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Northern Ireland’s lesson for Brexit Britain

A ‘peace wall’ divides Republican and Loyalist communities in West Belfast (Getty)

If the assumption of bad faith in others becomes a national habit then the emotional poison will stay in our politics for decades to come

A depressing phenomenon has occurred in the years since Britain voted to leave the European Union back in June 2016. The national argument has not grown less bitter, as many had hoped immediately after the vote. Instead, we are witnessing the calcification of rage.

People who, before the vote, were liable to own that they could see both sides to the argument, but were propelled for given reasons towards Leave or Remain, are now vociferous in their opinions. As political chaos unfurls – exacerbated by the original failure of the referendum to ask the public which form of Brexit it preferred, if any – the Leavers are vigilant against impending betrayals from a duplicitous establishment, while the Remainers waste no opportunity to excoriate those whom they regard as stupid, old, bigoted, racist Leave voters. The conversation – particularly among the political and media classes – is increasingly excitable, to the point that one might almost suspect its participants of relishing the thrill of denunciation.

I’ve a word of warning about rhetorical excitability – if anyone in England is predisposed to take advice from my birthplace of Northern Ireland, a place which has now been without a functioning government for nearly two years, and where “peace walls” remain in situ.

Even in the white heat of the Troubles, it was necessary for fair-minded people to acknowledge that both unionism and Irish nationalism often contained respectable political aspirations that were sincerely held. Both creeds were historically linked to religious and cultural identity, of course, but also – in the 20th century, at least – to serious arguments about where the line should be drawn in the separation of church and state. Where the exponents of unionism or nationalism became culpable – sometimes appallingly so – lay not in the belief itself, but the means by which it was pursued.

The Brexit argument is not wholly dissimilar. It has set at odds those who feel more strongly European and those who feel more strongly British (and demanded a separation of those two identities). The former group genuinely values freedom of movement and a shared European identity; the latter truly yearns for greater democratic accountability and social coherence within their own country. Many Remainers, rightly, fear national isolation and economic chaos – but the years preceding the vote also saw a sharp rise in housing costs, homelessness and poverty even among households in work, which heightened the desire among numerous Leave voters to tie our government more permanently to a sense of national responsibility.

We should, by all means, attack poor policies, falsehoods and bigotry where they occur, and seek to support those most adversely affected by change. But it is a great mistake to denigrate en masse the integrity of those on the opposite side of the argument.

If the assumption of bad faith in others becomes a national habit then I fear that, whatever political shape Britain takes in the future, the emotional poison will stay in our body politic for decades to come.


Profits at Ted Baker, the fashion chain, slumped recently after staff launched a petition against alleged “forced hugging” from the 62-year-old CEO Ray Kelvin. Mr Kelvin has reportedly been a keen workplace hugger for many years, a habit which allegedly wandered further into inappropriate remarks, shoulder massages and kisses on the back of ears. (Mr Kelvin has announced he is taking leave of absence from the company, which has ordered an independent internal investigation into the accusations.)

Although hugs might be high-risk in the workplace, I can report that socially they are on the rise. Among friends who might once have been exclusively cheek-kissers at hello or goodbye, the half-hug or full-hug is rapidly gaining ground. I’m not sure why this is: perhaps, with political uncertainty and sourness swirling around us, we all want to anchor ourselves in a solid moment of human warmth. In any case, I’m well disposed towards a hug, certainly from people I like, although I can see that the power dynamics of “surprise” embraces with the boss could feel somewhat weird.

It’s not the hugging I mind, however, it’s the unpredictability. I can just about recall, long ago, a time when a handshake was the fail-safe greeting. Then came the single-cheek kiss, rapidly followed by the more flamboyant double-cheek kiss. There was room for confusion even if things had stopped at that. For how might one guess, or remember, if someone is a single or double kisser? Choose one, and your friend may be left swithering by the side of your head as you move away, their mouth puckering into the void; choose two, and if they are a one-er, the switherer is you.

Now comes the choice of hug, with only seconds to make the call: a full-body squeeze or a sideways embrace? I realise that I have become not only the recipient of confusion but also a prime source of it: dispensing hugs, erratically numbered kisses, stray waves and oddly formal handshakes in random, unguessable combinations. If only we could all agree on a universal mode of greeting. I don’t care what it is. If I didn’t know better, I’d suggest putting it to a referendum.

Jenny McCartney is a writer and reviewer. Her first novel, The Ghost Factory (4th Estate), is out in March