User Menu

Holyhead on Brexit: ‘When will people wake the f**k up?’

The Welsh port town voted Leave. Were locals ‘led like lambs to the slaughter’?

The port town of Holyhead voted to leave in the Brexit referendum of 2016, Patrick Freyne traveled to the Welsh town to see how the locals feel of the imminent departure from the EU. Video: Enda O'Dowd

Irene Edwards: “We don’t talk politics in the shop.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

In Holyhead, even Santa voted to leave the European Union. Santa’s other name is Richard Burnell. He’s 78 with a long white beard and he formerly worked in local government. This Christmas he will dress in a red suit and give presents to children on the Stena Line ferry.

“I think the idea of the EC [European Community] common market was fine,” says Santa. “But when it got to the stage that they wanted to rule the country, to govern us, I think this is what the people of Britain have kicked up against. We’ve got our own laws which go back hundreds of years.”

‘We were misled. I would change my mind now’

Burnell’s friend Beryl Warner also voted Leave. “In my opinion we were misled,” she says. “I’ve been doing voluntary work all my life, especially in the hospitals … We were told we would have £30 million more for the NHS, and that’s what really prompted me to say leave. I would change my mind now.”

Burnell is more optimistic. “There was a big fishing community in Holyhead, ” he says. “When the EC was formed, it vanished. And when we do get back to Britain we will have our trawling waters back … It’s going to be a challenge, no doubt about it, but it’s a big world out there. We can trade with the rest of the world.”

Do people discuss Brexit? “No,” says Warner. “No. I think that we didn’t know enough about it. We didn’t understand what was happening. Well, I for one didn’t ... Did you get the gist of it all?”

“No,” says Burnell. “There were so many different stories going around, you just had to pick the best bit out of all the stories and hope for the best really.”

Would he still vote the same way? He would, he says. “When you see what’s happening in Europe now, all the immigration and what have you.”

But Santa knows no borders, right? He laughs. “No borders at all. Those reindeers fly under the radar.”

I didn’t want to bring it up, but if there’s a no-deal Brexit next year, Santa and his reindeer will be subject to customs checks along with everyone else. The fear for Welsh politicians – Leavers and Remainers alike – is that, faced with such checks, Holyhead will be swamped by unsustainable traffic jams.

This would lead, they fear, to Irish hauliers going via Northern Ireland to Scotland or from Dublin to ports with larger hinterlands such as Liverpool, or, at worst, bypassing the UK “land bridge” entirely to ship directly to Europe. Holyhead is the second-busiest roll-on, roll-off ferry port in the UK.

About two million passengers, 423,000 lorries and 500,000 tons of cargo pass through each year.

‘Everyone’s had enough of Brexit’

“It’s very, very weird”: Alun Roberts, chairman of the Holyhead Business Forum. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

And yet the people of Holyhead voted to leave. In fact, local Plaid Cymru councillor Vaughan Williams tells me that without Holyhead’s strong Leave vote, Anglesey as a whole would have chosen Remain.

Alun Roberts works with the community-owned regeneration organisation Mon CF and is chair of the Holyhead Business Forum. “It’s very, very weird,” he says. “I have colleagues whose jobs are 100 per cent European-funded who voted to come out. And I ask them why and they say, ‘I couldn’t tell you. Just gut feeling.’ ”

In general, he says, people in Holyhead don’t talk about Brexit. “When we go to the local shops it’s not the topic of conversation. It’s the weather. It’s the impact of developments on parking, street lighting ... They’re the things that pop up on a regular basis, not the impact of Brexit, which is a strange anomaly.”

Roberts thinks that when the European Social Fund money dries up, people will notice. Hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of European money have gone into the town in the past few decades, he says. “If you told local people they’d be staggered.”

Much of this went into the port, but it also went into roads, the Celtic Gateway footbridge and local regeneration projects. “I just cannot explain [Brexit] to you,” says Roberts, before taking us to visit a couple of local business people. “Maybe it’s the psyche of local people. Economically this town, if you take the port out of the equation, has been deprived for quite some time now ... We’re really isolated and we’ve got the lowest value economy of any county in the United Kingdom and have done for a very long time.

“What does coming out of Europe mean? Probably people think it won’t make any difference because it can’t get any worse.”

