Just two weeks ago it was announced that British passports would be returning back to being blue, abandoning the “EU burgundy”. The move has been described as symbolic restoration of British identity with Brandon Lewis, the immigration minister, saying, “Leaving the EU gives us a unique opportunity to restore our national identity and forge a new path for ourselves in the world.” However, how does this growth in British nationalism affect us in Northern Ireland where identity is such a contentious issue?
The rise of nationalism in the UK up to and after the Brexit referendum has drawn another divide across communities here in Northern Ireland. Previously, British, Irish and local identities, however different they may be, had been united through EU citizenship. Typically, pro-Brexit unionism and anti-Brexit nationalism have caused yet another split in a country that still needs walls for sections of society to feel safe. Northern Ireland’s vote to remain in the EU has since been shown in the result of the March 2017 election for Stormont, highlighting once again the divides that still remain in place. The vote largely increased for anti-Brexit parties, resulting in the first time that there was not a unionist majority in Stormont since the Northern Irish government was established in 1921. The DUP, UUP and other unionist parties gained 39/90 seats however, the DUP remained the largest party with one seat and 0.2% of the vote more than Sinn Fein.
National identity has caused disunity in Northern Ireland for decades. The Good Friday Agreement settles the problem of who has sovereign power in Northern Ireland however, left each and every other issue in relation to national identity to the people of Northern Ireland. The December 2012 decision to only fly the Union Jack at Belfast City Hall for 18 days of the year saw huge protest from loyalist communities and Unionist councillors. Recently, Nationalists have expressed their frustration at the lack of and the Unionist challenge of an Irish Language Act. These examples show just some of the more prominent cases of how different communities have felt their identities have been repressed and stifled. However can such opposing identities truly live harmoniously in Northern Ireland?
The most recent census presented that 40% of people in Northern Ireland identified as British, 25% as Irish and 21% as Northern Irish. This split demonstrates that neither a rigid British or Irish identity is adequate to Northern Ireland’s intricate existence.
According to data from the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election Study, it is clear the differences in voting in the Brexit referendum between those of varying identity. Of those who identified as nationalists, 88% voted remain, compared to only 34% of those who described themselves as unionists. 87% of “Irish” respondents voted remain compared to only 37% of “British” respondents. This reflects how influential identity was in how those in Northern Ireland voted and how important it is that identity is considered in Brexit negotiations.
After the Good Friday Agreement, the opportunity for a more united and middle ground “Northern Irish” identity began to grow. This identity would allow for the people of Northern Ireland to break free from the political and religious labels that typically stick to the identities of “British” and “Irish”. However, the harsh divides of Brexit have pushed the people of Northern Ireland back towards the traditional identities as they fight to preserve key aspects of life in Northern Ireland that uphold their identity which could be challenged by Brexit.
If you look forward to a Northern Ireland after Brexit has fully taken affect, these challenges to identity are immediately seen. The proposal of special status for Northern Ireland, as opposed by the DUP, goes against the fundamental point of unionism that as Northern Ireland is part of the UK, we must leave the EU just as Great Britain will. Arlene Foster has said that “Northern Ireland is British,” hence Brexit complicates identity for many Unionists if any special arrangements are made for Northern Ireland that separate
us from the rest of the UK.
On the contrary, Michelle O’Neill has opposed this saying, “The North isn’t British,” showing how simply conflicted the main political parties in Northern Ireland are in terms of identity. Yet how would a hard border then challenge those who identify as Irish here in Northern Ireland? A Northern Ireland completely detached and outside of the EU would break links with the Republic of Ireland and to Nationalists this is a direct challenge if they identify as Irish.
With the growth of globalisation does national identity even matter? Yes, our culture in Northern Ireland is often tightly interwoven with our identity and it is vital that we preserve this whilst also learning to show and value the identities of others.
Uniquely to Northern Ireland, we have the ability to hold both a British passport and an Irish passport. However, yet again Brexit has complicated this. Can a Northern Irish citizen be allowed to travel freely around European countries with an Irish passport when an EU citizen will not be able to freely travel to Northern Ireland? Then again, removing the right to an Irish passport challenges the Good Friday Agreement and the promise of dual citizenship and right to identify as Irish.
With every person under 18 in Northern Ireland born after the Good Friday Agreement, we have only known a life of building peace and attempting to reduce the divides in society that come about from differing identities. You should not feel scared to enter different parts of a city because you have an Irish name or because you support the union of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Identity is personal. It shouldn’t divide society.
Shannon is 17 years old and currently a Sixth Form student at Methodist College studying A levels including History and French.