Brexit Diary: October 2018-December 2019
In 2018 we were given a chance to rent a flat in Westminster on a temporary basis. We found ourselves living at the heart of a profound political crisis. The UK as a whole had voted to Leave the EU in a 2016 referendum but Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted to Remain. In Westminster the DUP held the balance of power in the House of Commons, entering a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Theresa May’s government. They had campaigned to Leave, a position they maintained despite their defeat at local level. Sinn Féin, who held five seats in Westminster, refused on principle to take them at a time when they could have considerably neutralised the impact of the DUP on the political landscape. Meanwhile Stormont was also closed, due to a stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Féin on home ground. This meant that nationalist or non-unionist citizens of the North had no effective representation anywhere, while unionist citizens who wanted to remain in the EU were similarly disenfranchised.
Assembling journal extracts for this essay, I have been struck by patterns and parallels emerging in the current discourse around Brexit, whose ‘final’ date is 31 January 2021, and by the tensions surrounding Boris Johnson’s new Internal Markets Bill (September 2020)
London: October 2018
Does art offer a way through the Brexit mess? We go to a talk by Rita Duffy in The Courtauld Insitute. This fabulous building is part of the Somerset House complex, a reminder of days of Empire, now a centre for arts and culture.
Much of Rita Duffy’s recent work relates to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, to national identities and their divisions. Her lecture is so cogent and topical I want to run all the way to Westminster and drag politicians back here to listen to her and look at her brilliant slides. She is introduced by Edwin Coomasaru, who talks about the language of Brexit, pointing out that both Leavers and Remainers use metaphors of powerlessness and that descriptions of effeminate masculinity come thick and fast as Britain is represented as being pushed around by EU bullies. He shows us a headline from the Sunday Times, “Our Timid Leaders Can Learn from Strongmen”, namely Trump, Putin, Erdogan, and Duterte (23 July 2018).
Irony is a key feature of Rita Duffy’s work and thinking. She tells a story about an AK 47 she cast in chocolate. On display in the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London people talked about the smell of chocolate; at the West Belfast Festival they read the serial number and wondered where she’d got the original. “Soften the Border” was a colourful textile installation on the bridge between Belcoo (Fermanagh) and Blacklion (Cavan) aimed at softening the Border with cushions. It was adopted and added to by locals furnishing soft items and witty afterthoughts of their own. Shown on TV, it went viral, with Al Jazeera turning up to interview a local farmer on the bridge.
*Listening to people talk in London or on British media, it’s hard to discern genuine interest in the North. More and more, if you pay attention to the rhetoric, it seems that Brexit is all about England. The media blames the Irish Government for the stalled Brexit process. Arlene Foster has told the Sunday Telegraph that the Good Friday Agreement isn’t sacrosanct. The DUP’s lines are blood-red, she says. She must know what she’s really saying. She’s not even an MP but she’s always in the news.
My brother is ill. We travel up and down to Wiltshire to visit him and his friends, who are staunch Leavers. They are our friends too but we’ve made a pact not to talk about Brexit. Everyone gets too angry and we will never agree. What amazes me is how little consideration has been given to Northern Ireland throughout the debate, from the very beginning. How little people in Great Britain know or care about Ireland, when we know so much about them. Some of them say that, if the UK leaves the EU, we should just leave with them. Why make a fuss?
People pour into London for the Armistice centenary weekend. There is security everywhere. Many people wear some kind of uniform. You wouldn’t want to be claustrophobic in the Tube stations: some are closed due to overcrowding. There’s a crush in Parliament Square, more dense than the 750K march a couple of weekends ago. The royal barges on the Thames are decked with flowers. Hundreds of taxis are parked on Westminster Bridge, many of them vintage. These are the Poppy Taxis – they bring veterans to Whitehall every year and wait for them, ferry them wherever they want to go afterwards. From 12:30 onward the bells ring for an hour, kicked off by Big Ben. That evening we go to the Tower of London. It’s the last day of Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers – an installation where thousands of individual flames in the moat are lit, one by one, by yeomen. It commemorates 100 years since World War I ended. The well of the moat is forested with thousands of individual tongues of flame, like flickering stars, each representing a life lost. The monumental bulk of the Tower and its history loom over them. Drifts of smoke enhance the effect, evoking a night before battle. It’s impossible not to be moved, thinking of the millions of lives lost in Europe’s wars through the centuries. But something about this rings hollow in the context of current rhetoric, all the talk of sacrifice “so that we could be free”: in some weird way it romanticizes war. It’s hard to believe the Never Again! declarations amidst all the talk of isolationism, sovereignty, endless re-runs of old World War II films, and reminders of How Britain Saved Europe. The language of politics gets more divisive and threatening by the day. The emotions this installation is designed to raise are deeply uncomfortable, considering the UK is set on dismantling the biggest peace project ever undertaken, never mind our more local, precious peace process in Ireland.
Two days later there’s a Brexit breakthrough – Jacob Rees Mogg is doing his nut and Sammy Wilson breathes fire with the sudden news that an agreement has been reached in Europe. JRM is complaining because RTÉ broke the story. He claims that Dublin will have more say than Westminster over Northern Ireland. In this morning’s news, everyone is flapping about “the deal”, baying against it before they’ve even read it. Jeffrey Donaldson says it could break up the Union. Tory MP Priti Patel suggests that the UK could use the threat of post-Brexit food shortages in Ireland to pressurise the Irish Government into softening their position on the Backstop.
Today, with Parliament due to vote on Theresa May’s deal, might well prove a turning point. A fairground sign on a trailer shouts for Leave. Buses, vans and the vintage bronze Rolls-Royce with Remain stickers on it drive around in circles hoping to have their slogans caught by TV news cameras. People wave home-made, hand-held placards. Robocop in a motorcycle helmet holds a sign that says “The Leave Side Lied”; another sign says “They Broke the Law”. People wrapped in various flags – EU flags, Union Jacks, St George’s Cross (and some in various amalgamations of those) – stride up and down or stand conferring in urgent, impassioned groups. There are badges and stickers: “Leave Means Leave”. “Bollocks to Brexit”. “We Demand a People’s Vote!” The Leavers are louder, is my unprofessional assessment. They have drums, too, which have uneasy connotations for an Irish observer. One old woman is yelling that Remainers should be shot while another, wearing a festive EU beret and wrapped in an EU flag, strolls past, calm as a glass of milk. A man holds up a banner saying: “Leave, Then Negotiate”. Another man comes up to him and says, “Your banner is the best I’ve seen. If we just leave, French farmers and cheese and wine-makers will sort it out. They want to sell to us – they’ll burn Paris to get a deal.”
An excited type shrieks for the police. He doesn’t have to wait long, they are everywhere, ever more visible. “Anyone with a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker should be arrested,” he insists. He is nearly in tears. They try to soothe him. Someone yells: “Surrendering our sovereignty is treason!” Two young women exchange looks. “It’s really scary when you hear someone say that.” One of them turns to me sadly: “Just in two years, this has happened. The language that’s used against us is very aggressive.” The week before, pro-EU MP, Anna Soubry, was jostled by a hostile crowd on her way back to Parliament from the BBC stage. There were shouts of “Nazi!” She told reporters that she wasn’t afraid but Jo Cox was on everyone’s mind.
There’s a lot of discussion and some shouting but no jostling today. The word ‘treason’ is liberally chucked around, attaching itself to named individuals on one side or the other as well as to Remainers in general and the People’s Vote organisers in particular.
I was in Paris for the second vote on the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, surrounded by people who felt that Ireland had played fast and loose with Europe, that we wanted to have everyone else’s cake, eat it all, and be first in line for more. We were mocked for staging the second referendum. But in actuality, changes were made to the Treaty in the meantime. We were voting on a different document (Leavers and Remainers, take note).
On the day of Nuit Blanche, I got a text from a friend: “Ireland says yes!” There was a Carnival atmosphere in the Marais, celebratory – not for us, for our change of heart, but it might as well have been. It was such a European moment, a European atmosphere. The streets were thronged with people, musicians tuning up and practising in open courtyards and in salons, people in cafés planning routes through the night to come; which of the many wonders on offer to sample. In the courtyard of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, where I had a residency, we had Malachi Farrell’s Gaz Killers, a kinetic installation of mechanical dogs whose heads are made from actual wartime gas-masks. Activated by sensors, they stood to attention in military formation, turned and swivelled with choreographed accuracy. From time to time a sound like a prolonged exhalation emanated, along with reddish steam, from the control-box and spread out to fill the courtyard before drifting on into the night to join the light show over the Luxembourg Gardens.
