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Northern Ireland

From the view of a Brit, drawing parallels to elections in the U.S.

Stock photo

By John Broven

Part 1 of 2

After 46 years, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is due to leave the European Union March 29 in an exercise that has been labeled Brexit. You may have heard the term on BBC World News, C-SPAN2’s “Prime Minister’s Questions” and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” (HBO), or read about the ongoing saga in The New York Times or The Washington Post. Still, in general the United States media coverage has been relatively muted in what has been a complex, often hard-to-understand process. Yet there are enough parallel circumstances across the pond to warrant making it a big news event over here in the U.S.

John Broven. Photo by Diane Wattecamps

It certainly matters a lot if, like me, you were born in England and are not happy with the Brexit decision. Before I proceed with my personal observations, let me give a brief backdrop to the Brexit scenario.

Brexit is a crude abbreviation of “British exit” from the European political and economic union of 28 countries that allows seamless movement of goods and citizens between each member state. Britain’s withdrawal was determined by a referendum held June 23, 2016, in which the “leave” voters outpointed the “remain” side by 17.4 to 16.1 million. In percentage terms it was 51.89 to 48.11. The turnout was some 33.5 million voters out of a possible 46.5 million, 72.1 percent of the registered electorate. As I’ve been living over here for more than 15 years, I was not allowed to vote along with an estimated 700,000 expats and some 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. Gerrymandering, anyone?

The UK referendum

I well remember the day when Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative) announced there would be a referendum for Britain to leave the EU after he was re-elected in the general election of May 7, 2015. He had been the country’s leader since 2010 in a coalition government with the pro-European Liberal Democrats, but against all expectation the Conservatives won the election outright. At the time I asked myself, “Why call a referendum?” What I didn’t know was that Cameron wanted to quell once and for all the rebellious EU leavers in his own party and thwart the rise of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage.

To my mind, Cameron compounded his disastrous decision of placing party politics on a national stage by agreeing to put the referendum to the people in the simplest of terms:

• Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union. Yes or No.

The openness of the referendum wording gave voters, fed up with years of austerity, a chance to kick the government without understanding the full consequences of their actions. The many dire economic warnings of a precipitous EU exit, ranging from the Bank of England governor to President Barack Obama (D), were riposted as fearmongering.

England and Wales voted to leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland did not. London voted overwhelmingly to remain, but the industrial North — the equivalent of our rust belt — predictably went to the leavers. Not surprisingly, the majority of the 50-and-overs, with their rose-tinted memories, voted to leave. On the other hand, the younger generation was largely in favor of remaining, feeling more European and with less attachment to the days of the British Empire. Interestingly, the peak share of any sector came from women between the ages of 18 and 24, with 80 percent voting to remain. Yet too many millennials, as over here in the last presidential election, did not bother to go to the voting booths.

As we have seen from the HBO film, “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” the Vote Leave campaign — led by notorious Cameron-backstabber Boris Johnson, U.S. President Donald Trump (R)-acolyte Farage, prominent Tory politicians such as the overbearing Jacob Rees-Mogg and double-dealer Michael Gove — were always a step ahead of Vote Remain, led by Cameron himself, future prime minister Theresa May and reticent Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The leave effort was brilliantly masterminded by Dominic Cummings who outflanked his traditionally minded opponents by using computer algorithms devised by Cambridge Analytica, partly owned — whisper it low — by Robert Mercer from our own Head of the Harbor village on Long Island.

With new data available, Cummings understood there was a raft of disaffected voters that had been ignored by politicians of all parties for years. He proceeded to woo them with an appealing slogan, “Let’s take back control,” aided by a red bus carrying the false message that leaving the EU would save the British people £350 million a week (about $450 million), adding, “Let’s fund our NHS [National Health Service] instead — Vote Leave.” Without justification, it was said the country would be overrun by Islamic immigrants should Turkey be admitted to the EU. (It hasn’t.) It was a campaign of distorted facts, appealing to those who remembered the good old days when Britannia ruled the waves and the world map was colored mostly British Empire pink.

Earlier, I mentioned “parallel circumstances” in relation to the U.S. How about disaffected and ignored voters, a fear campaign based on immigration and Islamophobia, protest votes, absent millennials, discarded trade agreements, gerrymandering, a populist insurrection — and, I hate to say it, fake news. Does that sound familiar?

Events of June 2016

I was in England the week before the referendum and was astonished at how the youthful, vibrant atmosphere I felt on my last visit had evaporated into a sour mood. As a confirmed Europhile, I was even more amazed to see how finely balanced the polls were. The omens were not good, especially when state broadcaster, British Broadcasting Corporation, adopted a neutral stance giving equal time to both campaigns. Why did the leave campaign, with no governmental responsibility or track record, deserve the same coverage as the in-power remainers?

I was still in England when staunch remain campaigner and promising Labour member of parliament, Jo Cox, was murdered June 16, 2016, in her native West Yorkshire at age 41 by a right-wing extremist. Had politics become so divisive that a life had to be taken? Surely, I thought, the British people, with their long-held sense of justice and fair play, would rebel against such a dastardly act and vote for the “good guys” out of respect to Cox. The referendum campaign was halted temporarily, but a news blackout contrived to neutralize any widespread outrage at her death.