‘In all honesty, it’s a mess’

Ian Ashworth: “I think in the beginning, it was all about immigration, wasn’t it?” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

“I think everyone’s had enough of the word ‘Brexit’, to be honest with you,” says the postmaster, Ian Ashworth. “You tend to switch off or turn over the page when something is about Brexit … No one really knows what’s going to happen. We’re getting reports that there are going to be queues all the way up the A55. Whether that’ll be the case, who knows?” He also notes that before the election the Remain side predicted plummeting markets and Armageddon. “That never happened.”

How did he vote? “I was 50-50 but in the end I wanted to stay in Europe because I believe Wales benefits massively from European funding,” he says. “I don’t think that will be made as readily available from Westminster as it was from Europe.” He gestures towards the street. “The shops that you see have been done up and all the fronts have been done up … They’ve been helped with EU funding.”

Why did Holyhead vote to leave? “I think in the beginning, it was all about immigration, wasn’t it? And realistically that boat has sailed. These people were in this country 20, 30 years ago. They’ve had children here. To say we’re going to throw them all out is unrealistic.”

Despite his own quibbles, he now thinks there might be some benefits to Brexit. “I think if they brought back duty-free it would be brilliant for us from a business point of view. The amount of people it would bring over from the crossings to Ireland.”

What would happen if they ran the vote again? “My father voted to get out and now he says he’d vote to stay in only because he wasn’t made aware of the discussion of the hard border.”

But this time Ashworth would cancel him out. “I voted to stay in but [if] we had another vote out of principle I’d vote to get out because you can’t keep voting… Let’s make it best out of three. Let’s make it best out of five.”

He shrugs. “It’s a mess isn’t it? In all honesty, it’s a mess.”

‘I think we’ve kind of been misled by the press’

Helen Evans of Holyhead craft shop LL65: “I think we’ve kind of been misled by the press.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

Across the road in the craft shop LL65, Helen Evans says nobody really talks about Brexit any more. “People seemed to lose interest.”

How did she vote? “My initial view was, yes we need to come out for the sake of the country. Really, I think we’ve kind of been misled by the press. You watch the news and they were telling you that Britain has all these illegal immigrants flooding over here … It was on the news every night in the run-up to the actual voting and I was thinking, Surely we’ve got no choice if we want to save our NHS? ... In hindsight now, I do feel that we were led like lambs to a slaughter.”

Why? “Because from what I can gather I don’t think they thought it was going to go through. I mean the next day the prime minister stands down … What sort of message is that sending to people? It’s just going to send them into panic, which I think they’ve been in ever since.”

Did she think about how it might affect the port? “You know what? No. Not at all … We would have a lot of people coming through who come on the ferry and would come into town in the car and then have a cup of tea and have a quick look around the shops.”

So she changed her mind? “I think I have, yeah, and I think a lot of people have changed their minds … People are panicked again because now it’s like we really don’t know what’s going to happen any more. It’s gone from one type of panic to a different type of panic.”

So now she’s not so worried about immigration but she worries about the future of the port. She worries about peace in Northern Ireland. She worries about the NHS not being able to recruit necessary people abroad.

She tells me a little about her life and her shop. She is a fashion and textiles graduate and always wanted to do something creative. Then she did an evening class in jewellery making, started making pieces out of sea glass and set up this business eight years ago with the help of a programme called the Empty Shops Initiative.

This project was delivered in its later years by Mon CF, the partly EU-funded organisation that Alun Roberts works for. She laughs. “I know it’s crazy,” she says. “I think that’s the thing. You only have to look around Holyhead to see how much of it is EU-funded. It’s everywhere you look.”

‘I don’t give a f**k. I don’t vote’

Irene Edwards: “We don’t talk politics in the shop.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

On the walls of WG Edwards fishmonger shop, there are photos of WG himself manning a harpoon on the whaling ship he helped crew in the 1930s. His daughter, Irene, oversees his shop now.

Balancing on a walking stick, she tells me about the whaling crews that left Holyhead in the 1930s when there was very little work in the town. Her grandsons still work on the boats. She wonders if fishing might make a comeback in the aftermath of Brexit but she didn’t vote and says she has no view on it. “I don’t think it will affect me,” she says.

