Irish in London protesting against Brexit: ‘You can’t leave it to someone else’
Every lunchtime, scores of pro and anti-Brexit protesters gather outside parliament
Peter Benson from Naas and Sinéad Walsh from Kill protesting outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
As Brexit lumbers on, more and more people have taken to gathering outside parliament in London to make their voices heard on the issue.
Every day, scores of pro and anti-Brexit protesters gather outside parliament. Some put in gruelling eight-hour shifts while others pop by for shorter stints. They wear colourful outfits, chant slogans, and wave flags. The protests are mostly good natured and the two sides keep a healthy distance from each other.
Among those are a small contingent of Irish people who live and work in the United Kingdom. They take part in the protests on their lunch hours or after work all while flying Irish tricolours and European flags.
Peter Benson has been living and working in the UK for 35 years. Originally from Naas, Co Kildare, he is married with two children. Over the past few years, he had paid close attention to the debates around Brexit. In December, he attended a taping of Channel 4’s Real Brexit Debate, which featured politicians debating how the country should proceed with Brexit.
“It was devoid of any political intellect or knowledge on the issues,” Benson recalls. He felt the only politician who seemed to have a grasp on the issues was Caroline Lucas of The Green Party.
Sometimes you are that someone else. You have to do what’s right sometimes. It’s now boiled down to values
Frustrated, he decided to check out the protests outside parliament.
“I went around one afternoon when I was on my lunch hour,” he explains. “I started talking to them and went around a few other times during December. In January I decided I would actively go and start protesting. That is what I have been doing. Going on my lunchtimes and after work.”
“I’m not trying to say I’m there every day but I think it’s important that if I have the opportunity to do so that I am out actively supporting the campaign to remain in Europe. ”
Like many Irish people living in the UK he has been frustrated by much of the discourse about Ireland. One turning point for Benson was a recent interview in which BBC Radio 4’s John Humphrys suggested to Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee that Ireland leave the European Union.
“That interview was one of my outstanding moments and it’s why I do what I do,” he says.
Benson says there is a “great sense of camaraderie” at the protests. He praises the “level of commitment” from fellow protesters, some of whom are driving long distances or even flying in from the continent. “We all have something very deep in common,” he says.
One of Benson’s fellow protesters is Sinéad Walsh. Walsh hails from Kill, Co Kildare, and has been living in the UK for more than 20 years. She works in the financial services industry and says she was “absolutely devastated, but not surprised” by the referendum result in June 2016.
Initially, she expected that there would be “a soft Brexit”. Once Theresa May drew her red lines, however, Walsh started to feel more uncertain. “There was not much in the way of protest activity back then so I felt quite isolated for quite a long time,” she says.
My ideal scenario is that we would revoke Article 50 and we would stay in Europe
Eventually she joined her local People’s Vote group where she met like-minded people. Late last year, she started protesting regularly outside Parliament.
“Generally I try to go at least once a week after work,” she says. “I get up early. I’m out of bed by 5am and in work early so I can get away by 4pm to stand there for two or three hours at least once a week.”
Walsh says she is “frightened out of her wits” by the possible ramifications of Brexit and feels a duty to “register her disgust”.
“You can’t leave it to someone else,” she says. “Sometimes you are that someone else. You have to do what’s right sometimes. It’s now boiled down to values. Right and wrong. It’s not just leaving a trading bloc, it’s about the future.”
As Benson and Walsh are often armed with Irish flags, they are often stopped by passersby.
“The first thing most people say is, ‘I’m sorry,’” says Walsh. “Interestingly quite a few people from the North of a unionist background will stop and they are absolutely incredulous, frustrated, disgusted that the DUP are the ones representing them in parliament. They thank us for standing there and doing what we do and say they stand in solidarity with us.”
“I just happened to be standing outside Parliament on Monday afternoon and I was flying my Irish flag,” says Benson. “A slightly elderly woman came up to me and she said, ‘Can I take a photo with you?’ I said, ‘Of course you can.’”
After making small talk, it transpired that the woman in question knew Benson’s uncle. “She said, ‘I know your uncle Des and he used to play for the Cavan football team.’ She knew my uncle and she had been to their house and one of her daughters went to school with one of his daughters. Isn’t that such a small world?”
Both Benson and Walsh are actively campaigning for a People’s Vote, which would allow a public vote on the final Brexit deal.
“I don’t think anyone is looking forward to a second referendum but I think it might be the only way to break the deadlock in parliament,” says Walsh.
“My ideal scenario is that we would revoke Article 50 and we would stay in Europe,” says Benson. “Do I really, really think that’s what the end result is going to be? No, I think there will be some form of soft Brexit in the end.”
The pair are taking part in the Brexit march organised by the People’s Vote on Saturday. A high turnout is expected and Benson has created a new placard for the occasion, which reads ‘No Borders, No Brexit, Just Peace’.
“Next time I’m outside Parliament that’s what I will have with me,” he says. “That will be my message.”