Thursday 22 August 2019

Irish Brexiteers: 'After the vote, I realised how undemocratic things have become'

A quiet tribe with Irish backgrounds are backing the UK's exit from the European Union. Regina Lavelle finds out why

Heading into the unknown: Irish Brexiteer Denis Russell
Heading into the unknown: Irish Brexiteer Denis Russell
Eurosceptic: Joan Mulvenna worries about the polarisation of the Brexit debate

England's difficulty has long been Ireland's opportunity. And Brexit is no different. It is Ireland's opportunity - for comedy.

For many here, Brexiteers can be neatly assigned to caricatured tribes - either angry curtain twitchers living in houses festooned with St George's Crosses moaning about foreigners who "speak funny", or top-hatted old Etonians who dismiss every concern as "nonsense" and frequently resort to fantasies of "Empah".

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But there is another - quieter, almost invisible - camp of Brexiteers. The Irish.

Denis Russell could be said to share similar political DNA to one of the Brexit Party's European Parliament candidates, Claire Fox.

Eurosceptic: Joan Mulvenna worries about the polarisation of the Brexit debate
Eurosceptic: Joan Mulvenna worries about the polarisation of the Brexit debate

Also a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), he didn't become politically active until he left Wicklow in the early 1980s. The RCP was allied with the Irish Freedom Movement, a controversial group which campaigned in Britain for a united Ireland.

Although Russell is now a vocal Leave supporter, he didn't actively campaign during the referendum. The reaction to the vote crystallised his position.

"I wasn't involved in the Leave campaign in any particular way," he says. "Once the vote happened, I became involved. I had opinions and I spoke out at debates and book launches and various things."

Russell felt that the depiction of Leave voters and their motivations was unjust.

"The Leave camp have been labelled atavistic nationalists who want to return to Little England, they've closed the door, they want to become introverted," says Russell, who was originally a history teacher before moving into construction. "I think that's fundamentally untrue. It's hard to say definitively what 17.4 million people all think.


Feeling ignored

"Some were concerned about immigration - they could be quite right wing with that. Many felt angry about austerity and what happened with the banks, and some took the opportunity to give the government a poke in the eye."

He believes that the motivations for the vote were more visceral.

"It's true when people say that trade or customs arrangements were not the reason why people voted Brexit, but a feeling of being dislocated, left behind, ignored, not being able to say what they wanted to say about the direction their own country was going in," he says.

"Only once the vote happened, the reaction clarified for me how undemocratic I felt things had become. There was a ubiquitous reaction against Brexit and the formulation of a clear attempt to disrupt it."

Many disagree that a second referendum is undemocratic.

Born in the UK to an English father and an Irish mother, Russell moved to Ireland at the age of two, then to Brighton where his then-girlfriend, now wife, was studying. There is no mistaking his accent for anything but Irish.

"I strongly identify as Irish, but I wouldn't see my identity as politicised. I like aspects of Irish culture, Irish people I'll always love.

"Nobody has ever said to me here, 'You - an Irish person - why are you voting that way?'

"The culture is such that they really wouldn't do that."

But there have been other criticisms.

"People do say nasty things. Amongst many Remainers, people who voted Leave are a bit stupid, a bit thick - they don't understand the implications of being involved in the EU. There's no question that's there."

As views become more polarised and relationships strained, some hear echoes of a grimly familiar past.

Joan Mulvenna is a 60-year-old garden designer living in Manchester. She describes herself as "raised Catholic, no longer practising." She has been a Eurosceptic since the 1980s, when she began to feel that it was "designed to promote the interests of big business". She voted Labour during the Thatcher years but often she didn't vote at all. She supports a united Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement.

"The polarisation is very worrying to me. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, I remember it being such an amazing relief when I came to Manchester at the age of 18. Four of us came over on the ferry together. I was the only Catholic.

"And immediately we were all really enjoying being able to chat to each other, without being worried that what you said would offend someone. We could say whatever we wanted. It was wonderfully liberating. We all became good friends," she recalls.

Mulvenna says that recently she is reminded of those years in Northern Ireland where politics wasn't discussed openly.

"I do have a lot of friends and family who voted Remain. Quite a lot don't want to talk about it. We still keep the friendships going, these are people I love and people I care about. I would love to understand the views of friends and relatives who don't want to talk about it.

"What I try to teach myself is to listen."

Derogatory language

Leavers, she says, can be equally at fault for hostilities.

"There are people on the Leave side who are quite dismissive and derogatory. I never use the term 'Remoaner', for example. I don't think that's helpful.

"It has been two years of the most dreadful things being said, by both camps.

"I've been called a fascist and a racist to my face when I was leafleting."

While many might find it odd that an Irish person might vote for Brexit, politicians on the ground don't necessarily make a distinction on those grounds.

"I don't think they're any different to any other people who vote Leave who weren't Irish," says East of England MEP Alex Mayer.

"There are a lot of conversations about Eastern European immigration, and concerns about funding at a local level. There's a general view that if things aren't great, it's an opportunity for things to be better. Which is more why they voted Leave in the first place," says the Labour politician.

The referendum continues to change the political landscape, opening new cleavages and drawing new alignments.

Willie Drennan is a softly-spoken 64-year-old folk musician from a Unionist background. A Leave voter, he also supports Irexit.

Drennan says that as parties line up along Brexit or Remain lines, they alienate some of their base, as is the case with him.

"I always vote. I consider it carefully and sometimes I'm still mulling it over on the way to the polling booth. I would lean towards the UUP and I would give the SDLP a vote in the multiple choice [European Parliament vote]."

However, since Brexit, Drennan says: "I wouldn't have been a DUP voter, but the reality has been that they do represent the views of people like me."

It remains to be seen the impact of Brexit on the coming elections, but it seems likely that a degree of realignment, temporary or otherwise, is on the cards as those who would not seem to share the worldview of Arlene Foster or Nigel Farage consider giving them their vote.

As Russell says: "If no agreement is concocted, then Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party are looking really good in the polls at the moment. There's no guarantee what way it's going to go."

But he adds: "I would support a vote for the Brexit Party."

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