When politicians come around, she says, she warns them, “We don’t talk politics in the shop.”

Irene Edwards is not the only person who’s disengaged with politics. Out on the street I meet a Leave supporter who didn’t vote (“It was raining and I had a few beers in”) and a similarly unmotivated cafe owner who is now concerned for her business. “You probably think I’m terrible.”

I meet a young man named Hwyel Hughes attaching a poppy pin to his long black trench coat as he leaves a British Legion shop. “I’m marching for Remembrance Sunday,” he says. “I did three years in the army. I’ve lost fellow comrades.”

He didn’t vote either, but he feels “we should have left a long time ago. I think it will give those who are unemployed a better chance to work. I’m unemployed and it’s very hard for me.”

Does he really think it will help? He laughs. “Well, no. It’s probably not going to give us anything we need. I just hope it does.”

Someone calls him from The George pub across the road. “Matrix!” shouts the man. “Come here, Matrix.” I follow Hughes over to where a man with a tattoo of a panther on his neck tells me he won’t give me his name but that I can call him “Sir”.

“But I’m having an interview about Brexit,” says Hughes.

“Here’s an interview,” says his friend. “How about, ‘I don’t give a f**k?’ I don’t vote. I don’t believe in it… I don’t like politics.” So instead we talk about his relatives who live in Drumcondra.

In the town people talk more about the proposed Wylfa Newydd Nuclear Power Plant that will, if approved, employ thousands in its construction phase, than they talk about Brexit. The port, in contrast, employs only about 500 people, and the economic benefits don’t always flow into town, with much of the traffic bypassing it almost entirely. The town itself has also suffered, like many others, due to out-of-town shopping centres.

But there are other signs of growth that locals keep pointing towards – port expansion, new giant ferries on the Dublin-Holyhead route, a new Premier Inn across the road from the Roadking Truckstop where I’m staying, not to mention a 78-room hotel extension to that truck stop. And several people look forward to the return of the duty free.

In many ways Holyhead looks healthier than it has looked in years.

‘Where there’s chaos there’s opportunity’

The Roadking Truckstop: for the past three years most of the truck drivers bypass the town and go straight there to eat, sleep and refuel. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

The Roadking Truckstop lies just outside Holyhead on the A55, and for the past three years most of the truck drivers bypass the town and go straight there to eat, sleep and refuel. Paintings of ships and trucks grace the walls of the dining room, where truck drivers from all over the world eat the huge “Megga Breakfast”.

The owner Fred “Betfred” Done is gung-ho about how Brexit will be good for business. The managing director, Nicholas Whatmore, is a little more measured, acknowledging that a hard exit could be damaging but notes that this could be offset by the development of the nuclear power plant. “Wherever there’s chaos there’ll be opportunities,” he says

After a night’s sleep in a tiny room, I eat a fraction of my Megga Breakfast and talk to three Dutch truck drivers. John Koolhout is wearing a Union Jack T-shirt and a baseball hat. He laughs. “When I leave, T-shirt comes off. Then maybe I buy an Irish T-shirt with shamrocks on it.”

What do they make of Brexit? “Nobody knows what is going to happen,” says Koolhout. “I have heard a story that in Holland they make a new harbour direct to Dublin.”

They are Eurosceptical in their own way. They think the EU is too big and should go back to being a smaller pool of countries but they think Britain’s choice to leave is self-destructive. “They’ve got nothing,” says Koolhout. “No car industry any more. Huddersfield is in the past. Everything is gone.”

Do the truckers ever spend time in the town? “You can’t park,” says Koolhout. “And it’s too far to walk.”

“We’re not made for walking,” says a younger driver, Donovan Verschoor.

“Just to the beer tap,” says Koolhout, throwing his thumb at the bar.

‘We pay £300 million a day into the EU’

The Edinburgh Castle pub stands just outside the ferry port and benefits a lot from passing port traffic. The London-born owner, Hugh Williams, sits near a stove and tells me how he built his business with carveries and karaoke and by letting rooms to ferry travellers. He voted Leave.

Why? “We need somebody in government who stops giving our hard-earned money away,” he says. He tells me of a list he’s seen on Facebook that itemises how much money the UK gives to other countries while, he says, the NHS struggles. “I only know what I’m told,” he says, “But we pay £300 million a day into the EU.”

