Peter McLaughlin details his experience of Irish identity, its interactions with the Irish Border, and how Brexit will likely affect it.
As March 29th looms, the issue of the Irish border is at the forefront of many people’s minds. The border, which starts from Lough Foyle in the north-west (some 15 minutes from my home in Derry) and snakes across the island to Carlingford Lough in the east, has been well-established. Its existence is inseparable from the existence of Northern Ireland as an entity, and its status has been the subject of the fundamental debate that still defines our politics.
Yet as far back as my earliest memory, the border has been - quite literally - invisible. Despite living so close to it, it took years of crossings to go to piano lessons, or to visit my dad’s place of work, or to go to the beach, before I actually learned its precise location. There are no checks, no flags, nothing except the occasional abandoned former custom huts, and signs declaring the new speed limit. Me and my girlfriend recently went on a trip from Derry to Enniskillen, accidentally crossing over the border and back on the winding country roads; we didn’t even realise we’d done so until we checked out our trip on Google Maps after we’d arrived.
But today, at the forefront of many people’s minds, is the threat of a hard border: the end of the days just missing the crossing, and the introduction of checks, customs, and physical infrastructure that just wasn’t there before. As the government sleepwalks towards a hard Brexit as Labour and Tory Brexiteers alike reject the possibility of any safety net, and as the date of leaving comes ever closer, it looks likelier and likelier. The impact this would have is immediate. My dad crosses the border and back every weekday to get to work, and the company he works for does jobs in both the UK and throughout the EU: the threats they face are pretty obvious. This situation is in no way unique either: everyone knows someone from the north who works down south, or someone from the south who works up north; everyone knows about someone living at the border whose life would be affected by customs checks. The economic harms that a hard border will impose are well-rehearsed at this stage, but I believe that often overlooked, but no less important, is the effect of a hard border upon people’s identities.
I, along with a large segment of Northern Ireland’s population, see myself as Irish. I am an Irish citizen with an Irish passport. My right to be Irish in NI is guaranteed explicitly by the Good Friday Agreement; but as well as a formal guarantee, this right is protected concretely by enforcing an invisible border. A border is a marking-off, a separation of NI from the south, but it has become easy in daily life, to forget that there is a border at all. For most day-to-day purposes, there may as well be no difference between NI and the Republic except the speed limit and the currency. This flexibility and porousness make it easy for me to be Irish - it makes it easy to see myself as part of one nation that spans the entire island.
But it also makes it easier for me to see myself as more than Irish, as an heir to more than one history. The Good Friday Agreement promises Northern Ireland’s inhabitants the right to “be accepted as Irish or British, or both”. Those two words “or both” suggest a new way of conceptualising one’s relationship to NI and its history, rejecting its status as an object of conflict between unionists and Irish nationalists and moving towards a more unified future. An invisible border again makes having this form of identity easy: the continuity between the nations on the island allows me to understand myself and my relation to these nations in terms other than the orange/green binary that has for so long been the norm. Our troubled, sectarian history is defined in many ways by the conflict (however you wish to perceive it) between Britishness and Irishness; to be able to accept both is a radical rejection of sectarianism, past and present.
A hard border would end all this. I have lived for as long as I can remember with the connection to the South being uninterrupted, and this has allowed Irishness to flourish as I can see myself as part of a single all-island nation. And this, in turn, has meant that there is no practical conflict between Irishness and Britishness, as living in the UK is consistent with being a part of this all-island nation. But by acting as a constant reminder of the division that has been created by colonialism and sectarianism, and by drawing a line between Britain and Ireland, a hard border puts Britishness and Irishness in conflict. The right of being identified and accepted as “Irish or British, or both”, promised on Good Friday 1998, will be undermined, and the anti-sectarianism that is part of that promise along with it.
My life is in many ways defined by the dual nationhood that Northern Ireland has inherited. On St Patrick’s Day, I wear the green and happily sing Amhrán na bhFiann, while on V-E Day I proudly celebrate a British victory over fascism and terror. My relationship to this dual heritage is complex, often critical, and rooted in an attempt to go beyond the identities that have driven NI in the century since it came into being. Being Northern Irish - not exclusively Irish nor British, but Northern Irish - is one of the most important facets of who I am. The identity of those like me who celebrate their dual inheritance is made possible only by the fact that being both British and Irish is, in practical terms, easy: that you are apt to miss the crossing from one to the other, that the line between the two is more like a change in speed limit than a change in nation. After Brexit, it looks like this will no longer be the case. The way I see myself and my relationship to where I live will be destabilised, and that’s scary.