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An Irishman in Brexit Britain: 'The atmosphere has changed since the vote'

It’s a subtle thing rather than something drastic, like when a relationship with a partner slowly deteriorates over time, writes Peter Flanagan.

Peter Flanagan Irish comedian and writer

AS A YOUNG(ISH) Irish immigrant to Britain, I am struck by the progress in Anglo-Irish relations that have made since my father’s time as a labourer here in the 70s. But with the drive towards Brexit, I wonder if that is about to change.

Whatever old tensions might be flaring up thanks to the Brexit negotiations, booking an Irish Catholic comedian to perform at an Anglican Church Hall in rural Surrey is probably a pretty good indication that the Troubles are well and truly over.

Indeed, the likes of Terry Wogan and Dara O’Briain have done a good job rebranding the Irish as light entertainers rather than beardy terrorists from a disloyal backwater. Perhaps someday a Palestinian comedian will be booked to perform at a temple in Tel Aviv, cracking wise about a conflict so far in the past that the jokes seem almost like nostalgia.

The ‘c-word’

Nevertheless, when I took the booking I knew that performing twenty minutes of stand up to roughly one hundred well-heeled, middle-aged English villagers in their local hall might be a tough gig.

On the day, the promoter advised me that I could say whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t use the “c-word”. The “c-word” he was referring to was left ambiguous. Given the demographics of the audience it might well have been “Corbyn”.

On the surface the Irish and English countryside seem very similar, but it’s only when walking around do you notice the little differences between an English village and the Irish equivalent. It’s not just the absence of a GAA club or parish priest; the difference is defined by the institutions that replace them.

A different social fabric

Here well-equipped cottages with expensive cars parked outside lined a quiet country road, looping around a stunning Anglican church in the centre. While the green fields and fresh air reminded me of home, the village’s social fabric reminded me I was somewhere else, somewhere with a very different class structure to where I grew up.

The show, it turned out, was perfectly pleasant. Though upper class, these were the sorts who voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour in their early thirties, before switching to David Cameron’s sensible ‘conservatism with a small c’ when the credit crunch landed.

They seemed largely appalled at the race to the bottom the Tories are currently engaged with, with Brexit deriving most of its electoral support from working class heartlands in the North, more so than isolated bubbles of bourgeois like this.

Irish in Britain

As I got my train back to trendy East London, it occurred to me that my experience as an immigrant in this country has been markedly different from those who came in the past.

While the stereotype of the Irish immigrant in Britain is of a man wielding a shovel on a construction site, today the Irish coming to London are more likely to be working inside cosy office towers rather than building them. In a relatively short space of time we’ve gone from smashing stone on building sites to smashing avocados in airconditioned canteens.

My father worked as a labourer in Hackney in the 70s under a foreman who held the Irish with open contempt. Telling jokes to posh pensioners in a church hall is probably an easy gig by comparison.

Atmosphere has changed since Brexit vote

Nevertheless despite the progress made, no one can deny the atmosphere has changed since the Brexit vote. It’s a subtle thing rather than something drastic, like when a relationship with a partner slowly deteriorates over time instead of a singular antagonistic event.

No mass deportations or hard borders will be mobilised in the morning. Rather the Brexit process will ploddingly unfold one frustrating, demoralising day at a time. And even if the British decide to backtrack, like a lover who’s instigated a break up and realised they’ve made a mistake after facing the realities of single life, the damage has been done.

The message is clear. A majority of the English public see themselves as something separate, something apart from their European neighbours, and the extent to which this will effect Anglo-Irish relations is yet still to be determined.

Indeed, while the Irish immigrant experience has evolved and progress since my father’s generation, the country we find ourselves in seems determined to lurch backwards. And that is everyone’s loss.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer based in London.

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About the author:

Peter Flanagan  / Irish comedian and writer

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