Brexit: The desperate search for Englishness in our plurality

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Brexit: The desperate search for Englishness in our plurality:
Fintan O’Toole lecture on “Borders and belonging”
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Shared Future News
4 October 2018

Corrymeela and Queen’s University Belfast co-hosted the university’s first policy engagement lecture of the year, welcoming world famous and award winning journalist, Fintan O’Toole, to deliver his lecture, “Borders and Belonging: British and Irish Identities in a Post-Brexit Era”.

Corrymeela’s Pádraig Ó Tuama chaired the event, setting the stage by sharing an Irish proverb with the audience: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” However, the Irish word for shelter, “scáth”, also translates to “shadow”. Ó Tuama’s poignant proverb highlights that we have been living under the shadows of the past, of contested identity, of tension; Brexit has revealed the shadows that must now be addressed.

Opening the lecture, O’Toole addressed Arlene Foster’s recent comment that the maintenance of the integrity of the Union is a “blood red” line. This was in poor taste, in O’Toole’s opinion, but revealed something key: people do not reach for such rhetorical heights unless the ground beneath them is unstable. He said that grandiose declarations of the Union’s sacrality only deflect the reality of crisis and change; the state of the Union is shifting and it must be addressed.

Inviting the audience to engage in the reality of the situation, O’Toole begged the question: what were we thinking of five years ago? The Edinburgh Agreement, potential independence, riots over national identity in Northern Ireland. What we weren’t examining was Englishness.

As the first functioning nation-state in Europe, England has a long history of aggressive nationalism. According to O’Toole, after years of struggle between England, Ireland, and Scotland, England “faked its own death” and assumed quietude in order to achieve a cohesive Union and Empire. This was the price it paid for power and stability. Taking away both Union and Empire, however, has re-awakened the Englishness of old, resulting in increasingly problematic assertions of nationhood, O’Toole argued.

The Union itself becomes increasingly more problematic, but this is not a new phenomenon. Twenty years ago, the Good Friday Agreement made part of the Union contingent, the establishment of the Scottish parliament established Scotland as its own political entity and gave rise to the possibility of Scottish independence. O’Toole insists that we have spent far too long examining history as a series of actions, and instead encouraged us to consider the reactions. Assertions of English identity are not new, but have been on the rise for 20 years as the Union has shifted. Just as Northern Ireland and Scotland contend with notions of national identity, so too has there been a silent succession of Englishness from the United Kingdom as it becomes threatened by the growth of multiculturalism and the prevalence of the European Union.

In this way, O’Toole argues that Brexit should not have surprised anyone, not as a British anti-European movement, but as an English one. Unhappy with the structural instability of the Union, the English pushed a fear campaign to escape the EU in order to retain some sense of identity. The Union is fetishised — placed on a pedestal and imagined as unshakeable; yet, this response to instability does nothing to counter it. Brexit does not answer the question of English identity, it is merely a transference of the question.

Instead, to O’Toole, assertions of an ahistorical, sacred Union do violence to the people and progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, where identity is not a zero-sum game. Brexit contradicts the ideas of identity central to the GFA: that identity can be multiple, that it is a matter of choice, and that it is contingent. The fixity of identity re-emerging through Brexit threatens complex notions of identity that have been forming and integrating into the socio-political landscape of this transitional society.

Closing the lecture, O’Toole left us with this: It is imperative that we resist the loss of this complexity. Fundamentally, this resistance is about human progress. Northern Ireland has paid the ultimate price to arrive in its current position. We owe it to ourselves to insist that shared space, shared identity, and a shared future not be shaken or threatened by English insecurity. As O’Toole states, “we must insist on the integrity of our smaller stage”. It is possible to simultaneously hold in our heads different notions of identity and belonging. It’s been happening around this island for years, and will continue to happen as long as we embrace ideas of identity that are open and nuanced.

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