Saturday 21 September 2019

Nicola Anderson on Brexit countdown: 'Pity, despair and a sense of guilt on the streets of disunited London'

Jane Keane protests outside the Houses of Parliament in London yesterday. Photo: Emma Marshall
Jane Keane protests outside the Houses of Parliament in London yesterday. Photo: Emma Marshall
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Pity is a curious and a startling thing to feel when it comes to considering Britain from an Irish view. It is not an emotion that we are used to.

One might have expected exasperation and anger. Outrage at the 'black and white' rendering of a complicated and increasingly hopeless state of affairs as the political situation unravels, further threatening our future.

Outside the Houses of Parliament, a Brexiteer strolls past a protester and jeers: "We're leaving. Cry your eyes out."

Peter Benson and Shelagh Rowling make their message clear. Photo: Emma Marshall
Peter Benson and Shelagh Rowling make their message clear. Photo: Emma Marshall

The same man had just personally abused another protester at length about her teeth.

While at the gates of Downing Street, a Brexiteer couple and their children mock another group of protesters, with their teenage girl swinging around to give the two fingers.

The attacks are thuggish, ugly and deeply troubling to witness.

Penny Griffiths, who travelled to London from Devon to protest. Photo: Emma Marshall
Penny Griffiths, who travelled to London from Devon to protest. Photo: Emma Marshall

But it is despair that stands out most starkly.

And so pity - as well as deep admiration for those who are determined to stand up for their democracy - is what rises to the fore.

On the second last day of summer, it is hot and clammy in central London.

Across from Big Ben, still shrouded in scaffolding, a group of Chinese tourists queue patiently to obtain the iconic photograph in a red phone box.

Writer Rebecca Morrison, holds an EU flag. Photo: Emma Marshall
Writer Rebecca Morrison, holds an EU flag. Photo: Emma Marshall

An advertisement on the Tube advises that it is time to "wealthify", asking: "Is your money working as hard as you are?"

At Embankment station, a French tourist offers a plastic-wrapped sandwich, now somewhat squashed, to a young homeless man who takes it, his eyes rolling in his head.

He calls out a "thank you" as she retreats.

Ahead of today's widescale protests, a smaller skeleton of dissent remains in place at the Houses of Parliament.

Individuals here and there are dotted against the black railings, resolute and determined to see this out and to get their voices heard.

Many have travelled long distances in the hope of making a difference and all echo the same sentiment - their country is deeply divided and no real solution lies in sight, while they believe that their democracy, once the mother of them all, is in grave danger.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of them are retired school teachers, furious at the effect of the current climate on children.

One teacher said she had heard of young children having nightmares and anxiety over fears for EU national friends being sent away.

At the junction, a council worker is painstakingly taking a razor blade to a sticker on a lamppost that reads "f*** Boris".

Meanwhile, shrouded in black Victorian-style mourning attire, Jane Keane holds up a sign reading: "When politicians lie, democracy dies."

Married to a Cork man, she is deeply concerned about the direction her country is taking. "I'm in full mourning," she says.

Protester Penny Griffiths is a retired history teacher - whose daughter has driven her the seven-hour journey from Devon so that she can be here.

"We haven't learned from our own history," she says, admitting that she feels personal guilt over this, as a former teacher.

She blames austerity and inequality for the Brexit vote.

"We're supposed to be a rich country but we're just a country in which rich people live," she says.

Proroguing the parliament came as a big shock - but Ms Griffiths asks why parliament can't just sit anyway.

"It doesn't have to be in this museum," she says. "It can be a travelling parliament going around the country sitting wherever it needs to."

Whatever happens, she believes the union is in trouble. "It's become a disunited kingdom because they've looked after the rich and shown contempt to the poor," she says. "This London-centric approach is a disaster."

Further down the railings is Rebecca Morrison, a book reviewer and translator originally from Aberdeen in Scotland but now living in Berlin, from where she travelled that morning.

Ms Morrison is deeply concerned about the future of Britain and believes civil unrest is looming. "It feels unreal to be saying that," she smiles uneasily.

A Brexit supporter comes over to ask her why "the EU is putting up a border in Ireland".

He walks off as she refuses to play along. "It's pointless," she explains.

While protester Joely Webber went on a brief bathroom break, leaving the spot across the road at College Green where she had spent the night, police cut the string of the two cardboard signs she had placed on a steel barricade.

The mother of a two-year-old, she has travelled up from Essex to protest, explaining that she had a "panic attack" when she learned about the proroguing. This had been her first time sleeping out on the streets and she admits that it was "a bit scary".

She has gone back to college because everyone around her supported the Brexit vote and kept telling her she didn't know what she was talking about. She hopes to become an MP some day.

At Downing Street, protester Alan Costar laughs uproariously as he hears that unionist politician Ian Paisley Jnr has an Irish passport in the wake of Brexit. "That's made my day," he says.

Pro-European protesters sing 'B***ox to Brexit, Alive, alive-o," to the tune of 'Molly Malone'.

Waving an Irish Tricolour is Peter Benson, living in London for the last 35 years but originally from Naas, Co Kildare, though he considers himself an EU citizen primarily.

Though he works full-time, he spends all his spare time protesting against Brexit, he says.

He wants more support from the Irish Government for the community living in Britain - worrying about the elderly Irish who may be left with no medical care in Ireland in the wake of the no deal he believes is now inevitable.

He also doesn't believe we can rely on Boris Johnson to safeguard the common travel area, saying he cannot be trusted.

"I want to know the Irish Government has our backs," he says.

Irish Independent

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