Brexit at a Belfast School Gate

Brexit staggers forward like a whiskey laced fever, and nobody at the school gate says its name. It’s 30th March. There’s no exit, no plan. 

The mums are stockpiling cans of beans. Not because of apocalypse. But because they expect the price of food to increase. They’re a practical lot.

One friend had no money this week. Off to the food-bank. Straining to make polite conversation while trying, and failing, to hold back tears after pick-up.

Over 30,000 food parcels were given in Northern Ireland last year. Is it a nationalist food bank or a unionist food bank? Asks nobody, ever.

The place where I live, which I love, is angry. I scroll through local Facebook group pages. Videos attacking migrants pop up in my timeline. Thousands of likes. People I don’t expect to, share them. A Muslim friend spends the day weeping.

My youngest’s best friend, who is Polish, is intimidated out of his house. Again. He is five.

We don’t talk about Brexit much at the school gate. But we all exist in its venus flytrap.

***

I know lots of people who voted to Leave. They were fed up with the hamster wheel. Slipping down the ladder instead of climbing up. They are not racist. Although others were. They voted Leave out of despair, but also hope. To save the NHS, to feel some control.

I voted Remain. But inhabited that space in-between. Where the EU is not beloved, but a damn sight better than Britannia alone. Where being from Northern Ireland, and the fragility of our peace, trumped all other concerns. I cringed at the smugness of some Remainers.

But the distance between us all didn’t feel so wide in 2016. I watched my friends disagree well, on the same Facebook pages which now seem so bleak.

We could’ve had a proper debate about Europe, if the Tories hadn’t spaffed their internal feud up against the wall. We could have talked about sovereignty, about jobs, rights and standards, about state-aid and capital, about borders and peace.

But public discourse was threadbare. It was guided by a weird web and dodgy cash. Breath-taking complacency on the the other side. There was never a plan. Only the brief promised pleasure of kicking something over.

****

And in Northern Ireland, we’ll pay the hardest. We already are.

There’s the money of course. The fact that we’re already struggling. But also the politics. Our unresolved conflict. Our borderless border.

We’re using trade as a proxy for emotion. Raging over tariffs to mask our fears of the future. Most of us wondering how we’ll pay the bills.

And in this vacuum, services are receding, politics is circling, bitterness encroaching. 

God knows how, but this chapter of Brexit will of course pass. But its consequences are now embedded in our conflict. It has changed the future of this island.

And at the school gate, we carry on. But we’re not keeping calm. We’re just carrying on. Because there’s never been a time when we’ve had less control.

***

So what do we do?

We zoom out. We expand the frame. We realise, as C. Wright Mills says in The Sociological Imagination, that our private troubles are public issues.

We zoom out and see that we’re are living through seismic historical change. That Brexit is a symptom not a cause.

The tectonic plates of late capitalism are shifting. The climate is breaking down. Income inequality is rising. Information is dematerialising. People are revolting. These are connected.

Northern Ireland is a tiny speck on an endangered planet. Our traditional politics are barely relevant.

The tectonic plates of the Union are shifting. We must recalibrate. Be flexible and practical.

Our neighbours are not the enemy. Not in the houses beside us, nor the borders across.

Migrants are not the enemy. Their taxes pay our pensions.

We realise that our pain, although differently expressed, comes from a common wound.

We focus our ire on unaccountable global capital. Which relentlessly pursues profit over people. We follow the money and ask who stands to gain.

We focus our ire on the British government. Not for their Britishness. But for prioritising party politics over our lives. English nationalism over the regions. For prioritising Ulster nationalism… oh wait, that was last week. For years of brutal economic policies which created the anger that led us to here.

There is an horizon beyond Brexit. But no time for a perfect solution. We must suck up a compromise. Pull off Brexit’s strangling ivy and focus on our people, our climate, our resilience to change.

And – if anyone can bear it – we can do more politics.

We can study up. Engage. We can try eating a flag with a knife and fork, and quickly move on to the other options. We can vote till we boke. Lobby our public representatives, because still, amazingly, this makes a difference. They are not ‘all as bad as each other’. We can act locally, understanding the global. We can look up to those in power to identify the source of our problems, not punch down to those who are struggling. This is where our power as citizens lies. 

We can stand at the school gate and keep being human. Share recipes for canned beans and hope that Deflatine is not rationed. Help each other navigate universal credit, talk to the new people, teach our kids not to hate. On difficult days, we can watch Derry Girls and drink the stockpiled Lidl wine.

We can try to hold this anger lightly – for our mental health. But also deeply – for our political health. And we can channel this anger for all that it’s worth. Not towards each other. But towards the disaster capitalists and the internecine careerists who have walked us merrily up to the brink.