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BONNIE GREER: Why my Question Time truth bombs hit the target

Bonnie Greer on BBC's Question Time. Photograph: BBC. - Credit: Archant

BONNIE GREER became a hero in Ireland after her latest comments on Brexit on the latest edition of Question Time.

Even if you do not want it, even if you no longer need it, a childhood memory can stay. Form you, still.

This came to me from a stranger: “I vividly remember as a 17-year-old in history A-level class being put down by the Cambridge-educated tutor.

“Most of the syllabus was on Britain’s ‘triumphant successes’ during empire and any glitches in this narrative were mere aberrations… I had been reading a novel set in 19th century Ireland and brought up the issue of why such ‘a well-meaning imperialism’ allowed a situation where people were falling over in the streets and dying an agonising and slow death on a mass scale from starvation, and yet markets were selling food right next to them? And why Ireland, as England’s ‘bread basket’, continued to export all the produce across the Irish Sea? I was immediately shot down and told ‘we’re studying history in this class, not fiction’. I was laughed out of the room.

“The European Research Group, Farage… and Brexit should all be viewed through the fractured prism of a glorious past. How to tell the unbridled truth, warts and all, in a non-accusatory and palatable way is the progressive challenge in the post-Brexit landscape… it begins with stopping the false ‘glorious’ fable stone dead. It continues with real history lessons from, say, the 17th century onwards. Then perhaps you would never get a person on Question Time asking whether Ireland could ‘buy back Northern Ireland’.”

It was one of many communications I have received, from both sides of the Irish Sea, since my appearance on the show last week, when I spoke about the relationship between Ireland and the UK and how it is playing out, over Brexit.

That letter made me remember my early childhood living with my family in a gang neighbourhood on the West Side of Chicago; being mugged for my milk money; listening to gang initiations beneath my window at night; hearing things that a child should not hear. Especially before she goes to sleep.

And my refuge: Mornings and the Irish tenor who chanted the Low Mass from the organ loft of the Italian Renaissance church built by earlier immigrants who had moved on.

Then there was the St Patrick’s Day Parade in which we little kids – all ethnicities – became Irish for a day. It was a green day and it was beautiful.

It was not until much later that I learned that the Irish community controlled my city of Chicago; that its St Patrick’s Day Parade was more like a Kremlin march-past; that its politicians created the political system known as ‘The Machine’ in order to keep them in power; that they owned the police force; that they were behind the post-war race riots of 1919, the subject of my first adult play: that they fought black people for the same work and space and clean air and decent housing and respect and life.

MORE: Bonnie Greer tells Question Time panelists that ‘Ireland owes this country nothing’

Because they, too, had come to the ‘land of the free’ and ‘home of the brave’ on ships. Ships they called ‘coffin ships’, not unlike slave ships. But they were not slaves, as right-wing nativists would have us believe. Yet they were close to it in many urban centres. Very close. Their skin colour and the fact that they could change their last names saved them. Some of them.

Growing up a black girl back then, my teachers were Irish. They encouraged me. They set no boundaries; brooked no interference in their pursuit of the tools of my education. I can still see some of their faces and hear their voices.

When I moved to New York City and realised that I was a bohemian, I found James Joyce and I found Scott Fitzgerald.

And if I drank at all, I drank in Irish pubs because writers were there and the talk was good and you could get a beer if you were a girl and pretty and had something strong and true to say.

Most of all, I felt the kinship. Even when I was fighting, in my mind and outside of it, for my own voice and thoughts, I felt the kinship.

Because if you read Joyce, there is no point beyond that, in English anyway. He wrote: “One great part of human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.”

‘Goahead plot’ is the goal of every panellist on Question Time. You just want to be coherent and make sense and not be too foolish. And survive.

The audience for last week’s show, in Wallasey, on the Wirral, was attentive and serious, intelligent and there, so I felt close to them and felt that I could say what I needed to say. And I did.

On purpose, I have no apps. A basic phone. So I knew nothing of the response to what I had said about Ireland. But I knew that something had happened, because the next day at Liverpool Lime Street station, I realised that a couple were standing staring at me while I drank my morning ristretto in Starbucks. Then, when folks came up to me and shook my hand, wanted to take selfies, talked to me on the train back to London, I knew that something had happened.

When I got home, I found out that my Twitter feed had exploded. I was being given Gaelic names that I did not understand. The Taoiseach was following me. The landlord of our local pub in Soho, a guy who never talks, introduced himself. He is Irish.

People I knew told me that they had an Irish parent; a grandparent. I got stories from strangers about the first time that they had arrived in London. Some older folks told me that the “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” signs they saw in the 1950s and 1960s enabled them to bond with the black community. Find a refuge.

I think that what I said on Question Time was an accumulation of something that I have felt during my entire time living, for three decades now, in London, in the UK.

MORE: Bonnie Greer praised for ‘owning’ QT audience member who denies foreigners have it bad in UK

It is this: That the Irish and Ireland were considered – are considered – what we African Americans call “the bald-headed stepchild” – strange, stupid, wild, lying, incapable, shifty, savage, heathen. Not quite us.

Brexit sounds to me, in relation to the Irish, like a continuation of business as usual: The utter and total disregard of the Republic’s history, point of view, life, soul.

When I said on the show – again, blatantly obvious to me – that Ireland owes the UK nothing, that is what I meant. And what I mean. Ireland has paid enough, starved enough, died enough. The Republic is sovereign. It is Europe, too. Above all, it is itself.

Ireland now is the True North of the refusal to be insular; the refusal to buy in to crazy ‘Finest Hour’ British myths about the Second World War, about empire, about supremacy.

The mainstream UK press and media are largely quiet about what Ireland is feeling and saying. It has always been that way. ‘Ireland owes the UK nothing’ is not exactly a slogan to hang across the Tory shires. Or at the door of a Pall Mall club.

MORE: Britain is making a powerful foe of the US – Bonnie Greer

The Remain cause, no matter what happens, is not dead. It will never die. Because it is a point of view, a way of being. It is about being international. About knowing that everyone alive in the UK is the result of immigration – whether yesterday or pre-history.

No matter what happens on Halloween, or before then, it is not over. For what we are is more than the European Union, more even than the nations we belong to and love: We are people of the international order. We are people of the dream of those after the most catastrophic war in human history, the dream that it was
paramount that peoples came together, to talk and trade and share culture and populations.

So that we can cease being afraid. So that we can be free from fear of one another. Free.

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