Crossing Boundaries: Identity Evolution in post-Brexit Northern Ireland
Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes
In Northern Ireland, the question of identity is one of considerable weight.
It is this question which has underpinned much social and political upheaval witnessed there throughout the last 100 years. While most of this period revolved around the collision of the two traditional identities of the population (British or Irish), an unheralded but significant evolution has since occurred: a ‘Northern Irish’ identity has taken form. But this nascent ‘third way’ identity needs recognition and legal basis to secure its viability, especially in the wake of disruption caused by Brexit.
Where once the common citizenship of the European Union held by British and Irish passport holders alike allowed the gradual easing of the identity question, Brexit sparked a return to the bilateral options of identity in Northern Ireland instead.
In 2023, with the European identity no longer common to both communities, the hard-fought peace appeared more delicate than in recent years. But there are hopeful signs.
A troubled tale of identity conflicts
Northern Ireland has had a turbulent history.
Since its establishment in 1921 (through partition with the rest of Ireland and indefinite commitment to the United Kingdom), collisions between its two most prominent communities have abounded. These are the so-called ‘nationalists’ and the so-called ‘unionists’ (the former favouring a reunited Ireland, the latter advocating continued union with Britain).
Their divergent visions for Northern Ireland’s future ultimately resulted in a decades-long sectarian conflict from the late 1960s until the 1990s, commonly referred to as the Troubles. Leaving many thousands of civilian dead and a sharply-divided society in its wake, the importance of the question of identity persisted - and continued to punctuate Northern Ireland’s future as much in peacetime as in times of conflict.
The Troubles are seen to have ended in 1998 with a treaty which closed the most active cycle of violence: the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Amongst its provisions was the guaranteed right of citizens in Northern Ireland to safeguard their identity through multiple options of citizenship – British, Irish, or both.
This right was enjoyed by its citizens for the subsequent 25 years since, but the passing of the referendum brought an abrupt change to this relative harmony.
Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland
As a constituent part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland had a voice in the Brexit referendum. Its voters - by majority - rejected Brexit: 55% against and 44% in favour. But it was subject nonetheless to Brexit’s invocation due to outweighing votes from the British mainland, and the impact on Northern Ireland was acute. Where careful steps had been taken to support and empower individual identity - cross-community initiatives considered – a lot of work was undone fast. Divisions gradually nullified and blunted by common membership of the EU began to return - and the connecting link it had represented in trade, culture, and citizenship was abruptly discarded. Division returned, and replaced progress with aplomb.
Following Brexit, the appeal of the UK passport declined somewhat, while the power of the Irish passport - especially in regard to access to the EU’s single market and free movement of people - remained stable. Resultantly, application rates in Northern Ireland increased vastly for Irish passports post-Brexit - for dual citizens and sole passport holders alike (many opting to switch their existing citizenship on passport from UK to Irish). Per its 2021 census, Irish passport ownership had surged in the preceding ten years in Northern Ireland, consistent with declared demand by the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland.
But curiously: did that mean that the proportion of residents who identified as Irish doubled? Not quite.
The 2021 census returned only a 4.9% increase in the numbers of citizens who identified as ‘Irish’ by identity - versus the nearly 40% increase in Irish passport holders. This betrayed a sharp contrast in the value of European passports and the reality of identity in practice.
Solely and uniquely Northern Irish?
The above figures attest to a prominent fact: identity transcends the text on state-issued documents. No more visibly is this the case than in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is growingly diverse, a vibrant region in both nationalities present and individual cultures. Its mix of identities remains complex: many locals born to nationalist- or unionist-identifying families choose to break the mold and choose to identify as the traditional ‘other’.
This identity-switching has been so common, in fact, that a ‘middle-ground’ group has begun emerging – with potent returns in recent election results.
