Identity in post-Brexit Northern Ireland

n the run up to the EU referendum, former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair visited Derry. With their deep understanding and appreciation for the nuances and sensitivities of Northern Irish conflict honed by their engagement with the topic for substantial periods of their respective premierships, they were both united in their bleak portrayal of a post-Brexit Northern Ireland.

During their trip, Major and Blair posed for photos on Derry’s Peace Bridge. Opened in Summer 2011, the Peace Bridge stands as an iconic focal point for the city’s cultural and artistic centre. Both a literal and symbolic bridge between the two communities (who have traditionally lived separately on either side of the River Foyle), the Peace Bridge stands as a testament to the ongoing success of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Funded by approximately €20m of the overall €1.3 billion of funds invested in Northern Ireland by the EU since the early 90s, the project is one of many in the province which has benefited from EU funding. The objective of this programme (known as ‘PEACE’) is to provide financing for projects which aim to improve cohesion between communities involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland, with a specific focus on providing shared facilities for young people. A further PEACE programme was announced in early 2016 with a promise of continued EU assistance and financing of up to €230m. Following the results of the EU referendum, this programme and the related financing for projects in Northern Ireland is clearly now at risk.

However, while post Brexit debate has understandably concentrated mainly on the economic consequences of leaving the EU, from a Northern Irish perspective the greatest impact is likely to be much less tangible and, potentially, much more damaging.

For Northern Ireland, there exists a tragic irony in the UK’s decision to exit the European Union. That voters, mostly English, were swayed by grandiose and bombastic pledges to reclaim national sovereignty, bold demands to “take our country back” and forceful reassertions of national identity is perhaps understandable. However in doing so it seems that little regard was given to Northern Ireland, which has for the past two decades looked upon membership of the European Union as a common, uniting thread between historically divided communities.

As a young man growing up in Derry, I recall my own struggles in crafting and understanding a personal sense of national identity. Ostensibly Irish but with seemingly little in common with “proper Irish people” south of the border, my own sense of self was in many ways shaped by the environment in which I was raised. Although too young to have experienced first-hand the worst years of violence, reminders of long-standing division between the communities and the great tragedies perpetrated against others and ourselves were everywhere. Writ large in the dramatic and uncompromising murals of the Bogside and Fountain areas of Derry. Fleetingly recollected and mono-syllabically acknowledged by older relatives, hushed understated references to the “troubles”, an almost failed attempt to ascribe some broader meaning to the violence we inflicted upon one another, seemed both poignant and characteristically Northern Irish.

John Barry, in his paper on Northern Irish identity, wrote that: “the relations that constitute one’s loyalty to particular institution, places and people are constitutive of one’s identity and membership of the valued community that shares that loyalty.” Absent historic loyalty to common institutions or nations and divided among ourselves, it is hardly surprising that a sense of shared, common identity among the people in Northern Ireland has long proven elusive. 

The past 20 years have seen dramatic and positive changes in Northern Ireland. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was approved with resounding majorities in referendums both North and South of the border. Perhaps for the first time in Irish history both communities, almost unanimously united in their longing for an end to decades of distrust, anger and violence, came together to agree upon a universal framework for a shared future. In establishing new institutions and arrangements guaranteeing a significantly more robust and far-reaching system of cross-border collaboration among all interested parties, the Agreement spoke of “close co-operation between (the UK and Ireland) as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.”

In short, we may be Irish, British or, indeed, Northern Irish. Or perhaps even all three at once. But we are each of us, at all times, European. Or at least we were.

With the UK’s exit from the European Union, these institutions and arrangements are surely now threatened. The re-imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, anathema to all those who lived through the worst days of the troubles and in particular to Irish nationalists, seems inevitable. The less tangible and more ephemeral cultural, social and even religious barriers, broken down over time may now also be reconstructed.

Seamus Heaney once remarked that the Northern Irish conflict forced one to “quest closely and honestly into the roots of one’s own sensibility, into the roots of one’s sense of oneself, into the tribal dirt that lies around the roots of all of us.” While inevitably compelling us to look backward, it has also “forced us to do something even rarer – to look forward and say not so much ‘Who am I, who was I?’ but ‘Who really do I want to be?’”

Having emerged following several decades of national introspection and, at times, violent debate around what type of society we want to be, the people of Northern Ireland ultimately determined to commit ourselves to achieving a newly pluralistic and forward-looking society, with our collective roots as European citizens firmly planted in that once tribal, and now fertile, soil. That this same soil in which our collective vision was beginning to take root has now been scorched by the collective will of a majority of British voters seeking to assert their isolationist, apocryphal vision of Great Britain is a tragedy for us all.

*Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice (