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Derry Girls did more to explain human stakes behind Brexit fallout than anything else

It is important to understand the people affected by policies. Lisa McGee showed comedy can help us do that

January 2018 was a different place. The row over how to achieve Brexit raged on under a divided and seemingly doomed Conservative UK government, with an uninspiring leader in Theresa May and an apparent Gordian knot hanging over Northern Ireland. The question was only beginning to reveal the full extent of its complexity: how to make sense of Britain’s exit from the European Union while maintaining the North’s fragile constitutional arrangement?

In the Britain of 2024 – while many of the underlying issues remain – this has been consigned to an unfashionable memory. To mention the backstop (remember that?) or the protocol is to be met by a barrage of accusations of being stuck in the past, not least when the pandemic, and then inflation and a small boats crisis, took over as paramount issues in British politics.

But something else – apparent small fry in the great existential debate over Brexit – happened in January 2018. This month six years ago Derry Girls – Lisa McGee’s vaunted adolescent farce – hit the TV screens. On this anniversary, it is worth considering the impact art and literature have on the political landscape, whether great or small. Plenty of thought is afforded to the “serious”: Anna Burns’s Milkman, winner of the 2018 Booker Prize, was set at the height of the Troubles and received protracted attention for its timely arrival as Brexit threatened to destabilise the Belfast Agreement; Kenneth Branagh’s 2021 film Belfast, too, was praised for chronicling the working-class Protestant milieu during a similar period. What, exactly, could a sitcom about five teenagers in Derry have to offer in comparison? Serious stakes demand serious artistic treatment, perhaps.

It was one of the most common – and true – observations of the Brexit years that Westminster’s chronic failure to think about Ireland led them to successive government defeats. Ireland haunted the Tory party. With the clarity of hindsight it is hard to land that blame anywhere other than squarely at their own feet. Short memories forgot the history and trauma of the Troubles, incurious minds were hesitant to engage with the contemporary technicalities of the single market and Northern Ireland’s place within it. Disaster seemed certain, and at times deserved.


A show such as Derry Girls was never going to be a silver bullet, nor a way to disentangle the knots the British government fashioned for itself. But at a time when it appeared Northern Ireland was being ridden over roughshod, McGee’s work injected a dose of humanity into a question that was consigned (in the British imagination) to protocols, Northern Ireland secretaries, disgruntled civil servants and reams of boring trade clauses. On strict anecdotal evidence, friends in London grimaced at the mention of the ceaselessly technical question of the North (just as I, admittedly, may have grimaced upon hearing about the seemingly mundane stipulations for the rights of British fishermen post-Brexit).

But their eyes lit up over the effervescent joy of Derry Girls – something that did more to explain the human stakes behind EU bureaucracy and government mudslinging than anything else. A well-meaning English boyfriend (at the time) watched it with subtitles to decipher the accent and decode the slang. Derry Girls was an instant hit in Northern Ireland, the most watched show since 2002. But it attracted a global audience in places including the United States, India, Mexico and, perhaps most meaningfully, London.

In the pilot episode – set in the mid-1990s – a commute to school is interrupted by a bomb scare. In the final episode of season one the five protagonists dance gleefully on stage, spliced with their parents watching the news roll in about the death toll of the latest bomb. All of it builds to the finale where the teenagers and their family vote on the Belfast Agreement Referendum. The point was not to dwell on the politics and the hardest parts of the conflict, but to allow the Troubles to hum in the background of mundane adolescent angst: exams, friendship, strict adults, attention. Derry Girls succeeded where the so-called serious interventions failed. It said to the world that there are real people – just like us! – behind the parliamentary debates and amendments and petty rows. It’s no small legacy to remind the world that playing fast and loose with a hard-won peace should give pause.

It’s easy to cast aspersions at London and the English for their often frivolous dismissal of the people behind the protocol and the backstop. The argument that the whole mess was London’s fault became established wisdom. But closer to home this problem exists too: a Sunday Times poll last year found a huge dearth of knowledge among young people in the Republic when it came to the conflict. To take just one example, some 41 per cent of young respondents were unaware of the role of John Hume in the peace process. It is easy to dismiss comedy as a mere lighthearted diversion from the cold realities of realpolitik and trade regulation. But Derry Girls – for all its soul, wit and humour – challenges such a prejudice. It is no good to think hard about policy if we forget the real people behind it.