Alliance is a political party which does not hold a particular preferential stance over the territorial future of Northern Ireland. It has seen notable success in local elections (its vote share having risen 4.5% in 2022 Assembly Elections from 2017 Assembly Election figures): an eye-opening reality for the partisan nationalist and unionist parties. Northern Irish people demand representation and a government (the latter having become stymied by the failures of the power-sharing mechanism, designed to uphold equal representation of nationalist and unionist communities). To this effect, modern voting does not appear (necessarily) overly concerned with which faction delivers the objective. But Alliance’s rise perhaps demonstrates also the value of the emerging, innate Northern Irish identity – not strictly British, not strictly Irish, something unique.
This unique Northern Irish identity is popular among Gen Z and Millennials. Perhaps, through the ‘Peace Generation’ - the nickname given to those born after the Good Friday Agreement’s signature in 1998 - there is a greater ability to see across the binary traditional lines forged by ready-made identities. Perhaps the value of individuality is more recognisable. Perhaps it is special and meaningful to have a nationality which reflects experience - something the GFA did attempt to recognize in allowing each citizen to choose identity based on personal preference. But there is a discrepancy – during the murky negotiations surrounding the Withdrawal Agreement, it was determined that UK courts find all Northern Irish people to be automatically British. This fact flies directly in the face of the personal preferences the GFA sought to protect.
Of course, there are other identities present in Northern Ireland. The region has more than just British-, Irish- and Northern Irish-identifying residents - and among its most significant minorities are citizens of Poland and Romania whose positions, too, are valid in the context of discussions surrounding identity in the region.
It is vital, thus, that all kinds of diversity are not lost in this discussion and are embraced as part of modernization of the region and its political discussions.
The ‘Peace Generation’ - a model for progress?
Perhaps, through the ‘Peace Generation’ - the nickname given to those born after the GFA’s signature in 1998 - there is a greater capacity to see across the binary traditional lines forged by ready-made identities.
The evolving nature of identity requires accepting changes which have come over time. Especially for Northern Ireland’s Peace Generation, this is essential to building bridges for a successful shared future.
The idea that one identity is more valuable or entitled to service than another is something - thankfully - increasingly dispelled in the post-Troubles era: but also something which requires consistent work to ensure its removal. Integrated education and cross-community initiatives are essential for the true acceptance of identity across the region. It is a long walk to embark upon, but one we must embark upon. But the fluidity of identity shall require policy change.
UK courts must recognise Northern Irish people as Irish or Northern Irish as opposed to British by default. Furthermore, integrated education initiatives across education levels - as well as cross community initiatives in policy and projects - are essential to the true acceptance of each identity across the region.
In providing a pathway for legal recognition of British, Irish and Northern Irish identities, the gap between self identification and legal identification can close.
Sorcha Ní Chonghaile is an Irish graduate of Dublin City University, living and working in Belgium. She has been active in LYMEC for a number of years via Ógra Fianna Fáil, and as a member of the Individual Members’ Section since 2021. Her areas of interest include minority language rights, British and Irish Politics, and human rights.
- Northern Ireland Census Data (2021): National Identity (Self Declared) https://www.nisra.gov.uk/system/files/statistics/census-2021-main-statistics-for-northern-ireland-phase-1-statistical-bulletin-national-identity.pdf
- Northern Ireland Census Data (2021): Passports Held (Self Declared) https://www.nisra.gov.uk/system/files/statistics/census-2021-main-statistics-for-northern-ireland-phase-1-statistical-bulletin-passports-held.pdf
- Good Friday Agreement (Text signed 1998) https://prod-ireland-ie-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/good-friday-agreement.pdf
- Houses of the Oireachtas website (2023) Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 23 May 2023 https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/question/2023-05-23/145/
- Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (date unknown) National Identity in Northern Ireland https://www.ninis2.nisra.gov.uk/public/census2011analysis/nationalidentity/National%20Identity%20in%20Northern%20Ireland.pdf
- BBC News (2022) Northern Ireland Assembly Election Results 2022 https://www.bbc.com/news/election/2022/northern-ireland/results
- The Guardian (2019) Northern Ireland citizens must register to identify as Irish, tribunal told https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/10/northern-ireland-citizens-must-register-to-identify-as-irish-tribunal-told
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