Wetherspoon's Tim Martin: I just want to stimulate Brexit debate

Publican Tim Martin is the force behind the Wetherspoon pub chain and is one of the prominent business entrepreneurs who is unashamedly pro Brexit. The former Belfast schoolboy tells Joanne Sweeney that his love and belief in democracy is behind his views

JD Wetherspoon founder and chairman Tim Martin (62) still likes his daily pint
Joanne Sweeney

TIM Martin is a man with whom most people could spend an hour or two chatting over a pint in a pub, which is just as well as he tends to visit four or five bars in his JP Wetherspoon chain each week, tasting the beer and food in each one.

With a cool, surfer dude drawl – leftover from his time living in New Zealand, certainly not from his time living in Dungannon, Derry and Belfast – the 6ft 6" multi-millionaire is an easy conversationalist and could give Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones a run for his money with his ageing rocker terms.

He refers to past girlfriends as 'gals', to his now deceased father as 'my old man' and sinks up to four pints of beer a day while enjoying a laugh against himself. (He says he does have several "alcohol-free days" every week, when he only has one pint.) 

As chairman of JD Wetherspoon, with its 900-plus pubs and hotels in Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic, Martin is one of the biggest business success stories to come from the north, although he has lived happily in England for over 40 years.

Yet – and it's a big yet in these days for many people, both north and south, who fear the impact of Brexit – he is a vocal supporter of the UK leaving the EU. He has even gone as far as to recently flood his pubs with half a million beer mats with messages designed to dispel persistent and concerns over issues such as increased food prices post-divorce and fishing rights.

But why on Earth would he wish Brexit on a region that voted to remain, particularly considering his close links to the north, with both parents coming from Dungannon and a smattering of relatives still living here?

'Wetherspoon's' also has a considerable financial investment here, with four bars already and planning approval for two more large ones in Belfast. Also in the pipeline is an expected £13.1 million additional investment in Dublin – in bars and with a hotel due to open in 2019 – a city where politicians and businesspeople are seriously worried about Brexit.

"It's nothing personal but I think that democracy is essential for the future of humanity, which sounds slightly dramatic," Martin tells me. "Democracy is essential and the problem with the EU is that it’s becoming less democratic. So it's got five unelected presidents, a court which is not subject to any democratic control and a mock parliament, in my opinion, whose MPs who can't even initiate legislation.

"Legislation can only be initiated by unelected commissioners so I don’t think it's democratic and I think that eventually causes huge problems, as you saw in Greece and with the very high levels of youth unemployment in the south of the EU."

The Wetherspoon bar concept is all about local beers at keen prices served in a well-known venue with historical local connections, reasonably priced food and no music.

It's been well received with drinkers since Martin opened his first bar, Martin's Free House, in Muswell Hill, London, in 1979 after he decided that, having studied law, a career at that particular bar wasn't for him.

But back to the Wetherspoon Brexit beer mat manifesto – can a man or woman not have a drink without having to think about politics? Would he have allowed such beer mats in his first pub?

"I’m 62 and a half now and I was 24 then, so I definitely would have acted in a different way," he admits, laughing. "I think it's generally accepted that it's pushing it a bit but it has stimulated a debate. We don't have 'vote Conservative' or 'vote Labour' on our beer mats.

"There has been a lot of business people who have given their view about remain and I've had a lot of debates with [Ryanair boss] Michael O'Leary, who wants to remain [in the EU], but I believe that if you have an alternative view, it's fair in a democracy to have a chance to put it out there. You always get a better solution if you get a proper debate."

While he appears regularly on the BBC's Question Time, does entering politics interest him in the future?

"No," he says emphatically. "I'm too old and I'm a one-trick pony. I think I know my limitations, which is running pubs. I've only spoken out on two issues; the first was on the euro 16 years ago and then I went quiet for a long time, and the other is democracy and the EU."

Other good reasons to like Martin is that he doesn't expect bar staff to put on a false, overly friendly disposition for customers.

He has been married to the same woman, Felicity, for four decades, is a father of four grown-up children and he took three months away from his business to help act as a physio to one of his grandsons, who has severe physical difficulties. Five to six times a day, he would work with the little boy, helping him to learn how to sit up.

The only other wobble in his career was taking time out when his father Ray, a former RAF fighter pilot and Guinness marketing director, died.

He has acknowledged before in press interviews that his parents' marriage was a strained one. It eventually ended after the family returned from New Zealand to Belfast when he was 15.

Martin then went to the city's Campbell College before he left for university. He had attended school in Dungannon and the Model Primary School in Derry's Shantallow area before the family left the north when he was aged around nine and he began his love affair with New Zealand and learnt how to surf.

Martin visited his bars in Cork, Dublin and the north last week in his unique drop-in style where he likes to experience his bar product himself, giving notes to management and staff.

He retains strong connections with the north and when interviewed recently by Kirsty Young on BBC Radio Four's Desert Island Discs he listed Van Morrison's Cleaning Windows as one of the eight tracks he would take to the show's imaginary island. He told Young he loves the line, 'I'm a working man in my prime, cleaning windows', as he identifies with it personally.

However, the subject of his nationality is more complex.

"I've always considered myself to be a third Irish, a third British and a third Kiwi because that's roughly where I've been raised,” he says.

Where does he stand on the issue of the border, since he has a vested business interest in both jurisdictions?

"I haven't spoken to anyone who thinks that a hard border is a good idea and I'm sure that there lots of different ideas as to how the issues can be overcome," says Martin.

He adds diplomatically: "It's 44 years since I left Belfast and I'm aware that people who have been away for a long time don't always offer the best advice so I'm hesitant as this is something that the politicians should do.

"I do think that there are efforts to produce a soft border with goodwill on all sides, and underneath, I think there is goodwill, and people will find a solution."

What were the best things he took from his time living in Northern Ireland, apart from the appreciation of a good pint?

"Playing sport here was the highlight of my time living in Northern Ireland, playing football while I was going to the Model Primary School in Derry and playing rugby for Campbell College in Belfast.

"I also think that the standard of education in Northern Ireland is very good and I certainly got a good education out of it and that's not to be underestimated."

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