The nuclear power stations planned for Wales are falling away one by one. Today Hitachi cancel their contract ‒thousands of expected jobs won’t materialise now but, we’re told, this is “not necessarily” down to Brexit. The government is insisting on Non-Disclosure Agreements for meetings with businesses about contingency plans. Army reservists have been called up.
In the Irish Times, David McWilliams says that when your neighbour is acting crazy, all you have to do is nothing, to appear sane and in control. This is certainly an unusual position for Ireland to occupy.
Coventry, January 2019
We’re here for a European Rugby Cup match: Leinster are playing Wasps. We’re dressed in team colours, we carry flags, we have our anthems and our chants, but supporters of the two sides share tables and chat. There’s no hostility in it. Why can’t Brexit discussions be like this? The atmosphere is festive.
The next morning we visit the two cathedrals – the ruins of the old and the impressive new structure – and the fabulous Herbert Art Gallery and Museum across the plaza. The ruins of the original cathedral are a symbol of peace and reconciliation now. The Nazis coined a term: Coventrieren, meaning to flatten; to raze a city to the ground. In the ruins we find Jacob Epstein’s extraordinary, uncompromising Ecce Homo, which his wife donated to the city after his death, and a wooden cross that symbolises hope and forgiveness arising from destruction. On the morning after the conflagration that destroyed the Cathedral, two scorched roof beams were found in the wreckage. One had fallen on the other; together they formed the shape of a cross. They were bound together in this formation and placed on the site of the original altar. After the war, Coventry sought and developed links with other cities which had experienced similar levels of destruction, such as Dresden. Another peace project.
The spectacular Graham Sutherland tapestry behind the altar took ten years to design and make, finally created in France by a team of 12 weavers using Aubusson techniques and blocks of 900 different colours. It depicts a risen Christ surrounded by symbols of the four Evangelists on a verdant green background, evoking growth and resurrection rather than the destruction and suffering a more conventional Crucifixion scene would suggest. There is an ecumenical Chapel of Unity. I’m not in any way religious but I light candles here for pretty much everyone I know. The café downstairs is jammed. It is run by the Betel group, supporting homeless and addicted people, who get training and work there. We meet a museum guide who is very knowledgeable about her city; she voted Leave and she meant it. Never mind Europe’s goal of substituting peaceful trade relations for age-old hostilities, she’s against cuts to local arts budgets and immigration and blames Europe for both. To me, there is considerable irony in the fact that anyone who voted Leave so that the UK could be run by its own elected representatives is undergoing a brutal demonstration of how ineffectual those same representatives are proving to be. This lovely, thoughtful, friendly woman doesn’t care. If they hold another referendum she will never vote again so long as she lives.
As if to hold us to the theme of war and its aftermath, there is an Anselm Kiefer exhibition upstairs, part of an ongoing Artist Rooms project. Kiefer insisted on probing painful memories and images of war in post-war Germany and continues to challenge war’s iconography, for example with the Heroic Figures photographs and his Let a Thousand Flowers Bloomproject, representing images of Mao subsumed by flowers and vegetation. Mahler plays in the background. Absorbing Kiefer’s thinking through his images in this gallery, so close to Coventry’s legendary cathedrals, you feel the weight of the world’s wars, the rationale behind the European project. How can they turn their backs on it? (Coventry voted Leave 55.6%). It’s worth thinking about how it sometimes feels, lately, as if German Chancellor Angela Merkel single-handedly holds Europe together.
49 days to Brexit. Theresa May is in Brussels. Standing beside Leo Varadkar, Donald Tusk has said that he wonders what the special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without having a plan for its safe delivery. This caused predictable outrage here. It wasn’t helpful but he’s not wrong. Theresa May had to go over there and wade into all of that. It’s hard to see what she can achieve. The Europeans keep telling her the same thing: bring us a proposal we can accept that will pass through your Parliament.
John Bercow, the Speaker in the House of Commons, refuses to allow a third vote on Theresa May’s deal, saying it’s against the rules of Parliament. They’re calling it a constitutional crisis, although there is no actual constitution.
Tusk suggests an extension. May has a hissy-fit in the Commons, blaming MPs. Everyone is furious with everyone else, pointing fingers. What next? The media predict trouble. There’s talk of stockpiling.
Many streets are closed to traffic, full of people instead. It’s the Put It to the People! March, more than a million strong. Loads of families, kids, placards, a great friendly atmosphere. Optimistic. It’s easy to join and be carried along on its wave of optimism.