I suggest that this is inaccurate but also that any investment into the EU arguably frees the way for more money to be made in trade. He laughs. The Germans won’t stop selling their cars to Britain, he says, and he tells me about the various developments happening around the town – expansion of the Roadking truckstop, the new Premier Inn, the proposed nuclear power station.

Would he not miss EU funding for the town? He’s not really aware of any. He thinks they were offered some money a few years ago but turned it down.

Do they talk about Brexit in the pub? “I call it ‘the fly in the ointment’. I say, ‘Let’s talk about Brexit’ and they say ‘Ah, here we go.’ Then I say, ‘Now religion’. He chuckles. “It’s just a thing I do. Entertainment value. I had two guys ranting at each other one day about Israel. ”

“Everyone we speak to wants out,” says his wife, Marcia, who has joined us. “The locals are very much for putting the EU money back into the NHS, into the schools, into the police, into everything that’s important to us.”

What if a hard border results in reduced port traffic? “I don’t see it,” says Hugh.

‘When will people wake the f**k up?’

Holyhead: “Economically this town, if you take the port out of the equation, has been deprived for quite some time now.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

The Juice Box vape shop is a hub of political debate by any standards. I thought people didn’t talk about Brexit in town. “He does,” says tattooed shop-owner Rob Hartin, pointing at his customer, 48-year old electrician Craig Mansell.

“Everyone else has given up,” says Mansell.

Hartin and his business partner, Daniel Sargent, voted to leave but have lately changed their minds.

“I call them my ‘converts’,” says Mansell, and then he begins an analysis of Brexit. He talks about how the UK government always had control over immigration despite the EU. He talks about how the Belfast Agreement might be jeopardised by a hard Brexit. He talks about Arron Banks and the illegal campaign activity of his Leave.EU campaign. He talks about how the NHS is under pressure not from immigrants but from underfunding. He references Fintan O’Toole of this newspaper. He concludes, with a flourish, “For crying out loud, when will people wake the fuck up?”

At this point Sargent and Hartin are shaking their heads and laughing. “So he talks about it,” says Hartin.

Why the widespread disinterest? “Anglesey has its own little climate going on,” says Mansell. “They don’t really look beyond the bridge and when they do look beyond the bridge it’s Spain for a holiday … This island has suffered from a lack of investment for years.”

Hartin and Sargent are Corbyn-supporting former Lexiteers (left-leaning Brexiteers). They don’t care about immigration but they do lament the Lisbon treaty, worry about an encroaching European superstate and, on a more personal level, dislike how the EU has legislated vaping products.

Mansell, in contrast, has a business selling drones, and 80 per cent of his customers are in Europe. “If I lose that market, my retirement is gone.”

Both Hartin and Sargent would vote Remain if they were given the opportunity to vote again. Why? “Because it’s a shambles,” says Hartin.

Sargent says that initially he thought the government were “purposely cocking Brexit up” in order to manipulate people into being more EU-friendly. “But as it gets closer and closer I start to think, ‘No, maybe they’re just inept.’ ”

And Mansell is angry. “I did my stretch for beating up a copper during the poll tax marches. I don’t give a damn and I will quite happily stand and I will do it again over bloody Europe,” he says. In the meantime he has a T-shirt that he’s been forbidden to wear at work. What does it say? “Bollocks to Brexit.”

‘People will suffer no matter what’

Anglesey is, according to the Office of National Statistics, the poorest part of the UK with the lowest GVA (gross value added) figures in the country. They’ve seen major industries come and go. It used to be a centre for ship building. The once biggest employer Anglesey Aluminium stopped operations in 2009.

The food bank on Thomas Street is open for three days a week to cater to people who have fallen between the cracks or been “sanctioned” and had their benefits stopped. In the food bank they don’t talk about Brexit. They talk instead about how the new universal credit welfare policy might further disadvantage people.

Richard, one of the volunteers, is out of work himself. He has the symbol for diabetes tattooed on his arm but never had it coloured (“It’s not a colourful illness, is it?”). He was a Leave voter. “Because I am British,” he says. “I’m not from Brussels. We should have our own laws, our own rules. I don’t think Britain should be governed by another country.”

Does he think politicians have handled Brexit well? He does not. “They’re all in a major panic now.”

