Thursday 21 November 2019

Nicola Anderson: 'Sunderland is the heartland of Leave, but it's Nissan that drives local fears'

Changing times: Artwork showing the history of Sunderland. Photo: Scott Heppell
Changing times: Artwork showing the history of Sunderland. Photo: Scott Heppell
Karen St Clair
Edward Golden
Ian Schonewald
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

It's bleak on the shrunken streets of Sunderland. This is a sad place, where solitary elderly men sitting on benches outdoors turn out to be retired workers from the silenced shipyards and coal pits.

They speak of a golden era when hard-earned money from industry flowed through the pockets of everyone in this town in north-east England.

The coal-fired Sunderland of 30 years ago was a much bigger, livelier place with bigger, livelier shops. The young people stayed for satisfying, lucrative jobs.

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Sunderland's story is a strange parallel of peat-­industry-focused Irish midland towns - except that one narrative is of far larger scale and is told in a language of coal, while the other is told in a gentler language of turf. Both speak of decline.

Another, more recent, golden era is brought up by some locals who speak in glowing terms of the time from 2006 to 2011, when Niall Quinn was the chairman of Sunderland FC, and Celtic Tiger-flush Irish developers flung some of the action in Sunderland's direction.

But in latter years, Sunderland has had a run of bad luck and it is not just the football club but also the city itself that has been relegated. Its 'high street' has been reduced to a paltry string of mean-looking shops with cheap signage and few customers.

And, as a result of this and several other factors, came Brexit.

This is Leaver heartland, where 61pc voted to exit the European Union.

But even in the immediate wake of Boris Johnson's much-heralded 'great deal', nobody in Sunderland is worried about Brexit. In fact, eyes roll to heaven at the mere mention of it. Some even have to be informed that there is a deal at all.

Of far greater concern is Nissan's announcement that it is to end its night shift at the giant city plant. While reassuring staff that jobs will not be affected, some 3,000 night workers look set to lose their shift allowances - while greatly escalating fears for the future.

Taxi driver Paul Bewick is dismissive of concerns though, believing that Nissan is ratcheting up concerns about Brexit in order to get "more funding from the government".

Having worked at the plant himself for 17 years, he took redundancy.

"Nissan do it all the time, say they'll pull out of Sunderland but they have the best workforce in Europe here," he says.

"They'd rather close down Spain than here because they can't do the work compared to English lads."

Sitting on a bench in the city centre, retired shipyard welder Edward Golden (80) smiles in gentle remembrance of his grandmother from Co Roscommon.

He was to visit Ireland with his brother, but then he passed away before they could manage it, he says.

"A waste of time," is his brief reply to the Brexit question. He is aware of Boris's deal - "but they won't pass it", he believes. "Just get rid of it. And carry on as before," he says.

Meanwhile, drawing a local woman into conversation on the topic of Brexit untangles a far more tragic personal story.

Karen St Clair claims her father was "a sniper in Sunday, bloody Sunday", her words unconsciously echoing the U2 song.

She daren't visit the North of Ireland as a result, she says.

One of her own sons was killed in Afghanistan 11 years ago, while another son was murdered in nearby York. Despite all her personal tragedy, Ms St Clair is keen to discuss Brexit.

"I just think we should let Ireland rule itself," she declares, adding that Ireland is "bubbling up".

Her friend, Anne Jackson, who has stopped to talk, with her three-month-old baby daughter Elisha in a buggy, speaks fondly of Ronan Keating, given the Irish angle.

A young man passes by and gives her an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"Poor lad," says Ms Jackson, explaining that as a baby, he fell out the window from the top of a block of flats and is lucky to be alive.

"He was never the same but he's happy," she says. Both Ms Jackson and Ms St Clair point out the many empty shop units around them. "The rents are too high," says Ms Jackson.

A short walk reveals a handsome Victorian facade on a building at the top of the town on Vine Place - now headquarters to Hayes Travel, the new owner of the Thomas Cook travel company.

Nearby, Ashleigh Riaz with her two-year-old son Morgan, and her mother Margaret Robson, admit they have not been following the latest Brexit developments.

Ms Robson voted Remain, and is worried that the situation may affect Nissan, where her son works. Ms Riaz did not vote in the referendum and says she cannot follow what is going on.

In his 20s, Liam Martin says he has never voted in his life and as his girlfriend emerges from a shop, he explains that he is just telling us that "Brexit is all b****cks".

"It is all b****cks, yeah," she agrees.

We take a stroll down to the river to get a view of the impressive Wearmouth Bridge, a monument to former days of great industry and enterprise.

A young boy is casting a line at the pier, where a bunch of flowers has been fastened to the railings, in a sign of a recent tragedy.

On the walk back, one man is eager to give his views on the latest Brexit developments.

"I'm pro-Brexit but I'm against it," declares John Craggs. "I hate that Germany and France are pulling the strings," he says, adding that his father had fought in the war.

On the other hand, he is a socialist and likes the benefits the EU has brought in terms of workers' rights.

He used to work in the coal pits and can trace his family back to 1750 in Sunderland.

With a wife from near Enniskillen, he is adamant he doesn't want trouble to return to the North of Ireland.

"No, no," he says firmly.

Another man also has strong views, introducing himself as Ian Schonewald: "I'm not a foreigner but I have German heritage."

He voted Leave. "This place is getting worse," he says. "The only way of changing things is to get out and see what happens."

As for the Nissan plant, he wouldn't mind if that left either, he says. He lives close to the plant and claims it emits "toxic" smells.

Another Leave voter, Richard Young, says he also voted because he wanted to see change.

"But I think we're probably 30 or 40 years too late to get independence without a deal with Europe," he adds.

One of the rare Remain voters, Sarah Piudhoe says she is worried about what is going to happen in the future for Sunderland. Nissan is the big worry - but Brexit is the big unknown.

"A lot of people are fed up hearing about it but we can't just leave - we need a deal," she says.

Irish Independent

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