Suddenly, there is a new date for Brexit: 12 April.
As the second date set for Brexit approaches, the prospect of No Deal, that the UK will crash out of the EU, turns the House of Commons into a pressure cooker. The air around Westminster is thick with insult and accusation.
The relatives of the twenty-eight unarmed protestors shot by British Paratroopers in Derry on Bloody Sunday are also in the news as the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland announces that there is enough evidence to prosecute Soldier F for two murders and four attempted murders on that occasion. Protesters appear on the streets around Westminster with banners and badges declaring “I support Soldier F”. In media discussions, there is a strongly expressed point of view which holds that servicemen and women should never face criminal charges for any action committed in a time of conflict.
S says, if Bloody Sunday had happened in Nottingham they’d see it differently.
These almost 50-year-old wounds are still palpably raw. As old grievances resurface, they do nothing to help diffuse an apparent rise in anti-Irish sentiment.
The Border that Brexiteers have conveniently forgotten until now, the Partition of the island of Ireland, is at the root of it all.
The Irish Border on Twitter (@BorderIrish) has more than 100k followers. It posts hilarious tweets aimed at puncturing the posturing of politicians and other commentators and demonstrating the utter phantasmagoria of what passes for Brexiteers’ thinking about the Border.
Martin Parr’s Only Human exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery has witty signage. Instead of directing us towards the exit in one direction and the continuation of the exhibition in another, the signs say Leave or Remain.
A Don McCullin exhibition in the Tate displays amazing images of the Berlin Wall being built. Groups of people watch on both sides. West Berliners look east, East Berliners look west. Their faces express different emotions: disbelief, grief, sorrow, fear, even disgust. Some women wave. Some have binoculars looking out, apparently towards us, the viewers, but really at people and streets behind us that we can’t see. Another version of what lives behind the lines.
The sight of that wall under construction reminds me of Cyprus even before we get to the room where McCullin’s images of that conflict hang. The border in Cyprus runs through a street in Nicosia, where the front of a terrace of houses is on the Greek side and the back is on the Turkish side. It seems as arbitrary and surreal a concept as the border on our own island. McCullin notes that you don’t have to go to a war zone to find conditions of misery. Among images of poverty-stricken old men around Spitalfields and Brick Lane is a portrait of an Irishman with a worn, battle-scarred face who looks absolutely tribal. There is a heart-breaking photograph of a group of homeless old men who are, literally, asleep on their feet.
Theresa May resigns. Boris Johnson is elected to take her place. The Labour party has its own internal crisis: an ugly row about anti-Semitism in the party.
One day in to Boris Johnson’s leadership of the Tories, Parliament recessed for the summer. A week before it is due to return, Johnson has asked the Queen for a speech on 14 October and announced his intention to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament for 5 weeks leading up to that date. The DUP “welcome the idea.” Well. Why wouldn’t they? Stormont has been suspended for two-and-a-half years.
John Bercow, who usually doesn’t make public comment on political matters, calls the prorogation a “constitutional outrage”. More crowds fill the streets, strangely quiet, uneasy. During the leadership contest following Theresa May’s resignation, new terminology came into effect. Moderate Tories like Philip Hammond were accused of “collaborating” with the EU. New rumours about civil defence plans and the appearance of fresh barriers on the street make me wonder again if we should make contingency plans: how to get out quickly if trouble starts.
Boris Johnson has been called a coward. His approach to criticism appears to be to ignore it, or to laugh it off. Whatever anyone thinks about May’s approach, it has to be said that she showed up in the Commons, day after punishing day, and faced her critics and her accusers, on her feet sometimes for two or three hours; gruelling sessions of question and insult. In Europe, she cut a lonely figure among all those jocular, backslapping, handshaking leaders but she went back, doggedly, over and over again. She brought Michael Collins to mind, sent by de Valera on his futile, fatal errand.
There are new chants: “Stop the Coup!” Some passers-by are hostile. “Why do we have to put up with this?” I heard one young man ask. “Fucksake! Those tossers again” is in the air too. The crowd swells and spills over onto the pavement, past the metal barriers. The helicopters (police or media?) will be there until late. Next week, when Parliament returns, will be fiery.
