Dining across the divide: ‘We could both see how Brexit has hastened the debate around a united Ireland’

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They disagree strongly on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn – but can these self-confessed lefties find common ground over dinner?

• Fancy dining across the divide? Find out how to take part


Brian, 65, Belfast

Occupation Editor of a social affairs magazine

Voting record When he lived in London, Brian voted Labour. He is not impressed with what’s on offer politically in Northern Ireland. Voted remain

Amuse bouche While on an assignment, he spent an evening with the singer-songwriter John Martyn in a hotel room, drinking Guinness and whiskey

John, 55, Belfast

Occupation University professor

Voting record John votes Green and is a former Green councillor. Voted remain but has lost faith in the EU since

Amuse bouche As a student in Dublin in the 80s, John stripped naked in McDonald’s in protest over beef imports from Costa Rica. It was his last day working there

For starters

Brian I looked into the window of the restaurant and spotted John sitting there. Because I’m a journalist, we’ve met at different events. I thought: I’ll say hello to him, and then I’ll find who I’m meeting. But then I saw the photographer beside him. We must have laughed for about 10 minutes.

John I don’t know Brian that well, but we’ve bumped into each other over the years. I suppose it’s a mark of how Belfast is a village.

Brian I started off with the JFK. It had cumin in it, cauliflower, soya, sesame … Every time the waiter came over, he’d ask: “What are you arguing about now?”

John I asked if there were any vegan options on the menu, without realising we were in a vegetarian restaurant.

The big beef

Brian Seeing people like Nigel Farage were for Brexit, I didn’t have to find out much more to stand against. Even from a capitalist point of view, here’s a big market comprising the European Union: how could Britain be in any way stronger outside that economic force? It made no sense to me.

Related: Dining across the divide: ‘I braced myself for some gammon, and he wasn’t like that at all’

John I’ve become disillusioned with the EU – its constitutionalising and the privatisation of services. It’s only at nation state level that we can have welfare reform or move towards a social democratic, even a socialist, direction.

Brian I nearly choked on my food. At heart, I’m an internationalist. I believe in open borders, free travel, citizens of the world. The EU could be made more worker-oriented. I don’t understand the isolation approach at all.

John Brian’s view was that the EU could be reformed. That’s a pipe dream.

Brian As someone who grew up seeing checkpoints on the border, queues piling up and violence, I definitely don’t want to see any of that return.

John We could both see how Brexit has hastened the debate around a united Ireland. Brexiters are willing to abandon Northern Ireland for a hard Brexit.

Sharing plate

Brian Both of us opposed the Russian attack on Ukraine. But we also have concerns about Nato expansionism.

John To be anti-Nato is not to be pro-Putin. There is an argument that assurances were given to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, guaranteeing neutrality and borders.

Brian The fact that Nato has been expanding up to the borders with Russia has exacerbated the situation.

For afters

John We were both disappointed by the milk-and-water leadership of Keir Starmer.

Brian He’s just a lightweight Tory.

John But the discussion went on to why Labour lost in 2019, and the role of Corbyn. And we had furious disagreement on these big issues, though they are small points – that’s always the way with lefties. If Corbyn had come out clearly accepting the vote and saying we’re going to implement a lexit – the leftwing version of Brexit – that may have prevented the “red wall” from falling. But unfortunately he was hamstrung by the remoaners within Labour.

Brian I thought this lexit idea was lunacy. Corbyn failed badly on Brexit. I think he should have said: I’m a European, an internationalist, and we can have a different Europe, but we’re not having anything to do with Brexit.

Takeaways

Brian We had differences, but it shows the importance of good conversation and good food – we need to put our phones down and talk more.

John Even when you have people on the same ideological page, you can have profound disagreements. Those issues of Brexit and Corbyn are really deeply rooted – they’re not trivial. But people of good faith can disagree, especially with a good bit of humour and lots of bad language.

• Brian and John ate at Jumon in Belfast

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