British in west Cork fearful about what Brexit deal – or no deal – will bring
Travel, border controls and pension rights are becoming a real worry
Giana Ferguson, of Gubbeen Cheese, has lived in west Cork for more than 40 years and is concerned about the impact of border controls. Photograph: Emma Jervis Photography
The London-born Ferguson, who with her family was recently honoured by the Irish Food Writers’ Guild with a Lifetime Achievement Award, has played a significant role in developing west Cork’s reputation in food culture over decades.
She is concerned about the impact of border controls. Last week’s agreement between British prime minister Theresa May and the European Commission is welcome, but she harbours doubts about whether it will be accepted by the House of Commons.
Even if it is accepted by MPs, it is “only a withdrawal agreement”, says the Schull-based businesswoman: “It’s not clear exactly what lies ahead. Having some sort of deal is better than nothing.
“It’s a place to start, but there still seem to be a lot of holes,” she adds. “It’s all done on aspirations rather than facts.” Nevertheless, like others, she has been impressed by the “courage” of May.
“She stood alone with her beliefs and held on. She seems to have given it her all,” she says.
Nevertheless, she thinks it is time for May to go. The big question, adds Ferguson, is who would take her place: “It seems a totally divided party.”
West Cork has long been a haven for British people seeking an unspoiled landscape
The Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, however, has failed to impress. Ferguson sees it as weak and divided: “From our point of view, it’s just more confusion. They seem just to want to get into power.”
Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, west Cork is home for the Fergusons. “Move? Certainly not! I’ve been in west Cork for 40 or 45 years,” she says.
“Both countries have business interests in the other, and we’re more driven by that than anything else. Business is a set of instincts to keep a healthy balance. That’s what I believe we need.”
Two hours from Heathrow
Ferguson’s concerns are largely mirrored in west Cork’s strong British community, says Charles McCarthy. He is an auctioneer based in Skibbereen, whose beat, for the past 50 years, has covered a sprawling region from Mizen Head to Glengarriff and Clonakilty.
West Cork has long been a haven for British people seeking an unspoiled landscape. “In 2016, 37 per cent of the properties we sold around west Cork were to people in Britain,” he says, “in fact, the last three property sales I made before you rang were to British people.
“West Cork is only two hours from Heathrow by plane,” he adds. Some British people buy a holiday home with a view to a full-time transfer after retirement. Many others commute to London, or elsewhere.
“Now they worry, to varying degrees, about future travel, or, even more importantly, future pension rights.
“The majority of British people living here are against Brexit – I’ve only met three who are pro-Brexit.”
“My dream would be that the whole thing would fall apart, and that Britain would stay in the EU,” he says, though he believes the Brussels deal last week “is the best that could be done” given the pressures.
“While Theresa May doesn’t represent my political colour, I’m impressed with her determination and her ability to resist everything that the hard right has been throwing at her,” he adds.
Her critics talk of the UK becoming “a vassal state” but, he says, they are merely using “an emotive analogy for their own ends”.
Harris’s eldest daughter lives in Oslo. There, Norwegians think the British are “completely mad”, he says. Outside the EU, the UK will have to comply with most EU rules to secure trade deals but will have “no say in how those rules are made”.
Harris has a low view of Boris Johnson, though Jacob Rees-Mogg or Michael Gove would be for him “the ultimate horrors. I can’t really see anyone tipping her [May] out at the present time, because they wouldn’t want to get the blame”.
David Cameron quit after the referendum, the rest of the Brexiteers hid “because they couldn’t face having to pick up the pieces of the mess that they caused” leaving the task to fall on May’s shoulders.
“Thank goodness there’s a woman in charge: she’s not encumbered by the uncompromising male egos and self-promotion of the other potential candidates!” says Harris, a life-long Labour Party member.
Nevertheless, Harris has become disillusioned with Corbyn’s handling of the crisis: “So against my instincts in terms of Europe – I find myself supporting Theresa May and wishing her well.”
Dominic Moseley takes a different view. The 63-year-old chief executive of global firm MCI Ltd, moved to west Cork permanently in 2014, but still regularly commutes from his home outside Timoleague to London, or to the US.
He favours Brexit. “Leaving the EU is good for both the UK and the EU and it received the largest ever democratic mandate [of more than 17 million people] recorded in UK history,” he declares.
Hoping that goodwill and common sense will prevail, which is in “everybody’s interests”, Moseley believes that many of his anti-Brexit Irish acquaintances are “largely ignorant of England”, even if they are “naturally concerned” about Brexit’s negative impacts.
His family members in the UK were in favour of Brexit, he says. “Those who were in favour of remaining originally have changed their opinions in reaction to the perceived bullying by Brussels.”
He is happy with May’s Brussels deal. Critics of it have been “predictable” and “over-emotional”, he says, arguing that the backstop will only be triggered if trade talks fail. “Germany would not allow that failure to happen,” he adds.
“The jurisdiction of the EU court in respect of trading standards through this period is quite reasonable; what is there to worry about? The UK will continue to control its own currency, budget, defence, legislature,” he says.
The “vassal state” argument, he believes, is a ploy by the Johnson camp to ensure that the treaty is defeated in the Commons and that the UK leaves without a deal, which has always been their objective. A third of Conservative MPs want a no-deal Brexit, he believes.
I’d like to hear from someone who is pro-Brexit as to why they wanted to undo the good work done in the past 40 years or so
Saying that, he feels sorry for May. “She seems a principled woman who has been promoted beyond her competence and is a hostage to fortune; she is clearly under great stress.
“At the Abbey on Remembrance Sunday, her head was turning like a sparrow being stalked by a cat. If I were in her position, I would be planning to step down on March 30th, plan a great two-month holiday, and see what her party comes up with.”
The Labour Party, he observes, faces the worst of all worlds: “The far-left Corbynite leadership is very hostile to the EU and would like to leave. The remaining Blairites are very pro-EU.
“But the former vote against all government legislation because they are desperate to trigger a vote of no confidence (that could be up to half the Labour MPs), while some of the latter may ignore the whip and vote for the withdrawal bill as the best alternative to a no-deal exit.”
Forty years living in west Cork, British-born Anthony Cresswell, who runs Ummera Smoked Products in Timoleague, wants clarity: “We don’t know what will happen”. His UK-based relatives are “floundering around” he says. Many of them have turned away from Brexit.
“I’d like to hear from someone who is pro-Brexit as to why they wanted to undo the good work done in the past 40 years or so.”
Timoleague-based chef Piers Diment (46), whose Asian food stall is a common sight in west Cork farmers’ markets, is “all for Brexit”, even if he is concerned about the consequences. “The people in the UK wanted it and you have to do what the people want,” he says.
Retired IT consultant Diana Pitcher has lived in west Cork for 25 years, but still votes in the UK and came down on the pro-Brexit side. Speaking from her home between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, she now says she has adopted a “wait-and-see” approach.
Her relatives in the UK feel much as she does, she says. “I think they’re a bit weary of it and the general feeling is that it’s a mess and nobody realised what was involved or how much was involved.”
No matter what happens, she says, she’s staying in west Cork. “I go back and forward to the UK very frequently. I am retired. I think I am quite bullet-proof. I don’t work. I don’t run a business any more and I don’t employ people anymore.”
Seventeen years in west Cork, Skibbereen-based Bev Cotton (60) is originally from Hertfordshire and is a partner with Fastnet Group Online Marketing. She is scathing of Brexiteer politicians: “They are some of the most self-serving, shallow, unpleasant and incompetent politicians you could meet.”