Irish voice in Britain more important than ever after Brexit
‘It is in our interest as Irish people to help repair the damage and division’
Paul Breen: ‘If this present mood of anti-immigration gets any worse I may well decide to pack up and move elsewhere, somewhere such as Canada or Australia.’
On Thursday morning at 7am I voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. I tramped through the driving rain in London to register my support for an ideal of European unity that has never quite been perfect in practice, but is still very much a work in progress. These were the same streets that I had walked as a campaigner for the Remain cause, as an Irish native and an adopted Londoner , and above all as an Irish person who enjoys the great diversity that Britain has to offer.
That is not just the diversity of races but the diversity of regions. I love the unique character of each place you cross upon the map of an island that always seems far too impossibly small to have ever ruled so much of the world.
On Friday, when I woke up with severe jet lag, I felt great pain for what had happened in the place I’d come to think of as home. I had literally woken up in a different country, one that is prosperous and independent, having long since thrown off the shackles of empire. I was in Canada, having spent referendum day travelling across the world to the city of Edmonton. There’s a certain irony in that I suppose. I voted to Remain, and then took the first plane out of Europe. The trip though was booked months in advance, long before David Cameron’s now foolhardy decision to call for this referendum.
Through my journey I followed the events in Britain from my internet connection in the sky above Greenland. It seemed the Remain campaign was on course to win, but already worrying signs had begun to emerge in the first trail of results smouldering out of the north east.
As the evening progressed, the tide began to turn. Passing through departure lounges for connecting flights, a layer of gloom attached itself to my growing jet lag. In Calgary, one stop before Edmonton, the tide was already turning towards an exit.
The smiling face of Nigel Farage had followed me to this former British colony. By the time I reached Edmonton at around 5am British time, the victory speeches had already begun. I turned off the computer and went to bed.
Seven hours later when I rose, David Cameron had resigned. The English papers announced a surprise victory of 52-48 for those who wanted an exit.
Those who voted for Britain to leave believed they were making the best choice for their future. They were told this would produce dramatic improvements in their work and wages. They are expecting miracle cures and healing wells for the NHS. They expect the government to better protect Britain’s industries, from fishing to farming, and the steel plants of Wales and the North East. They want a political class that looks beyond the end of London’s Underground tube map. They want social housing for key workers and families, and they want an end to a system that they perceive as being biased against them.
But they have been sold a sick pup from a car park by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who promised them a pedigree breed. These men are selling a myth of Britain becoming the greatest country in the world again at a time when the days of empire are long gone.
Suddenly I am scared. I grew up along the border in Fermanagh during the Troubles when I’d have to walk miles to Ulster Finals with my uncle Benny Gallagher because the British army had blown up all the roads to stop the IRA from smuggling weapons across.
There were more amusing tales of smuggling too, simple everyday goods that people used to try and sneak past the customs men. I had an aunt who told of how, on a blinding hot day, she used her bra to conceal a few bottles of alcohol past the border patrol men.
That’s not the world I want to go back to, in the country where I now move with ease between Donegal and Fermanagh whenever I return home. I even have dreams of one day retiring to Donegal. But after this result, if the pound falls to a level comparable to the euro over the next couple of decades, there might be fewer holidays along the wild Atlantic coastline.
The life I had all mapped out so neatly might be unravelling before my eyes. If this present mood of anti-immigration gets any worse I may well decide to pack up and move elsewhere, somewhere such as Canada or Australia.
In saying that I feel incredibly selfish, and negative. I have a choice of whether or not to run. Those people who fell for the lies of the political puppy salesmen are trapped here with no choice.
This may cause riots, or a further swing towards the right in British politics. Yet I would prefer to believe it will expose the lies of the puppy salesmen and will show the people they need to embrace a less nationalistic kind of politics in order for Britain to prosper again.
Therefore my goal is not to run away in the short term but to stand up and fight, and to make sure the Irish voice in Britain helps to change the present mindset of isolation and anti-foreigner sentiment.
Ireland needs Britain, and vice versa, and so it is in our mutual interests for this to all work out positively. It is sad so many have chosen to leave the EU but I am not sure they knew what exactly they were voting for.
The one great positive of the EU is as a means of holding together this fragmented continent, and the best that Britain could have done is to work within the system for change. All has changed utterly with this vote. We have arrived at a new country we never really expected to see, and now we have to either make the most of it or turn our backs on it.
Some will turn their backs, but I am hoping to fight on, and hold the puppy salesmen to account. I owe that much to my adopted home. But more than that I owe it to my original home, so that never again in Irish history will anybody walk cratered roads to Ulster finals. It seems now that it is the roads of Britain that are cratered instead, but it is in all our interests as Irish people, and especially the Irish in Britain, to help repair that damage and division.
All that said, as a native of Northern Ireland, I will still be renewing my Irish passport as insurance for an uncertain future.
Paul Breen is a lecturer in The University of Westminster, and author of The Charlton Men published by Thames River Press