Like many others I can remember the 2016 referendum as if it were yesterday. When the results were announced I’d been livid for some hours, my earlier predictions that the pro-EU vote would win the day being dashed to pieces by the intrusion of hard reality. I ranted, I raved, I accused others of stupidity, and I predicted disaster for the economy and beyond. I was a stereotypical Remainer, almost. And I was wrong. yet my journey from Remainer to Brexiteer was never guaranteed.
It took a couple of years and for the hysteria of “Project Fear” to become fully apparent for me to see that. Every week seemed to bring a new prediction of impending disaster, and the harder our Europhiles tried to convince me that Britain itself might soon sink beneath the waves without the EU to prop it up, the more sceptical I became. Reason had gone out the window. The “tolerance and diversity” mantra of the Remain vote had turned to hysteria and blame-mongering. By the time the issue of the Northern Irish “backstop” rolled around I already felt alienated by my former political allies. What happened next pushed me over the edge.
The old arguments are easily recalled. The UK and Ireland, as members of the EU, had enjoyed a “seamless” trading relationship beforehand, something that was now threatened with Britain’s imminent departure from the customs union. This would lead to something generically known (and rarely explained) as a “hard border”, which some appeared to think would ultimately cause Loyalist and Republican communities in Northern Ireland to start fighting at an intensity not seen since “The Troubles” of my boyhood.
There were a lot of reasons offered as to why this might happen, and none of them were particularly convincing. There was also a rafter of solutions on offer as to how to avoid both a “hard border” and Theresa May’s ultimately discarded “backstop”, solutions that in my opinion rarely got the attention they deserved. What was clear is that there was a persistent belief in circulation that the border issue was vital in relation to the maintenance of the Good Friday Agreement and thus peace in Northern Ireland. That was fair enough. What I grew to resent was the fear-mongering that surrounded the subject.
Indeed, it was hard to make progress with the prospect of mass violence dangling over our heads, and sadly there had been some threats as well as incidents that had people justifiably worried. What I grew to resent were the people willing to weaponise the tension for the sake of a political point scoring. There were plenty of them, and as I was to discover this was largely part of the broader agenda otherwise known as “Project Fear”.
To find that out I had to actually speak to some Irish republicans. If these were the people everyone was worried about, so I thought, it would make sense to talk to them and see just how tempestuous the situation was. Tommy Mckearney was one of those I spoke to. The results were quite something. Mckearney is ex-provisional IRA and had nearly lost his own life during the Troubles, becoming involved in the first round of hunger strikes at HM Prison Maze which ultimately led to the death of Bobby Sands. I took his knowledge of the Republican movement very seriously as a result, and what he told me differed considerable compared to what was doing the rounds in the British press.
For one, he didn’t think we’d see violence over the border. None of the major factions in Northern Irish politics were looking for violence, and what violence there had been was from fringe elements who’d ultimately be unable to sustain any long-term campaign. The status of Northern Ireland remained an issue, so he told me, but the question of a “hard” or “soft” border was not a risk factor in terms of future conflict. It was all exaggerated. I was surprised. What I was hearing was at total variance with what was in the papers. Something was clearly wrong, and it wasn’t Mr Mckearney.
I of course asked him what he thought of those who were claiming that violence was a realistic prospect. What he said on that score was also interesting. The EU, so he argued, was incredibly nervous about Brexit and wanted to make the process as difficult as possible for the British lest other nations get similar ideas of their own. Placating Dublin and then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s rather alarmist position on the border question was part and parcel of that process. Mckearney’s argument made sense at the time, and it’s been proven entirely correct now. We were being fed another line, and it was Project Fear that was behind it.
This all took place in 2019, but this interview marked my final break with Remainer politics and pushed me decisively towards a pro-Brexit position. There may or may not be viable reasons for staying in the EU, so I thought, but what was happening had little to do with customs legislation, freedom of movement or the baleful policies of the ECB. People were intentionally trying to frighten us, and given I can remember at least some of the Troubles I took a seriously dim view of those who seemed to be trying to exploit such a painful history for their own benefit. That was beyond shameful. It was something I wish more people had taken seriously at the time. Sadly many remain oblivious.
I also wasn’t naive. The EU was and is perfectly capable of strong arming members into compliance and being incredibly unpleasant about it in the process. You only need look at the treatment of both Ireland and (most emphatically!) Greece from 2010 onwards to see that. There was no glorious cosmopolitan future of brotherhood and solidarity within its embrace, and to this day I’m often irked at how unconcerned many Remainers are with the EU’s behaviour in relation to the two nations cited above. It’s not a nice institution, nor is it a democratic one, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.
Some might say there was no way of knowing what would happen with the border in NI, and that nobody could predict the future on a resumption of violence or anything else. That’s a fair point, but I’d then ask who should I listen to, somebody who’d been in the midst of the Troubles as they happened and had an immediate and intimidate knowledge of the factions in play, or Emmanuel Macron? The answer is obvious. Macron and those like him didn’t know what they were talking about. Mckearney did.
Another question that came to mind was whether I was going to continue to side with people who were trying to frighten us, many of them for their own agendas as foreign politicians outside and indeed hostile to the UK, or support my people in our own democratic process. The answer there was also obvious, as was the fact that the EU had a direct interest in making us fear the outcome of Brexit. The question of Ireland and its border was ultimately just another means for them to push us into a corner. Some people stood up to them. Others did not. But those who did were entirely right to do so.
The issues arising from a post-Brexit Northern Ireland have of course not been fully resolved. Boris Johnson, despite what he might like to think, has not delivered a result many Unionists feel they can live with, and the status of the north and its relationship with both the EU and UK will undoubtedly remain a hot topic for some time. It would be dishonest of me to claim that all is well. But there has been no mass carnage. There has been no renewed insurgency, and the threat of such a thing arguably never existed to begin with. Like the endless and fantastical chatter about us somehow being cut off from trade with the continent, or not being able to buy medicines etc, it was all a smokescreen. It was all about fear. And it was beyond tiresome.
I’m not alone in thinking that, and we now know that Remainer fear-mongers were provenly wrong on multiple points, from foreign trade to productivity and living standards and beyond. According to a poll taken last year, support for Brexit has only increased since 2016, with the vaccine spat with the EU further alienating British voters. This can of course be contracted by other polls, but I would still venture that there are more than a few ex-Remainers like myself walking around. We don’t get on the news very much (unsurprising given the state of the media) but we exist, and we generally have a story to tell. I think it’s one that should be listened to.
Alfred is also published on LIBERTATIO page on SUBSTACK HERE