Wednesday 18 September 2019

'He's a bungling fool but everybody likes him' - what the London-Irish in Boris Johnson's constituency think as Brexit looms

As the prospect of Brexit chaos loomed large this week, Kim Bielenberg gauged the mood of the London-Irish in Boris Johnson's constituency - and in the capital's Labour heartland

'Boris gets things done': Sebastian McLafferty in Whelan's in Uxbridge, London. Photo by Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images
'Boris gets things done': Sebastian McLafferty in Whelan's in Uxbridge, London. Photo by Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images
Pulling power: Boris pours a pint in Whelan's, Uxbridge
Laura Sheehan at the London Irish Centre, Camden. Photo by Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images
Mary Allen at the London Irish Centre, Camden. Photo by Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images
'A dangerous loose cannon': Cherry Green is concerned about the impact Boris Johnson will have on the UK. Photo by Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

If the court of public opinion at the bar in Whelan's pub in the west London suburb of Uxbridge is anything to go by, Boris Johnson will confirm his position as prime minister in an upcoming general election.

The Irish pub is in the heart of Johnson's constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

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Taking a leaf out his bibulous Brexiteer rival Nigel Farage, Boris has been into Whelan's to pose with a pint, hoping to be seen as a true man of the people.

Boris came to Dublin this week and stood next to Leo Varadkar on the steps of Government Buildings with all the gravitas of a smirking schoolboy, who has been caught nicking gobstoppers from the school tuck shop.

Pulling power: Boris pours a pint in Whelan's, Uxbridge
Pulling power: Boris pours a pint in Whelan's, Uxbridge

While Boris came over here, I travelled to his political base at the end of the Piccadilly line to gauge the mood of the Irish towards the prime minister and Brexit.

And I also visited the staunch Labour heartland of Camden, which is traditionally associated with past generations of the London-Irish. As with any London suburb, there is a healthy smattering of Irish residents in Uxbridge and their views on Brexit and Boris are more varied than one might perceive in Dublin.

This is the suburban Metroland, captured by the poet John Betjeman, where city dwellers were lured to the fresh air, rose gardens and mock Tudor villas out on the edge of the capital's green belt.

Donegal man John-Joe Greene, who runs a local construction business and voted for Brexit, can understand the appeal of Boris.

"He's a bungling fool but everybody likes him," says John-Joe, as he sits quietly near the bar. "He connects with the people. He has a down-to-earth way of speaking and doesn't flabbergast people with big words."

Greene says there has been a mixed response to Brexit among the Irish in London.

Mary Allen at the London Irish Centre, Camden. Photo by Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images
Mary Allen at the London Irish Centre, Camden. Photo by Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images

"It's been damaging for business, but I have to admit that I voted for it, because I think it will make the country stronger.

"The country is giving too much to the EU and I think the same is true of Ireland.

"I know a lot of people who travel back and forth, and they like what the Conservative Party is doing over Brexit. On the other hand, there is concern about the effect on farmers, because it is affecting them deeply."

Sebastian McLafferty, a student nurse from Westmeath, arrives in the pub and is happy to declare his support for Boris Johnson - even though he has reservations about Brexit and believes it has not worked.

"I would definitely vote for him," says the nurse, who emigrated to London a year ago. "He seems down-to-earth and he gets things done, so I can't really complain about him."

Read more: 'Every day I think of the referendum and the fact that we lost'

Sebastian is delighted to be working for the NHS, and has no regrets about moving over from Westmeath. "I have loved every moment of it and it has been a great experience," he says.

When asked whether he would stay, he says: "I always said the only thing that would make me stay would be a good woman or a good job. Otherwise I would be dying to go home, back to the hurling and the football."

Asked to assess Boris Johnson's qualities, he says: "I don't know how clever he is, but he is funny and entertaining."

That seems to be a recurring theme with Boris among voters in these parts.

This week, as the clock ticked closer to Brexit midnight, he was steering a bull around a pen near Aberdeen in Scotland, as the unwieldy beast bumped into his bodyguard.

Read more: 'They've left the truth at home' over Brexit - Cameron lashes out at Johnson and Gove in his memoir

No wonder his critics feel that when it comes to Brexit negotiations, he often seems like a bull in a china shop.

Tom Doyle, a retired accountant originally from south Leitrim, walks in the door of the pub to watch the Ireland-Bulgaria football international.

Like a remarkable number of Irish immigrants, he has been in England for decades, but he has not lost a trace of his Leitrim accent.

He arrived in Euston Station, the familiar entry point of the Irish, in 1974 without a job and within days he was employed as a factory labourer before training to become an accountant.

Tom takes a much more jaundiced view of Brexit and Boris Johnson. He says he argues incessantly with friends in a local cricket club about Brexit.

Read more: Martina Devlin: 'Let bygones be bygones - why not give the DUP a Brexit landing space? It could be its finest hour'

"I think the country has gone mad, and Brexit is like a religion," he says. "It's purely an emotional thing for many people here.

"People here still go on as if they're the biggest economy in the world and they'll tell you that Europe needs us as much as we need them. There is still an incredible arrogance."

