Bobby McDonagh: Light a candle for Brexit

Bells are set to toll in the UK on Friday but a silent flame can send a gentler message

The flickering of the small flame will represent, in my case, the gentle hope that one day Brexit can be revisited by a new generation in the UK.

Even though we will be in the middle of a general election campaign, it seems appropriate to mark Brexit Day in some way. Given its significance, like it or loathe it, it would be a bit of a cop-out to allow Friday to pass without some acknowledgment. Many in the UK will ring bells of triumph, in part to convince themselves that there is something to celebrate. For my part, I intend to light a candle.

Bells seem too assertive for an issue on which a nation remains divided down the middle, too simple for a debate that has always been complex, too celebratory to mark the downgrading of a long-standing friendship with neighbours, too loud to start the process of healing which the leading campanologists profess to want.

A candle sends a gentler message. Candles can be lit in churches or homes. They can denote warmth or welcome. They can speak for us when we cannot find the words. We gather round candles to reflect, to talk or to break bread together.

I will light a candle at home on January 31st, first of all to acknowledge the immense contribution which the United Kingdom has made to shaping the European Union over the half century of its membership, as well as the personal friendships it has made possible right across the continent, including many of my own closest friendships which I greatly value.


Symbol of hope

For me, the candle will also symbolise hope. To the extent that Brexit permits, my wish is that our British friends will prosper, that long-standing European cooperation will weather the present storms, and that the remarkable advances in the friendship between Britain and Ireland, made possible by our shared membership of the EU, can be maintained.

My flame will recall the importance of the delicate peace in Northern Ireland, which has been skilfully reflected in the withdrawal agreement but on which much more work is needed, not least as the politicians of Northern Ireland make another effort to make its political institutions work.

The candle will speak for the rights and interests of the citizens of all member states, including the UK, who have benefited so much from their European citizenship but who can no longer take those rights for granted. I am thinking particularly of young people and the educational, cultural and employment opportunities which Europe opened up for them.

Importantly, the candle will represent pride in the EU, the peace and prosperity it has brought to our continent, the decent values on which it seeks to give leadership, the creation of complex institutions which, for all their obvious imperfection, have some potential, in the words of Aeschylus, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world”.

It may help us too to reflect a little on our respective histories around Europe including in the UK, on the realities rather than the myths, on the shame as well as the glory, on what those who died on the great battlefields of the last century would have wanted of us in this one. Above all, in that context, the candle may remind us that our solemn duty is to make future wars impossible rather than to imagine that we are refighting those of the past.

The flickering of the small flame will also represent, in my case, the gentle hope that one day Brexit can be revisited by a new generation in the UK, that the Union Jack will one day fly again alongside the other flags of Europe where it belongs and where it will always be welcome. It would be premature for such an aspiration to be set out in a campaigning slogan or a political platform. It is right, however, that a small flame should continue, softly and benevolently, to reflect a legitimate faith in a better future.


One of the best things about a candle is that it is silent. In a world inundated by words and deafened by a cacophony of posturing, a candle has its own eloquence. I have outlined some of the things a candle will mean for me on January 31st. It can no doubt articulate other things for other people. That’s the great thing about it.

Whatever we might wish, some bells will clang at the end of January. What they portend for Britain’s future, like the great bells of Bow in the nursery rhyme, I do not know. It may, however, be worth recalling John Donne’s prophetic wisdom in his poem For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Each is a part of the continent

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea

Europe is the less.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and Brussels