One’s sense of national identity is naturally influenced by one’s physical, family, and community environments. History, education, and current affairs each play an obvious role also, and while every personal experience and definition of identity is different, common ground can still emerge from the ether.
For me, I was a child of the new post-Troubles era, the Celtic Tiger, and Ireland’s growing relationship with Brussels and the rest of the EU. At school, I travelled to Belfast for a Model United Nations competition, and later, to Copenhagen as part of the EU’s Comenius programme. I learned about the experiences, stories, and lives of my European peers, from Limavady to Lithuania, and it opened my eyes to the realisation that we were among the first Europeans to see ourselves not only as neighbours, but compatriots.
Later, when I took a job with BBC Northern Ireland in 2011 and moved to Belfast, it was a defining moment in my life for several reasons. It was my first time to move out of home, and the first time living outside of the Republic. I moved into a small apartment just off Belfast’s Dublin Road, where loyalist paramilitary flags sometimes flew from nearby lampposts. Over time, I made new friends in the city from a mixture of backgrounds; Unionist, Nationalist, gay, straight, Protestant, Catholic, and atheist. I came to really love Belfast, its people, its history, and its hidden ability to make me look at life and society from a perspective I hadn’t expected.
And yet, for me, crossing the border every other week to go home to Dublin didn’t have a connotation of going from the green part of the map to the orange or vice versa. Instead, I saw all of Ireland as blue, because both Ireland and the UK were (then) part of the European Union. As a European citizen, I was as entitled to live and work in Belfast as I would’ve been able to do the same in Berlin or Barcelona. No visa, no embassy check-ins, no immigration status, no worries – because it is every EU citizen’s entitlement and right.
While the topic of a United Ireland is almost always present in the minds of people in Ireland, in a possibly unusual way, I considered Ireland to have been united under the Maastrict Treaty in 1991, along with the rest of the European member states of the EU. The border between the six counties of Northern Ireland, and the 26 of the Republic, was still there for sure, but it made little to no difference in my eyes. Maybe I was naïve back then, but I nevertheless saw Ireland – all of it – as simply united under the 12 stars of Europe, along with the rest of the EU’s member states, including Britain. Whether from Derry, Dublin, Durham, or Düsseldorf, we were all European. Or so I thought.
I was living in Nottingham at the time when the result of that fateful British referendum not only stripped my English friends of their EU citizenship and freedom of movement therein – and arguably, of their sense of European national identity, too – but it re-established partition between Northern Ireland and the Republic in a way that my generation and those younger than I never experienced before. It created uncertainty about the future, worry that old Troubles would be reborn, and fear and mistrust amongst the peoples of these islands would grow. That repartition caused me to resent supporters of Brexit, failing to understand their suspicion of the EU when I had only seen its benefits and freedoms, and it spurred me on to leave the UK sooner than originally planned. It felt like a break-up; that is why Brexit upset me so much, and it seemed so difficult to articulate the worry we in Ireland – north and south – had about what would or could happen next.
As I returned to Ireland, the shock of Brexit made me realise that I wanted to play a part, no matter how small, in Irish and European politics; to add my voice for vulnerable groups and minorities, including minority language communities or LGBT people, while also advocating for the strong European ties and common goals that I had known growing up. Whether or not my actions would have me step forward as a statesman, or merely an active citizen, are still not clear, but since coming home, that sense of duty has remained strong.
Journalist Aoife Moore had a brilliant piece in the Irish Examiner recently, where, in light of recent discussions in the media about the prospect of a United Ireland, she made clear that we will have to be many, many “boring” conversations about how such unification would actually work on a practical and logistics level. Leaving aside hot topics like timelines, flags, relocating parliaments, or anthems, it’s worth realising that vast improvements must be made (if not at least attempted) in the Republic and throughout the rest of the EU before the prospect of joining a united Ireland is put forward as an attractive future.
Today, my best friend is a Latvian who has lived in Ireland for over 16 years, who considers herself as much Irish by now as she is Latvian – and I see her in the exact same way. I’ve another dear friend who lives in the Shankill, in the heart of Unionist Belfast, with their husband, and another few live in east Belfast, surrounded by loyalist murals, union flags, and the rest you could imagine. To me, and like me, they’re all European, just as much as my friends and family living in Berlin or Copenhagen would be.
Maybe that’s where Irish unification efforts need to begin; not from a Dublin or Belfast perspective, but from a broader European one.
Originally published as part of my Revue fortnightly newsletter, Butler’s Insight.