Identity in the Time of Brexit
Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!
I was sat drinking a big silly cocktail with a sparkler in it, on holiday in late July 2016 near Lindos, Rhodes. It was Greek Night at the hotel, and an enormous man in a white shirt was dancing 20 feet away around a ring of fire as lots of English tourists drunkenly clapped and cheered. Stereotypes upon stereotypes. Away from the commotion, my girlfriend and I had gotten talking to two women who lived and worked in London. Being the types we are, talk shifted to politics not long after we’d tested the waters for common ground.
After a while, one of them asked me if I thought Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland or part of the United Kingdom. The answer I gave her surprised me.
I explained that, before Brexit, I would have said the UK because that was the best option for the people of Northern Ireland. Whereas, post-referendum, I declared that we should be part of Ireland because well, Northern Ireland is fucked now.
For a long time now I’ve essentially been a romantic nationalist but a pragmatic unionist. The vote to leave the EU completely changed my mind, because Northern Ireland is going to be the most radically affected region of the UK.
There’s the threat of a return to a hard border. The night before the referendum vote, I wrote a long Facebook post in which I argued strongly for Remain. One of my points (partially tailored to English friends) was that the idea of a border checkpoint between Tyrone and Donegal was as horrifying to me as a checkpoint between Hampshire and Surrey would be for English people.
Then there’s the end of farming subsidies. Around a third of Northern Irish people come from farming backgrounds, and a number of them depend on EU subsidies to keep themselves going. I doubt the UK government would bother to keep these after Brexit, and the result would be disastrous for the Northern Irish economy at every level.
Since I woke up on the morning of the 24th June, I’ve worried about what these two potential consequences could mean for Northern Ireland in the future. When people talk about the Troubles, they talk about identity and politics and the border question, often neglecting economic factors. Catholics found it difficult to get jobs, so were generally poorer than their Protestant counterparts. Such economic tension found itself expressed in identity-driven politics and identity-driven violence on both sides, at which point the Troubles occurred. It’s easy to see how Northern Ireland’s current situation could spill into violence if the population are poorer, and poorer because of the actions of a remote British cabal of self-interested politicians.
Some have characterised the vote to leave the EU mainly as a cry of disillusionment with the UK political elite. So why did these people vote for a Conservative-majority government just over a year beforehand? This is an easy and dishonest way to get around the difficulty of calling a large proportion of the population idiots. While I’m sure there were some people for whom this was the case, and there were others who had sound moral reasons for their vote to leave (such as the EU’s protection of large corporations), I’m also certain that a sizeable proportion of people voted Leave because they do not like hearing foreign languages spoken in the street, nor do they like seeing people with darker skin on an everyday basis.
I had always thought of England as being more progressive and open-minded than Northern Ireland, which was why I left Ardboe, Co. Tyrone for university in Leicester in the East Midlands when I was nineteen. I wanted to get away from the narrow-minded religious and racial bigotry that I thought characterised Northern Ireland, so going to Leicester, the first city in the UK to have a non-white majority, seemed like a good idea. The very first day, there was a big “JESUS LOVES LEICESTERSHIRE” rally in the city-centre, and I thought ‘typical, I came here to get away from the Bible-bashing culture but it turns out it’s everywhere.’ Barring that sight though, Leicester was a forward-looking city and still is. It’s one of the few places outside London where you will regularly see friends of different races walking around together whatever age they are. In other places, it almost seems that only younger people of different races hang out.
When I arrived there, fairly fresh off the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust’s Explore programme, I told people I was Northern Irish. Around half the English people I met in the first few weeks had no clue that Northern Ireland existed as a separate entity from the rest of Ireland, so at that point I started telling people I was Irish, and if they enquired further, I said I was ‘from the North’. I met a girl from Belfast in the first week or so, and hearing her accent, I had asked whether she was from NI. We seemed to get on OK, until later that night, she drunkenly told me we couldn’t be friends because I was from Northern Ireland.
The following week, another girl thought she’d introduce me to a guy she’d met from Cork, hoping we’d get along. Except upon finding out that I was from Tyrone he declared that I wasn’t really Irish.
The past few years have been fertile ones in the development of Northern Irishness. More and more Catholics are embracing the term, and Protestants are more likely to have a developed sense of Northern Irishness in response to the chasm between British and Northern Irish culture. The next few years will be challenging ones for those who consider themselves Northern Irish, and this growth in shared identification might halt. Brexit is not the only threat. The election resulting from the RHI scandal could cause a seismic revamp of the Ulster political settlement. Changing demographics mean that Catholics are forming a larger proportion of the population, causing shock a few years ago when it was announced that were now more Catholics in Belfast than Protestants. If Catholics become once again frustrated with being a constituent part of the UK, there could be a referendum on a united Ireland. While in the face of Brexit I would now welcome such a development, I’m also aware of the danger.
My view on this is complicated by the fact that I no longer live in Northern Ireland, nor do I have any plans to live there again. Do I even have any right to determine the future direction my home country might take, especially when I don’t have to live with the consequences?
In the end, I am not only a Northern Irish citizen (who should really have a Northern Irish passport), I am also an ambassador for my country. To others, whether through my own choice or not, I represent NI, and as such I have a stake in the place that I represent. I only hope that the place can remain peaceful, civilised and that it refuses to let something like Brexit alter it for the worse.