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‘EU elections are best chance to stop Brexit and protect Belfast agreement’

Gavin Esler

Writing in the Irish World, former BBC presenter and Change UK MEP candidate Gavin Esler says the European Parliament elections could be our last, best chance to stop Brexit and protect the Belfast Agreement.

My first job in journalism was with The Belfast Telegraph, and when I had a weekend off – like everyone else – I wanted to escape the Troubles.

I would head to Derry and over the border to Donegal and the Rosses for some peace and quiet or down to Dublin for the chance to shop without worrying about bomb scares. The only problem was the road across the border – or rather who you might meet and who would stop you on the road.

Drivers of that time will tell you it could be the army on both sides of the border, the police on both sides of the border or paramilitaries of various kinds.

Sometimes the hold-ups would last hours. Fast forward to 2019. I still have friends and some family in the north, and my in-laws are McElligotts from County Kerry.

In 2019 the road from Belfast to Dublin, like most other things on the island of Ireland, is unimaginably better than it was when I used it as my escape route from the Troubles.

Irish Army at a checkpoint on the Louth-Armagh border, set up to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001

Ireland itself has always been an outward facing country, often exporting some of its best talents to England, Scotland, and around the world.

Now Ireland attracts some of the best talent from around the world. The combination of the Good Friday Agreement, the courage of politicians on all sides, and membership of the European Union has transformed Ireland and most especially Northern Ireland.


For those who need the border to exist, it does. For those who just want to move around freely, the border exists in law, but not in reality.

All of this is being put at risk by Brexit. The ignorance of some British politicians about Ireland is legendary.

Boris Johnson suggested the Northern Ireland border was like the border between Westminster and Islington. (It’s not.)

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The former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab couldn’t be bothered to read the Good Friday Agreement. (It’s 35 pages – it takes half an hour.)

The current Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley was surprised that unionists and nationalists don’t vote for each other’s parties.

Bradley named new Northern Ireland Secretary
Karen Bradley

And Nigel Farage says Ireland will leave the European Union, despite repeatedly being corrected by polite RTE interviewer. We all know, and could laugh at, some of this. But we all know this ignorance has serious consequences.

The murder of Lyra McKee in Derry, and other signs of trouble in that city, show us all that peace can never be taken for granted. Brexit has encouraged some of the worst of the worst in Britain and in Ireland.


The so-called “New IRA” said as much in The Times newspaper a few days ago. That’s why it is vital that those of us with Irish roots or any love of Ireland who have a chance to vote in the European elections on 23 May need to register and to vote.

I’m a Londoner. I’ve lived in London on and off since the 1980s. But I was born in a council house in Clydebank on the outskirts of Glasgow.

My grandmother was from Bushmills in County Antrim. Many of our neighbours were from families who came to Glasgow to find work in the shipyards and other heavy industries. I remember the sectarian divisions of my childhood, Rangers and Celtic, and the same divisions when I lived in Belfast.

We have a real chance, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, to put behind us centuries of hatred and bury sectarianism in the 21st century. We have a chance to remember and respect the past – without living in it.

We even have a chance to educate some politicians about the real history of these islands – fated for years to fight, but with a future where Lyra McKee will be remembered as the last victim of our Troubles.

Lyra McKee (Photo: Facebook)

But we also have real dangers.

There are those among us who are trying to stir up racial and other divisions using the same kind of mean-spirited rhetoric that I used to hear from the mouths of troublemakers in Belfast.

I’m running as a ChangeUK candidate for London, and we are standing on a clear platform. We want a Peoples Vote – no ifs, no buts.

We will campaign for Remain. And we will do so to make Britain a better place to live for everyone who is resident here, wherever their roots may be, whatever their family background. Brexit has sucked the life out of British politics. We can do better when we move on to the real problems we face.

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