In Belfast, Protestants Feel Betrayed by Brexit Fiasco

Murals on Shankill Road, Belfast, depict members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group active during the Troubles. (CNS photo/Cain Burdeau)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CN) — Meet Michael Grubb, a mild-mannered 59-year-old retired computer consultant, the embodiment of the Brexit voter and Democratic Unionist Party supporter. Meet the reason Brexit is such a political mess.

Grubb, a pro-Brexit Protestant from Belfast, is just the kind of voter causing British Prime Minister Theresa May so many problems and throwing the United Kingdom into an existential crisis.

“I voted Brexit and I would vote for it again,” he said on a recent morning on his way home, pausing to discuss Brexit and the future of Northern Ireland with a Courthouse News reporter.

His way of seeing Brexit reflects that of the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s radical right-wing and dominant Protestant party whose 10 members in the House of Commons in London have, by virtue of political events, become decisive in Brexit negotiations. Until now, they have helped block May’s deal.

For Grubb, backing Brexit was the chance to get things right in a nation that he, like so many others, feels is becoming unrecognizable and losing its identity.

He was frank. He wants to stop Muslim immigration, shut off the spigot of cheap labor from Eastern European nations in the European Union, free the UK from one-size-fits-all EU dictates and regain control of Northern Ireland.

In his mind, Brexit was about making the United Kingdom better and more unified. His views were echoed by other Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, supporters across Belfast who spoke to Courthouse News.

But he’s not happy — not at all — because he sees the British government reneging on Brexit.

A betting parlor on Shankill Road is adorned with tributes to Protestant causes in Northern Ireland. (CNS photo Cain Burdeau)

Like many others in this tough working-class city defined by its violent past of sectarian conflict, Grubb is intensely political. He closely follows the daily political drama of Brexit, and he’s disappointed.

“I am very angry. I feel like the British government has denied the Leave voters the right,” he said. “They have betrayed democracy.”

His anger is legitimate. In the 2016 referendum, he was among 17.4 million UK voters who chose to exit the EU — the Leave voters. In a shocking and unexpected victory, they won by a margin of about 4 percent: 52 percent to 48 percent.

Yet nearly three years later, the House of Commons is deadlocked over whether to carry out Brexit at all, because it is viewed as harmful to the economy, undermining liberal causes and radically altering Britain’s geopolitical direction. Brexit is often called the UK’s most decisive moment since World War II.

Grubb shook his head in exasperation. For him, politicians, political activists, left-wing pressure groups and urban elites are undoing the referendum results.

“We now live in a world where a small number of people can enforce their world on the majority. That’s not democracy. That’s dictatorship,” he said.

The referendum was not legally binding, nor did it spell out how the exit was to take place. In part, these ambiguities help explain why the disagreements over how to carry out Brexit could become so deep.

Still, for voters like Grubb it was as clear as could be: The people voted to leave the EU.

“They were given a simple mandate,” he said of politicians.

“People voted for Brexit for two reasons: Immigration and how broken NHS is,” he said. NHS is the National Health Service, the UK’s generously funded national healthcare system.

He claimed the healthcare system was failing because it was overburdened by immigrants. “I’ve seen it change to where I couldn’t get an appointment for two-and-half to three weeks,” he said, describing a recent medical experience he had while living in Leeds in the north of England. “When I did go in, it was full of foreign people — all of them who couldn’t speak English.”

He decried the rise in Muslim immigrants and described them as building insular communities unwilling to integrate into British life.

“I know Africa has problems but we need to fix their problems there, not let them flood here,” he said about asylum-seekers and immigrants.

“It sounds like I am a racist. But I don’t care anymore. Most people don’t care anymore,” he said.

As for the EU, he could do without it, too. “We don’t like being dictated to by monoliths like the EU,” he said. “The dictatorship of policies: ‘You will take this many immigrants. Here, take 500 Syrians.’”

In Northern Ireland, Brexit goes to the heart of the country’s overarching political drama: an ongoing struggle between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Generally, Catholics voted against Brexit and Protestants voted for it. The reasons are basic: For the most part, Catholics are pushing to have Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland, while Protestants want Northern Ireland to remain within the UK.

For Protestants, then, leaving the EU was viewed as a rebuke to Ireland and bolstering the cause of so-called unionists, those who are loyal to Great Britain. For Catholics, Brexit was the opposite: It was viewed as separating Northern Ireland from Ireland.

A poster promotes a Democratic Unionist Party candidate along Shankill Road in Belfast. (CNS photo/Cain Burdeau)

As it turned out, though, May’s vision for Brexit threatens unionists, and they’ve rebelled. The Democratic Unionist Party’s revolt against May’s deal has become a pivotal reason why the Parliament is in crisis over Brexit.

In a nutshell, here’s what happened: In negotiating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, May’s government agreed that Northern Ireland should remain closely aligned to EU rules, laws and customs until a new trade agreement can be worked out. She did this to prevent conflict from breaking out again in the volatile country.

Today, Northern Ireland is a mostly peaceful place after Catholics and Protestant paramilitaries and politicians agreed to a peace deal in 1998 known as the Good Friday or Belfast agreement. The UK government and Ireland signed onto the deal too.

Under the peace agreement, Ireland and the UK pledged to allow the free flow of people and goods between the north and the south. This meant removing the border guards, the fences, the border patrols, customs checks, time-consuming inspections, guard towers and fences along the border.

During the conflict, known as “the Troubles,” the border was attacked by paramilitaries and it acted as a divisive wall imposed by Britain; it was lambasted as a harsh colonial relic separating Catholics and Protestants and dividing Ireland in two.

For unionists, the problem is May’s deal threatens their principle cause: Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain, the inseparability of Northern Ireland from the UK.

To avoid return to a so-called hard border with customs checks, the Brexit deal now on offer potentially keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU and outside the United Kingdom — the very worst outcome for people like Grubb, who see the link with the UK as fundamental.

His solution to the Brexit impasse is simple, and radical: Bring back the border. This scenario is possible in the event the UK leaves the EU without a deal. But a majority in the House of Commons and May’s government have rejected it.

“We have no fear of no-deal,” Grubb said. “I would be happy to put a border up.”

He rejected, as scaremongering, reports by economists and experts that a no-deal Brexit could cause economic ruin.

“They’re trying to make us afraid about the economy cracking,” he said. “Guess what: We’re a lot tougher here than they know.”

He dismissed the argument that the return of a border could reignite sectarian violence.

“It’s all gone and I don’t think it’s coming back,” he said of the violence. “People here want peace.”

Yet if the return of a border prompted some violence, he welcomed even that.

“What are we frightened of?” he said. “We dealt with them [paramilitaries such as the IRA] before and we’ll deal with them again.”

He said that many unionists would embrace a chance to root out enemies of Northern Ireland.

“There are a lot of people who want to deal with them today,” he said. “We didn’t deal with them before.”

For now, his hopes lie with the Democratic Unionist Party not budging, not giving up the sectarian cause of keeping Northern Ireland united with the UK and separate from Ireland.

“DUP will not panic,” he said. “They will stand their ground.” 

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