“Well at twenty minutes to five,” he spoke directly to the camera, in his customary received pronunciation, periodically glancing down at the notes in front of him to check, and double check,.“There is no way that the Remain side can win. It looks as though the gap is going to be something like 52 to 48.” He concluded with a flourish, “The British people have spoken and the answer is: we’re out!”
Six years on, David Dimbleby’s haunting words still reverberate in my head, conjuring up grief and devastation. The idea of my country I had before the ‘Brexit’ referendum was lost. It was not the recent anniversary of the vote that brought it back to mind, but the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade. Coincidentally, both referendum result and court ruling came on Friday, June 24. Speaking to friends and colleagues in the US in recent weeks, hearing their sense of dismay and betrayal, has jolted me back.
In 2016 I had stayed up all night to follow the BBC coverage of the EU referendum results. I slept only fitfully, waking to find my identity wrenched away from me for no good reason, based on nothing but ignorance and lies. The Leave side had won the campaign without winning the argument, at least not on the facts – we were told those no longer mattered.
I felt waves of sadness and anger, interspersed with denial and thoughts that somehow what I had just witnessed couldn’t have really happened. The result would take days to sink in, the outcome still hasn’t. At 4:59 a.m. on that Friday morning, in desperation, I broadcasted my feelings on Facebook:
I feel profoundly sad, devastated by this result. My country has revealed its soul... and it is truly ugly. I remain proud to be European, but deeply ashamed to be British.
Brexit architect Nigel Farage declared that he had his country back, but I had lost mine. How two citizens of the same country can have such diametrically opposed views of identity was at the core of everything that would follow in the weeks, months and years ahead. They remain unresolved.
That same cultural divide tears through America. Overturning Roe being the latest – perhaps starkest – evidence of disunity. Brexit and Roe are separate issues, but create the same sense of dissonance for many of us.
For me, Brexit reignited old childhood feelings of not belonging, of being an outsider in my own country. I grew up ‘Irish-in-Britain’ in the 1980s, on the South Coast of England, with an Irish father. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were still raging and we were public enemy No.1 in the eyes of many. Even before then, England was the country whose landlords had felt it appropriate to put up signs deterring tenants they considered undesirable: No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish.
On a lighter yet somehow more sinister note, we were the butt of Irish jokes. The punch line was always the same: it mocked the Irishman as a feckless idiot. I kept quiet — every time feeling that my aunts and uncles were being ridiculed, that my own father and I were being taunted. To be Irish in the English provinces was to be cast adrift, without the community solidarity afforded to fellow Diaspora Irish people in Camden, Islington or Liverpool.
The 1990s peace process changed the climate. England didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup but Ireland did, coached by an English winner from 1966. The English drank Guinness that summer and backed Ireland, a team made up of many Anglo-Irishmen like me. By the end of the decade, we had the Good Friday Agreement and a pro-EU social democratic government in London. Britain was an optimistic, outward-facing country and I finally belonged. Then came that morning of June, 24, 2016.
Like the overturning of Roe v Wade, Brexit felt like the clock turning back; Britain had left me. I hear similar sentiment from across the Atlantic right now, many folks feeling that America has abandoned them. It goes much deeper than a loss of rights; it is an assault on our core sense of who we are. My redemption came in the form of an Irish passport, restoring my EU citizenship, rights and sense of identity. It is hard to see what form salvation will come to my American friends, feeling cast adrift right now.