First there was Brexit. And then... Irexit? That's the ambition of Hermann Kelly, the man heading up the group that wants to see Ireland also leave the EU. Originally from the Bogside in Londonderry, Kelly (50) helped Nigel Farage in his campaign to secure a Leave vote in the UK referendum. They might seem an unlikely pair - the very British Farage and the Irish republican who believes passionately in a united Ireland - but here Hermann outlines how their friendship is based on respect for each other's separate identities. A journalist who has worked with the Irish Catholic newspaper and as a columnist for the Irish Examiner and the Irish Mail on Sunday, he argues that Irexit would enable Ireland to shake off "EU colonialism", make its own laws and flourish economically. And as a bonus, it would also, he maintains, solve the border question.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background.
A: I'm from the Brandywell, the Lone Moor Road in the Bogside in Derry. I was born at the start of the Troubles in 1968. I went to St John's Primary in Creggan. My father Hughie was the headmaster in Creggan right smack in the middle of the Troubles. He used to have to throw CS gas canisters off the playground to let kids play on it. He's been dead for 17 years, God rest him. My mother Mary is dead as well. She was a nurse. There were four of us kids in the family. My mother was Australian of German and Irish extraction. Her maiden name was Mary Hermann and I got it as a Christian name.
I got a good education in St John's. There was a very, very high 11-plus pass rate. A very big proportion of the kids went to grammar schools. I went to St Columb's in Derry. Good school. Good grounding. Also, I was a bit of a gaeligor and I got a scholarship to Irish College in Donegal. I played Gaelic football and for the hurling team. I played for Na Magha hurling team in Derry for a long time. I was reasonably good. I enjoyed it. As they say: "Hermann's the name and hurling's the game."
Q: Given that your dad was a head teacher it would have been a slightly more middle-class upbringing then?
A: Yes, unusually, because the area from which I'm come would be very unemployed/working class. Brandywell would be, or certainly was, one of the poorest areas in the North.
Q: And you enjoyed your time at St Columb's?
A: Yeah, I'd a really good experience there. Some brilliant teachers. I'd a great love of language, history and culture even though I did mainly science. When you think you had there Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel... it was a bit of a cultural powerhouse. And yes, John Hume too. My dad taught John Hume. Small world. When I was at school I used to deliver the Belfast Telegraph. I had a paper round around Creggan and Derry.
Q:What was it like growing up in the Troubles of that time?
A: We were the last house on the Lone Moor Road. There's bullet holes at the side of our house, there's bullet holes at the front of our house. Bombs went off that blew in the windows. There used to be a market in front of the house and there'd be big riots there. You'd have hundreds of boys out there waiting for the British Army Jeep to pass. We grew up only half-a-mile from the border. We also had a small farm in Donegal just over the border in Inishowen. So even though I'm from Derry, I spent a lot of time in Donegal as I was growing up.
Q: You went to St Patrick's in Maynooth. Did you consider entering the priesthood?
A: Before Maynooth I'd studied marine biology in Edinburgh. But I had a great interest in philosophy and theology so I studied theology as a lay student in Maynooth. I had a great time in Maynooth as well. It was theology and hurling. But no, I wasn't thinking of entering the priesthood. I was engaged at the time. I don't think my girlfriend would have been too enthused. I then went to teaching college in Glasgow and then I taught for a while in Dublin. I enjoyed it. But I always had an interest in literature and history and culture and politics. I used to read a lot. I ended up as a journalist in the Irish Catholic newspaper. I was there for around four years. I enjoyed it.
Q: Your religion is obviously important to you?
A: I wouldn't claim that I'm Mother Theresa. But in regard to my identity, who I am, where I'm from, what I believe, I've no problem saying that I'm a Catholic, that I believe in the Catholic faith and that it is important to me. I think what the peace process taught us is that it takes a strong man to make peace. As we've seen with Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, it took those who were strong and clear in who they were, in respect of their different communities, that they could make peace. I'm not putting myself in their category but I know who I am and what I believe and I can go and interact with anybody all over the world and say: "This is me but I can respect you and your identity and your culture as well because I don't have any doubts about who I am or where I'm from."
Q: You're currently working in Brussels with the EFDD. What is the EFDD?
A: I've worked for the last nine years as director of communications for the Eurosceptic group in the European Parliament. It's called the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD). It's a group of 40 MEPs of seven different nationalities. So I've worked with people from all over Europe of different nationalities but held together by a common political, and you might even say philosophical, view.