With exasperation, he says he recently heard an Irish friend explain why he was voting for Johnson. Entertainment value was again the theme: "Ah, but he's funny!"

"He has always been regarded as a joker," Tom adds. "Nobody took him seriously, but suddenly he is supposed to be a statesman.

"Brexiteers are very angry. I think they will vote for Boris because they feel Britain has been humiliated in the negotiations with the EU."

Doyle can understand why working-class people voted to quit the EU and sees immigration as a big issue.

"To be fair to the Brexiteers, immigration has increased rents and property prices. There are so many Poles and others coming into London that house prices are too expensive for people who are renting.

"They are looking forward to a future where they will never own their own homes. You might tell them that Brexit will make things worse, but they will tell you that things could not be worse."

Labour supporter Conor Boylan, whose family comes from Donegal and Belfast, predicts that Boris will win the election.

Although he voted Remain, Boylan believes there is a lot of support for Johnson, because he is seen as more decisive than Theresa May and his Labour rival Jeremy Corbyn.

"People like Boris, because he is the sort of guy you'd go down the pub with. They are not impressed with Corbyn, because it is not clear exactly where he stands."

While there is support for Brexit and Boris in his Conservative constituency, it has to be remembered that London is a Labour city, and overall, 60pc of voters in the capital chose to Remain in the 2016 referendum.

In the London Irish Centre in Camden, visitors are less enamoured of the prospect of Boris as prime minister as they face into the uncertainty of Brexit.

Laura Sheehan, the social media manager at the centre, tells me that when she first arrived in England, she lived in the Midlands and pro-Brexit sentiment was much stronger there.

Both Cherry Green and Mary Allen are stalwarts of the Irish community in London and have been coming to the centre in Camden for decades.

Both agreed that their most suitable descriptions of Boris Johnson were "unprintable" in a family newspaper.

Mary arrived in Camden in 1950 after working as a childminder in Somerset, and has lived in the north London borough ever since. The Waterford woman says the London Irish Centre has been a second home to her.

When she arrived in England there was still rationing after World War II. It has often been said of Camden during that era that it was popular among the Irish because it was as far as an Irishman with two suitcases could walk from Euston Station on a rainy night.

Mary pulls no punches in her assessment of Johnson: "He's a silly clown and an imbecile. I saw him on the news pulling around that bull, and he looks like an old farmer in Ireland. That is what he should have been."

But is he merely playing the fool, because he knows that it makes him popular?

Cherry Green, who lives in Islington, disagrees with the portrayal of Johnson as an "imbecile", and believes he is a clever politician, who wants to be seen as a man of the people.

Originally from Mayo, Cherry moved to London after meeting her English husband in Galway and worked in hairdressing before taking up a post as a cashier in the Midland Bank.

Although she credits Johnson with some intelligence, she says: "I believe he is a dangerous loose cannon, who could land us in a lot of trouble.

"He is deadly serious about gaining power for himself, but he is not interested in the country."

Cherry says she is not happy with the UK leaving the EU, but she believes that the country will adapt.

"Either way, we will have to put up with what we get. When the British lose out on European markets, they will find other markets - they are not going to close up shop."

A much younger immigrant, Brendan Millar from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, says Brexit is extremely confusing.

"You'd like to think the people in charge know what is happening, but they seem to be winging it," he says. "Nobody really knows what will happen - and they don't have a grasp of the situation."

There may be feverish debate about Brexit in pubs, living rooms and cafés across London, but few have detected much anti-Irish feeling.

It is nothing like the atmosphere of the 1970s when IRA bombs created furious tensions.

"The hatred of people is less now focussed on the Irish than on other cultures," says Brendan.

The events organiser adds: "The first impressions of Boris are that he is an idiot, but a lot of people believe he is quite calculated and knows exactly what he is doing."

When one broaches the subject of Brexit, some of the London-Irish say they don't want to talk about it. But then they might turn around and regale you at length with their opinions about the phenomenon.

Most of the London-Irish I met were following developments almost minute-by-minute this week, as Johnson lost a vote to hold an election, and parliament shut down.

Dermot O'Grady, a businessman who moves between Kerry and his base in Cricklewood, said: "A lot of the debate is sad, vicious and ill-informed.

"London mostly voted Remain, but still people can get hot under the collar, and you would find different opinions in families. When I am out with people, I prefer to stay out of it.

"I don't think travel will be affected between Ireland and England, and reality will kick in very quickly if people believe there will be no deal."

And that harsh reality seemed to be spelled out as the details of secret government plans for a no-deal scenario were spelled out this week. They envisaged shortages of medicines, soaring food prices and delays at ports and along the border.

It remains to be seen if the potential chaos dents the popularity of Johnson.

Judging by the response of some of the regulars at the Irish bar in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, he may be able to ride out the storm.

As one observer remarked, the appeal of Boris reminds one of the assessment of a musical act in an old TV ad for Kit Kat chocolate bars.

"You can't sing, you can't play, you look awful... You'll go a long way."

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