The Welsh Assembly (Wales voted to Leave) has been recalled. In Scotland (which voted to Remain), Nicola Sturgeon calls Johnson a “tin-pot dictator” and today a dark day for UK democracy. She says Johnson’s action has brought Scottish Independence closer. Tory spokespersons are insisting that there’s nothing wrong with prorogation, it’s perfectly legal. It may be legal, but is it honest, decent, truthful? There are legal challenges afoot already. One in Scotland, led by Joanna Cherry and another here, in London, by Gina Miller. Brave women.
There are unbelievably rancorous exchanges in the Commons. Johnson won’t give an inch. The language the Tories use is all about surrender and traitors and do-or-die – stoking trouble. Do they realise that the word Tory originally referred to an Irish rebel? The opposition are as bad, name-calling: “Liar! Cheat!” Johnson fired off a comment about Jo Cox, saying that the best way to honour her memory is to “Get Brexit done!” (the current mantra). Given the context of the death-threats to MPs, apparently commonplace on all sides, it’s shocking that politicians behave like this, stirring up animosities that could easily spark violence. It’s absolutely toxic.
The Benn Act says if they don’t have a deal by 19 October, Johnson must ask Brussels for an extension. He declares that he won’t. He’d rather die in a ditch, he says, yet again showing breathtaking disregard for the experience of people in Northern Ireland. The Tories want an election but the opposition resist, even though it must choke them – the UK could crash out of Europe in the interim, while they are between governments. A minority in Parliament now, the Tories gloat, goad the opposition, taunt them. Momentum seems to lie with them. Old ladies in the Square wave placards saying “We love you Boris!”
The Supreme Court decides, unanimously, that Johnson acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament; that he misled the Queen. In Europe, Guy Verhofstadt tweets that he never wants to hear Johnson, or any Brexiteer, call the EU undemocratic again.We listen to Lady Hale read the judgement online, then watch the BBC news. History is creating itself, right here and now. It feels, not for the first time, as though we’re skirting civil war territory.
Johnson sent the required letter requesting an extension to the EU, but the letter was unsigned. A second letter, which he did sign, said that he does not want an extension. Is there a name for this bizarre version of diplomacy?
The fact that he fired so many of his own MPs means that the DUP don’t have the power of a casting vote any more.
October – December 2019
Our time here is winding to a close. Ten days before the 31 October deadline, MPs vote to accept Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal, which doesn’t differ much from Theresa May’s more workable (in the context of Northern Ireland) withdrawal agreement, the one that Brexiteers voted against to bring her down. In Parliament, Nigel Dodds reminds Johnson of his declaration that he would never allow a border in the Irish Sea and other promises he made. I don’t agree with Dodds’ politics but he speaks well and with dignity, in marked contrast to the grin and bluster from the Tory benches.
The slogan “Get Brexit Done!” shuts down discussion, clarification, argument. The language around politics has hardened too. Johnson refuses to participate in televised debates and interviews, to a point where the BBC say they won’t allow him to come on the Andrew Marr show again unless he agrees to be interviewed by Andrew Neil. Then the London Bridge attack happens, and, as Prime Minister, he is invited back on. That’s it, the media surrender.
On the morning of 12 December we get up early and walk to our local polling station so that S can vote for the last time in a UK election. Then we load the last of our stuff into the car and set off on our long drive home. On the ferry we listen to the results. It seems clear that Brexit will really happen, now. Johnson has his majority; he can do what he likes. He has already turned on the DUP and demonstrated how little the Union with Northern Ireland means to him, despite earlier assurances. The irony will be extreme if it turns out that, in their drive to support leaving the EU despite the Northern Ireland voters’ desire to remain, the DUP have actually weakened the Union that defines them. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has her majority. If she wins the right to hold another referendum, will Scotland choose to Leave or to Remain in the United Kingdom? Could a European border materialise across Great Britain too? What then?
 This idea has resurfaced as Johnson in September 2020 accuses the EU of threatening to set up food blockades across the Irish Sea.
 Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was murdered by a constituent in June 2016.
 In a bizarre coincidence, he repeats this line in an article in the Irish Times, 13 September 2020.
 Graham Sutherland was an official war artist during World War II.
 A small panel depicting the Crucifixion hangs at eye level behind the altar.
 The original date set for Brexit was 29 March 2019.
 It is downright eerie to find myself re-reading these entries while the same scenario unfolds between Westminster and Brussels, Westminster and Dublin in September 2020. British newspapers refer to “battle lines being drawn” and the Government’s refusal to ”retreat or surrender”.