Wednesday 18 September 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'London still seethes with uncertainty - but suddenly the game has changed'

'Johnson must now fight a general election fraught with risk, not at a time of his choosing.' Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
'Johnson must now fight a general election fraught with risk, not at a time of his choosing.' Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Gerard O'Regan

THE giant-sized pub seemed to heave with the rapture of it all. Such was the pulsating size of the crowd, there was scarcely room to move. Yet somehow or other pints of beer kept floating forward - agile bar staff had seen it all before.

The Sheephaven Bay in Camden Town, with its bank of television screens, is a mecca for sports fans in this part of London. On Sunday it had its biggest crowd of the year for the latest showdown between Glaswegian icons, Celtic and Rangers.

The history of the two great football clubs is a reminder of an old time fissure in a country now traumatised by its seemingly endless Brexit agony.

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There was a ferocity in the support for each team impossible to replicate at any sporting event in Ireland. Some of the fans - most of them Scottish and living in London - trembled with the depth of their passion.

Others, eyes glazed with the fervour of it all, sliced between euphoria and despair depending on the drama played out on TV.

Football was the wellspring of all that emotion. But there was also a whiff of tribal identity.

Celtic with its roots in Irish Catholic nationalism, Rangers bonded to Protestant unionism, can still cast a spell.

When the game was over the crowd thinned out. Suddenly something slightly incongruous took place - an array of young patrons wearing GAA jerseys emerged almost from nowhere.

Kerry green and gold, and the blue of Dublin, intermingled. The cadence of the Irish language could be heard, as TG4 commentary on the minor final blended with a cacophony of sounds and voices.

Once the Kerry versus Dublin battle was joined, a few slightly bewildered Rangers fans said they would stay and support the Dubs. The blue jerseys worn by Jim Gavin's team reminded them of their own club colours.

The derring-do in the Croke Park theatre kept the assembled Irish, and a sprinkling of Scots and English, engaged with its own torrid uncertainty. It was a consoling blend of traditions - perhaps a sideways reminder of Britain's cultural melting pot.

In Westminster, a whirlwind was already gathering pace. Unstoppable dramas took on a life of their own. At times, Boris Johnson looked mesmerised in the midst of the mayhem. There was no controlling what was happening all round him, despite holding the highest office in the land.

Outside the Houses of Parliament, the ritualistic flag wavers and drum beaters - ever present on our news bulletins - shouted their slogans with raucous intensity.

All the while, animated arguments swished along the nearby streets and pavements. Rarely if ever was the Irish backstop mentioned in all the verbal jousting. It is seen as either irrelevant or too complicated by those on the ground. Brexit is essentially a very British argument the UK is having with itself.

While all of this plays out in the corridors of power, beneath the surface immigration is the central burning issue fuelling the whole debate.

However, from an Irish perspective it was a consoling week. Those 21 Conservative MPs - some putting livelihoods and careers on the line to oppose Boris Johnson's plans - dealt him a sucker punch. Their courage in facing down their prime minister and his inner core of Brexit extremists was a game changer. Johnson must now fight a general election fraught with risk not of a time of his choosing.

Given the electoral weakness of Jeremy Corbyn, the new man in Downing Street may come back with his much craved-for parliamentary majority.

But he is presiding over a deeply wounded party.

The Tories in Scotland are in disarray. Nigel Farage's machinations could be a nightmare for Conservative candidates in a range of constituencies.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are emerging as a powerful centre-ground force.

Sheephaven Bay reflected a mish-mash of loyalties forged in part by historical memory. Now other fixations, old and new, feed into the Westminster hot-house.

An overwhelming aura of uncertainty pervades. But shuffling about London streets these last few days suggests those in the anti-Boris camp have a pep in their step.

Irish Independent

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