But he doesn’t regret his vote and he doesn’t think Brexit will make a difference to people at the food bank. “People will suffer no matter what.”

Fellow volunteer Gwyneth Hewitson, a retired teacher, despairs of the Leave vote. She thinks people were swayed by propaganda on the sides of buses but didn’t have access to real information. “Before the vote I kept telling people, ‘We got this because of Europe, we got that because of Europe.’ ”

She says that it’s not a wealthy town and that people’s horizons are narrow. “We took some children for a holiday for a week,” she says. “When we got to the bridge leaving Anglesey they asked were we at Dover.”

‘We’ve become subservient to Europe’

Local independent councillor Shaun Redmond. “I firmly believe that the European Union has been a negative rather than a positive overall.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

According to Welsh Assembly member Rhun ap Iorwerth, a passionate Remain campaigner who would like to see a second referendum, there was no real local campaign to leave. “There was a Ukip shop on the high street for 18 months but I don’t think I ever saw anyone there.”

Even the main referendum talking point, immigration, has little relevance for Anglesey, which has a non-UK-born population of about 3 per cent (though that doesn’t stop immigration being a key issue for some people I speak to).

So why did people vote to leave? “I think it was a 20-year campaign of propaganda against the EU,” he says. “Holyhead was typical of many of the places that voted to leave and didn’t give consideration to the practicalities. It’s an EU border frontier town but that didn’t really matter. It’s the kind of place that felt it had been left behind economically, the kind of place that wanted and felt that it had good reason to protest against – the best way to put it is ‘things’ – and voted to leave.”

I arrive at the tail end of a meeting of a Holyhead Port Users group meeting held at the seafront headquarters of the Sea Cadets. It involves local politicians, port manager Wyn Parry, ferry operators, lifeboat operators, people from the marina and representatives from the unions. All but the politicians rush off into the rain before I can buttonhole them.

Rhun ap Iorwerth introduces me briefly to Welsh Labour MP Albert Owen, who shares the general bafflement of most Remain-inclined politicians. “There were people working in the ports who voted to leave,” he says. “Seriously, there were households split down the middle.”

Local independent councillor Shaun Redmond is a firm supporter of Brexit. “I firmly believe that the European Union has been a negative rather than a positive overall … We’re losing our democracy as a country. We’ve become subservient to Europe in virtually everything.”

But what if there’s a customs border between the UK and Ireland? “There’s no need for a hard border with Ireland,” he says. “Technology can deal with all the issues. I firmly believe the nations of Europe will come to their senses.” Those countries need UK trade, he says.

Indeed, he sees huge opportunities for the port. “Without the restrictions of Europe, we can develop the port of Holyhead into a far more international port and bring in goods and services from the whole world rather than just being restricted by European traffic.”

Is that realistic? He smiles. “If you haven’t got any ambition you’ll never get anywhere.”

Rhun ap Iorweth, a Welsh Assembly member: “I think it was a 20-year campaign of propaganda against the EU.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

‘My nan wanted to make Britain great again’

At a classroom at Holyhead High School, Rhun ap Iorwerth gives a talk about politics to Tristian Griffiths’s Year 9 English class. They’re all roughly 13 years old. They have prepared topics to discuss and Griffiths gently encourages them from the sidelines when necessary.

Here’s what they have to say about Brexit: “I’m angry because I might not be able to travel now,” says one girl.

Jacamo, who wants to be a travel writer, says he worries about medicines not being delivered to the NHS.

“I think it’s going to affect Holyhead, because of our route to Dublin with the ferry,” says a second girl. “It’s going to affect food and company links and all that.”

I ask them what they have heard other people saying about Brexit. “[My mum] thought we’d get the money we’d have to spend if we stayed in the EU,” says one girl.

“My mum voted Remain because she’s a nurse and she thought would be better for hospitals,” says a girl called Carla.

Ellie’s mum voted Leave “because there’ll be less terrorism and we’ll be more secure and have more money to spend on the NHS”.

“My nan voted to leave because she wanted to make Great Britain great again,” says another girl, “but I don’t really know what she meant by that.” Everyone laughs.

We take a show of hands to see who in the class supports Remain. All of them put their hands up.

BREXIT: The Facts

Read them here