The thing that growing up in the North taught me was that democratic self-determination in politics is the highest value. The EU believes that we must just get on with the project and pay and obey. I have a little ditty about the EU (he breaks into song): "They tax you and control you, that's all they want to do, the unelected bureaucrats of the new EU."
Q: You've said previously, though, that there was a valid argument to join the EU back in the Seventies because it was, as you put it, a "cash cow"...
A: At that time in the Seventies all around the globe trade tariffs were very high. So there was a valid argument to go into the EU, to be in the customs union and be inside the protectionist tariff wall of the European Union. But since trade tariffs have fallen from what they were in the Seventies that argument has lost its power.
The EU now - because we've found that the customs union is actually a tariff barrier - puts high tariffs especially on food and clothes coming from outside the EU. For ordinary people it makes their clothes and their food much more expensive. In 2018 the South is now a net contributor to the EU budget. It gives €1bn a year.
The question I'm asking is why are we paying old men we didn't elect, and we can't get rid of, to make our law? What's democratic about that? And how's that a good deal? Going forward they're going to be asking for more contributions from the taxpayer in the South of Ireland. The North is hopefully leaving very soon. But going forward they'll be charging more money, these unelected commissioners, as they look for more power, and imposing laws and changes such as the corporate tax regime. That's going to be put under huge pressure very soon and that will be very damaging for Ireland's economic interest as well. It will also hugely diminish our ability to democratically determine our own future.
I believe that Ireland, both North and South, is better off outside the European Union and being free to trade around the globe and have the freedom to democratically determine our own future and our own laws.
Q: Yet polls show that people in the Republic are very much in favour of remaining part of the EU. Do you really think that will change?
A: If you'd asked people five years ago: "Do you ever think there will be a Brexit referendum and do you think the Leave vote could win?", the number who'd have said yes would have been very, very small. And all the polls in America - none of them said Trump was going to win there. This is about, for the first time in the South, really, making the argument that we are better off out, determining our own laws and working in our own interest rather than having the interests of the Franco-German axis imposed upon us.
Because we're members of the customs union, Ireland isn't free to make trade deals around the globe. Between Ireland and the UK, there's €1.2bn worth of trade every week. The UK is one of Ireland's biggest trading partners so it's in our financial interest that the trade relationship between Ireland and Britain remains as it is, as free as possible. And also that Ireland is free to make trade deals around the world.
Do you know that Iceland has more trade deals around the world than the European Union? Being small is not a hindrance to making trade deals.
Q: What would it mean for the border?
A: Irexit is the only surefire way to prevent the erection of a hard border in Ireland. There's no party North or South in Ireland, there's no party in Britain, which is looking to impose a hard border. It's in everybody's interests to keep the border as it is, to keep trade freely between Ireland, North and South, and east and west. After Brexit Barnier has said there will be customs posts. It will be the European Commission imposing customs posts on the Irish border.
The name of our party is Irexit: Freedom to Prosper. We'll also be setting up in the North. Down South we have the new Troika - Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. In 2011 three men flew in, dictated Ireland's economic policies and its budget - now that is economic colonialism. These people didn't come to help us, these people came to impose a €64bn bank debt, a debt that was not the Irish people's.
Membership of the euro has been very harmful to Irish interests. In the North Sinn Fein, the SDLP and to a lesser extent the Unionist Party - they're happy to remain servile to the EU. Happy with EU currency. I say absolutely not. We're better off with our own country, our own currency and able to work in our own interests. Sinn Fein used to be a party that believed in houses and jobs and sovereignty. Now Sinn Fein seems to be about abortion chambers and all of Ireland under EU control.
Q: But Ireland has changed - the abortion referendum, the gay marriage referendum...
A: Yes, Ireland has changed a lot. But I think there would be a lot of people in the North socially more conservative than the South - both in the North and Donegal as well. We are a pro-natalist party. We want to encourage stable families and people having kids. It's good both economically and culturally. No country has a future without children. Though we're not getting involved in any rerunning of any referendum.
Q: You've worked with Nigel Farage. How did you get on with him?
A: I get on fantastically with Nigel. Personally he's very passionate. He's a very hard worker. He's one of the best speakers in the European Parliament, for sure. And he's also great fun. I've always had a very great relationship with Nigel Farage and I'm very proud to have been allowed to participate in the making of history in regards to helping to achieve the Brexit vote. Very proud about that.
Q: Yet you believe strongly in a united Ireland while he is very much pro-UK. Isn't there a clash there?
A: We've very much the same ideology, which is belief in national democracy. We just have a different nationality. He's British and I'm Irish. But we've both agreed on that from the beginning.
I actually started working for the EFDD group in 2009 as a Press officer for the Lisbon 2 referendum. I was working for three months. But he was happy how he was being briefed, how he got on the media, so he asked me to come and work in Brussels. I've been here now for nine years.
Nigel has always known my standpoint. You have political arguments and reasoning but people grow up in a place, in a family and a culture and you have an identity. And that's the whole thing about the Eurosceptic movement: it acknowledges, maybe even celebrates, that people are diverse in their nationality, in their culture. And diversity is not something to be rolled over into some great homogeneous greyness. That's the way people are and you've got to accept that.
There's two different communities in the North - there's no use letting on there's one. Two different cultural identities. And you know what, we're all only happy living on this island together. It also shows up the stupidity of the Troubles. Why was there bombing and shooting for decades and talk about sovereignty and self-determination when such a huge swathe of our laws, both North and South, are now made in the European Union in Brussels?
The EU in many respects is like an old colonial master who now wants to control from the centre, who wants to bully countries like Poland and Hungary and Italy. The euro has been an absolute disaster - the poverty production machine par excellence. It has engendered poverty and unemployment in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy.
The loss of self-determination is a price which is too high to pay. And that's why I'm an Irexit Freedom advocate of Ireland leaving the EU. In regards to the North it's something we can have in common. Irish nationalists can have a greater commonality with unionists in the North. We are not the ones who are going, as Sinn Fein have mistakenly done, with the sectarian headcount, which I think was a really, really wrong move. And also a rejection of what their principles had been for decades, which was about sovereignty and self-determination. They have rejected that and now Sinn Fein and the SDLP are just European Unionist parties. They are happy to be under EU control. I'm not.
Q: Do you think there's a growing Euroscepticism in Brussels?
A: Yes, there is a growing Eurosceptic tide all across Europe particularly in the east - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia... even five years ago there was no really Eurosceptic party in Italy. Now the government in Italy is the League and Five Star. I think the break-up of the European Union will actually come from the east. Brexit was the first brick out of the wall but it certainly won't be the last. The EU will have increasing diminishment.
Q: Are you concerned about the rise of the far-right across Europe?
A: I'm not part of that. I'm part of a democratic movement that believes in national democracy. Personally I believe there's one human race and it is a continuum from whitest white to blackest black. Separate races don't even exist so how can you believe that there's some innate superiority of races? For me it's an ideology that I have no truck with whatsoever.
The whole thing about democratic self-determination is that it's not right-wing, it's not left-wing. Our party isn't just about leaving the EU. We're also in favour of reducing taxation and reducing waste of public money. We're not just a one-trick pony. Freedom of speech is important and things like the separation of powers. It's very important in a small country where people know each other and live in a golden circle where corruption can be quite rife - and that can be quite dangerous.
Q: Do you think Boris Johnson would make a better job of Brexit and a better PM than Theresa May?
A: I believe those things are up to the British people themselves and that members of the Conservative Party should have the final say. I don't like being told what to do in my country so I'm not going to be telling people what they should be doing in theirs. In terms of the European Commission, not one of these people - and there's currently 28 of them - has been directly elected by the people in Europe. They have the sole right to initiate law in the EU. We can't get rid of them. The European Parliament is just a facade, a denial of democracy. It can't even repeal a single law in the EU. I believe the nation state should be the place where people make our laws.
Q: Do you have any interaction with the DUP?
A: I've never met Arlene Foster. Because I work in the European Parliament I know many MEPs from many different nationalities and, of course, I've met ones from the North and the South. I know the Sinn Fein ones, the Fine Gael ones, I've met Diane Dodds from the DUP. I interact with MEPs from all over Europe.
Q: Do you find it difficult to deal with the flak you get?
A: No. To be honest I get enjoyment from... what's that old one? You can judge a man by his foes as well as his enemies. These people, they're undemocratic, they've rejected the democratic vote of the British people. And let's remember it was made clear, on all sides of the debate, that leaving the EU meant leaving the customs union and the single market. Now they're doing everything they can to overturn the biggest democratic vote in British history. If people like that are opposed to me, I'm actually quite proud of it.