Referendum night June 23 was covered in full over here by BBC World News. Ironically, with the five-hour time difference, U.S. viewers were more up to date than the sleeping British public. I knew the writing was on the wall when early voting in Sunderland and Swindon went to the leavers. And yet Sunderland, in the relatively impoverished North East, was home to a major Nissan factory (jobs, jobs, jobs), with Swindon in the affluent South West housing a big Honda factory. Both Japanese car companies used their English bases for easy access to the European markets. What were the voters in those towns thinking by voting leave?

The leave campaign was victorious. A distraught Cameron resigned July 11, 2016, to be succeeded by May. It was up to her to negotiate a withdrawal agreement with the EU, with a leaving date eventually set for March 29, 2019 — the end of this month. The protracted negotiations have been rocky, to say the least, and the outcome has still not been resolved at this late hour thanks mainly to a problem that should have been foreseen at the time of the referendum but wasn’t: the Irish backstop. Stay tuned.

Part 2 will bring matters up to date, with crucial parliamentary votes due to be held this week. John Broven, a member of the TBR News Media editorial team, is an English-born resident of East Setauket, and has written three award-winning (American) music history books.

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A close-up of the peace wall in the Shankill Road area of Belfast. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

After two weeks in the Republic of Ireland, my wife and I arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a tour around the city. For the next two and a half hours we looked at, photographed and listened to our tour guide tell us about Belfast sights including the memorials, statues and paintings on walls in both the Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast.

It is easy to judge from the murals painted on the walls in both Catholic and Protestant areas that little has changed in attitudes and positions concerning the divisions that existed before the peace (in 2007) that stopped most of the violence. However, there are examples of new murals calling for harmony and brotherhood in both sectarian areas that are replacing the many militant murals that have, for a long time, promoted hate, distrust and fear. There are also a number of memorial gardens commemorating those killed during the Troubles, as the fighting in Northern Ireland for more than three decades is identified.

The peace wall of Belfast where messages of unity are shared. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

The fences and gates dividing the two sides are still there, but there are no restrictions on driving through any area except that some gates between Catholic and Protestant areas are still closed at night, according to our tour guide and confirmed by many reports and websites. In the Shankill Road area, a so-called peace wall separating Catholic and Protestant communities, originally constructed to keep the peace between factions, now contains many thousands of personal messages of goodwill and unity. The wall is topped by corrugated steel panels, which in turn are topped by steel screens or fence that appear to be about 40 feet high. Erected during the Troubles, there is no indication that these walls, dividing the population of Belfast both physically and culturally, are to be removed any time soon.

Belfast, as well as much of Ireland, both north and south, has an economy based in large part on tourism. After experiencing the sectarian divide in Belfast, our tour took us to the Titanic Quarter. An area that was once a thriving shipbuilding area and then a deteriorating industrial site is now an area of high-rise condos, an entertainment center and the impressive Titanic Experience, opened in 2012, inside the area known as Titanic Belfast.

Before our tour, we were given personal multimedia electronic guides with headsets that help guide visitors through the four floors of Titanic Experience. The tour starts with the history of Belfast especially detailing the rise of the linen industry through factory work and the history of shipbuilding in Belfast that culminates in the building of the Titanic.

The Titanic Experience has a total of nine interpretive and interactive galleries that expose you to the sights, sounds, smells and stories of the RMS Titanic from its building to its launching and fitting out. It continues as you move from floor to floor with Titanic’s shakedown cruise in 1912, picking up and discharging passengers in two ports and heading across the Atlantic. The experience gets more dramatic as the ship hits the iceberg, and we hear the official messages transmitted and received as well as the oral histories of surviving passengers.

Visitors to the Titanic Belfast can experience what it was like to be on the ship. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

As we explored the twists and turns of the galleries, we reached the gallery where we saw the ship sinking and the efforts of the crew and passengers to get off the ship. We were provided a number of stories of individuals on the ship including the captain, the ship’s designer and stories of first-, second- and third-class passengers. Then we saw the reactions of media and officials, the boards of inquiry and in brief detail the many movies made about the Titanic, mostly showing how they had romanticized the tragic events. Another section detailed the graveyards in places like Halifax, Nova Scotia, where many of the recovered bodies are buried.

The last part of the Titanic Experience, on a theater-sized screen, is the story of the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 by Robert Ballard and his team. We watched their dramatic film of the two separated sections of the Titanic 12,000 feet below the surface and the debris field that trailed out behind the ship. It was this debris field that provided Ballard with the ability to locate the Titanic.

The last experience, below the giant screen, under a glass floor, is film taken from above the Titanic. You see the Titanic below as you stand on the glass floor and watch as the sunken ship passes beneath your feet.

Outside the Titanic Experience, the building itself is a dramatic creation of both the Titanic’s massive hull and the iceberg that ended its life and the lives of its many passengers and crew. Within the area covered by Titanic Belfast are the Titanic’s Dock and Pump House, the SS Nomadic — the last remaining White Star vessel, and a Discovery Tour that includes the drawing offices where Titanic was created and the slipways where she was built.

We left Belfast for our afternoon ride to Dublin, Republic of Ireland, and our next morning departure. Goodbye, Northern Ireland, sláinte!

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.