Brexit, Northern Ireland and Identity

By Emma Westcott

A couple of miles from my house sits the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border. Not that you would know. Blink and you will miss the understated ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ sign. In Northern Ireland we have had to learn to deconstruct our old notions of identity and reconstruct them to suit a post-Conflict and ‘normalised’ society. With the ‘Brexit’ bombshell – what happens now to Northern Irish identity? Many questions are arising out of the ‘border’ issue in Ireland. The ‘old’ border will now take on a new significance, becoming a UK/EU border.

Many Brexiteers have spoken about strengthening UK borders, but what shape will that take? Does that mean the ‘invisible’ border will have a much more physical presence? Will I feel any less Irish with a physical barrier reminding me that I am different to my Republic of Ireland counterparts? I, like my many other NI citizens, have two passports; a British and an Irish. So what does that make me, an EU citizen? A non-EU citizen? Can I be both?

In an increasingly risk based postmodern society should national identity even matter – aren’t we all meant to have a ‘global’ identity anyway? After all, the digital age has meant that we have far more in common with our Instagram follower from Brazil than our next door neighbour. What the referendum has proved is that not only does it matter but that the sometimes perceived as old and crusty traditional Marxist ideas on class are very much alive. Globalisation has not meant the growth of a ‘global’ identity; quite the opposite. There are a growing number of people who feel alienated in our society and there is an acute disconnect between the political elite and the majority of the people. They look to a national identity to feel that lost connection.

Of course identity has been entrenched in Brexit scripts right across the British Isles. It has become clear that many Leave voters were voting in protest, what is less clear is what exactly the protest was about. Many of the Leave votes came from English nationalists who sensed their identity was becoming challenged. They feel unrepresented, disengaged and frustrated at an experienced inability in expressing their own ‘English’ identity. The price of tolerance has led to a crisis in English national identity. The Scots and Welsh are allowed to celebrate their national identity; even the Northern Irish, in their own ‘wee’ way.

The English have had their flag stolen by far right groups and have to share their national anthem and monarchy with other countries. ‘Little Englanders’ has been one of the most common, perhaps over used, phrases during the Referendum campaign but what does it even mean to be ‘English’? The one factor in which all commentators are in agreement is that the referendum has left behind deep divisions within English society. The referendum dug in its heels and exposed gulfs between classes; ethnicities; north and south; east and west; the young and old, therefore leaving scars on the way in which we construct our identity. The question now is can we reconstruct harmonious identities in a post-Brexit era?

Emma Westcott has been teaching Sociology for over a decade and is currently Head of Sociology in St Patrick’s, Keady, Co. Armagh. She specialises in the sociology of post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Originally posted 28th June 2016.

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