Britain’s Irish community raises its voice at Brexit protest

Demonstrators play folk songs as they rally against British government’s ‘nonsense’

Members of the UK’s Irish Community Campaign Against a No-Deal Brexit are pictured at Saturday’s pro-Remain march in London. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

Members of the UK’s Irish Community Campaign Against a No-Deal Brexit are pictured at Saturday’s pro-Remain march in London. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

 

As UK MPs attended the first Saturday sitting in the House of Commons since 1982 to debate the latest European Union withdrawal agreement, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Westminster to protest Brexit.

Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square filled with throngs of demonstrators waving EU flags, carrying placards and banging drums.

Among them was the Irish Community Campaign Against a No-Deal Brexit, which met in Trafalgar Square, with folk songs such as I’ll Tell Me Ma, Molly Malone, and The Fields of Athenry playing as the gathering crowd danced and joined them in song where they knew the words.

Members of the UK’s Irish Community Campaign Against a No-Deal Brexit play music and dance during the anti-Brexit march in London on Saturday. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Members of the UK’s Irish Community Campaign Against a No-Deal Brexit play music and dance during the anti-Brexit march in London on Saturday. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

The group, established only a few months ago, started the march with about 40 supporters present and it picked up many more as the afternoon went on.

Nora Mulready, a former Labour activist and Change UK European election candidate, is one of the group’s founders. She was motivated to organise an Irish opposition to Brexit as she realised many Irish people in London were “increasingly frustrated, angry and upset” at how the process had unfolded.

There was no shortage of analysis on Brexit’s impact on Ireland available in the media but Mulready felt there was also a need for “a voice in the Irish community that’s actually objecting”.

The group marched down Whitehall with Irish flags, a large banner bearing its name and a litany of placards featuring slogans such as “We love our friends in Ireland” and “We love the Good Friday Agreement”.

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Mulready says the focus of their campaign is not just how Brexit will affect Ireland, but the impact it will have on the UK’s wider European community.

“We wanted to stand in solidarity with our European neighbours,” she says, adding that many of these people will have to apply for settled status to remain in the UK after Brexit. The Irish in Britain, she adds, are, in many ways, “going to be fine” due to the Common Travel Area and provisions in place for Irish citizens to live and work freely in the UK.

Marching with the group was Margaret Geiger from Carlow, who works for the Irish Elderly Advice Network in Camden, and her husband Marcus, who comes from Switzerland. Not only was she concerned about how Brexit has polarised people in the UK in extreme ways, but also about her husband’s ability to live and work there when all is said and done.

‘Amateurish nonsense’

Another group founder, Liberal Democrat activist Richard Logue, grew up in Donegal during the Troubles. He says the group wanted to protest the “amateurish nonsense” of the British government’s treatment of EU citizens throughout the Brexit process. A project manager, he says he works with many European colleagues “who aren’t as fortunate as the Irish”.

The group paused its march outside No 10 Downing Street for a chorus of the Fields of Athenry. They passed a counter-protest involving people waving the St George’s Cross and chanting “drain the swamp”, “Trump will deliver a Brexit deal” and “the BBC is fake news”, which attracted a large police presence and was soon drowned out by the louder Remain protest.

As the protest reached Parliament Square, only a few hundred metres from the House of Commons, actor Sinéad Cusack joined the Irish contingent.

Gesturing towards the Palace of Westminster, Cusack said she feared Brexit was going to be “a distraction for years to come” from important issues that needed to be addressed in the UK.

“I just fear for all my children and my grandchildren, that’s what hurts,” she says. “And anyway, I want to be part of Europe, I’m a European by nature.”

Standing in Parliament Square was Desmond Kennedy from Sligo, who has lived in the Wirral near Liverpool since the 1970s. The 90-year-old has attended every major protest against Brexit in London and says the 2016 vote to leave had thrown him “into a deep depression”. It was after the vote that he decided to work with the Liberal Democrats and campaign in favour of the EU as it has “successfully prevented war”.

Sligo native Desmond Kennedy (90), who travelled from the Wirral to London for Saturday’s march. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Sligo native Desmond Kennedy (90), who travelled from the Wirral to London for Saturday’s march. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

“Peace is my primary goal in protesting. Peace between people,” he added.

Three-year-old Solomon joined his father James McDonald, a film-maker and gaelgóir from Gorey, Co Wexford, on the march. James has lived in the UK since 2005 and believes Brexit has distracted its politicians away from “day to day business”. He said he felt reassured by the protest.

“It reminds me that London is still the liberal, open minded city I moved to.”

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