bred to be British, not Irish - but having lived in London for most of my life, surely there is an easy enough gut-wrench to enable me to be free again of those parochial chains?
Yet, to dismiss memories of a tender upbringing - albeit non-political - would indeed be a wrench, is a wrench. And would I want such a total (if perhaps but nominal) escape?
I am in mind of the words of the English poet, A.E. Houseman –
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Emancipated? Having lived in London … well maybe!
Waiting in the long queue to apply to become an Irish citizen, I had indeed plenty of time to consider my next step and to pass that time I invented a quiz for myself, well more an interview based on questions which a prospective citizen of the Irish Republic might/should (?) face… I mean, would I be asked these kind of questions when my number was called?
So to pass the time …
Do you speak Irish?
Can you describe the seating arrangements in the Dail?
Can you name (in Irish and with translations) the names of two political parties in the Republic of Ireland?
How do you feel about Martin McGuinness being part of the powersharing government of Northern Ireland?
Are you from Derry or Londonderry?
I was getting a bit edgy at this point and trying to be positive and upbeat about my (imaginary) answers, but happily my number was called - 306 – and I stepped forward:
“Good afternoon, what can I do for you?” said the clerical officer.
“I want to become an Irish citizen,” I said, “Get an Irish passport.”
“Well now, do you now,” the officer replied, “In that case, do you have a birth certificate to show that you were born on the Island of Ireland?”
“Well that’s it then!”
So it all became so very uncomplicated as we began upon the necessary paperwork and I wrote a cheque payable to The Embassy of Ireland.
Shaun Traynor is a Northern Irish writer who lives in London. He has published three collections of poetry and several acclaimed children’s novels. He is also editor of The Poolbeg Book of Irish Poetry for Children
Most Irish people in Britain, like our cousins in Ireland, are deeply shocked by what has taken place here in the last few days. No one quite knows what xenophobic demons Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have unleashed. There is no doubt that, for the foreseeable future, economically things are also likely to get dramatically worse on both sides of the Irish Sea. We are concerned about what happens next, and we are particularly anxious about what it will mean for the young people who overwhelmingly voted “Remain”, especially the most recent wave of Irish migrants who came here in the last few years. But this affects all of us. As one of my students put it: “With the advent of the Common Market/EU, I felt part of a greater entity: an Irish citizen living in Britain as part of a wider European family. On Friday morning I felt, unexpectedly and suddenly, ‘other’, an outsider all over again in England.”
I grew up of Irish parents in London and have lived and worked most of my life here. I have grown accustomed to being part of a constantly changing and increasingly diverse city. I walk out of my front door and I meet the world every day of my life. It is one of the things I value most about living here. Although such labels never quite do justice to the complexities and nuances of expressing a cultural identity, I describe myself as “London Irish”. I use the prefix “London” because it represents not just the geographical entity I happened to be born into, but the multicultural (to use an unfairly abused term) and mutually tolerant society I am proud to be a part of.
Irish writers, like the rest of us, have been woven into the fabric of British life for centuries. Given that the politicians have so abjectly failed us, it is to the writers we may now need to turn to best express the true nature of our changing times and our evolving sense of being Irish people in this country. In 1713, in the wake of the Reformation and virulent anti-Catholic (and by implication anti-Irish) feeling, Jonathan Swift recorded seeing the Mall in London so full with Irish people celebrating St Patrick’s Day, that he “thought all the world was Irish”. As a symbol of the resilience and optimism of Irish people in Britain, that’s not a bad image to carry in our minds in the difficult weeks and months ahead.
Tony Murray is the author of London Irish Fictions: Narrative, Diaspora and Identity. He lives in London
Martin Doyle is assistant literary editor of The Irish Times