I was surprised by the strength of emotion when my Irish passport arrived. I had never particularly thought about national identity before; in a rather unconsidered and snobby way, I probably felt myself to be beyond such atavistic notions. But the EU referendum, and the eddying and fractious national debate that followed, put paid to that.
The prospect of long queues at passport control, and loss of rights – to live and work abroad – that I have barely used, spurred me (like thousands of other Brits) to apply for an Irish passport. After some weeks, and very helpful discussions with the Department for Foreign Affairs (my family background is complicated by adoption), my passport arrived with a picture of me that somehow looks about five times more Irish than I ever have in the flesh. And I suddenly felt a forceful sense of attachment, a spark of connection to a country that I visit regularly but have never lived in. Did I feel Irish? Not really, but I felt something.
I’ve been turning this over in my mind since, as the debate over the future of nations and unions after Brexit has intensified, trying to assess my own perceptions of national identity, and considering how these might be affected by possible futures. My first conclusion is that we use the term ‘national identity’ too broadly. We treat it as one thing, when in fact the term covers quite distinct and potentially divergent affiliations. They don\’t overlap or compete (though they can do both of those), but rather describe different types of relationship. I can count three (but I\’m sure others have undertaken a more sophisticated analysis): cultural identity, personal identity and political identity.
My cultural identity is probably split between England and Ireland. I’ve always balked at the Shamrock ’n’ Shillelaghs sentimentalism of plastic paddies, but I do feel cultural affinity with Ireland. Sure, some of my favourite poets and writers are Irish, but some of my favourite singer-songwriters are Canadian so there must be more to it than that – a shared sense of humour perhaps, a love of wordplay, a dank melancholia, a complicated relationship with rain and catholicism. This identity has strengthened – or possibly felt able to ‘come out’ – in the past decades as Ireland emerged from the dour shadow of Eamon de Valera’s insular conservatism, to become highly internationalised and socially progressive.
My personal identity is more clearly English. I have lived in England all my life, and it is England’s urban and rural landscape that seems familiar and homely to me. To be fair, this is probably concentrated in southern England – between the Cotswolds, the Chilterns and the South Downs, with towns and villages of red brick, golden stone and steely flint. But I have lived as far north as County Durham, have a partner from Scarborough and holiday every year in the Lake District, so my tendrils of attachment stretch across the country.
Do I mean British by this? I really don’t think I do. I have enjoyed visiting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they are clearly distinct places – the shops, the language, the beer, even the banknotes are different. They may not feel as distinct as continental European countries, but they are not ‘home’ either.
And to be honest, devolution has deepened this sense of difference. If part of citizenship is knowing how to secure your rights from and undertake your duties to the state, then my citizenship feels increasingly limited to England. I no more understand the Scottish criminal justice or social care system than I do the French.
Which raises the question of political identity. Here my affiliation is to the United Kingdom. I vote for a UK government, carry a UK passport and pay my taxes to the UK state (while I was in favour of remaining in the EU, I\’ve never really felt like a \’citizen of Europe\’). But that affiliation feels more and more contingent, and unrooted in any of the deeper affection that I feel towards England or even Ireland. I have none of the passion for ‘the Union’ that is ritually expressed by politicians. When I see Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians arguing for independence, I find it hard to argue against them, and hard not to think that I would do the same in their place.
There are downsides to the calls for independence of course. Politically, loss of Scotland and Northern Ireland would tilt the English and Welsh rump further to the right: the Conservatives would have won a majority in every election since 2005 without Scotland and Northern Ireland. But then again, as a Scottish Nationalist MSP forcefully pointed out to me some time ago, it is not Scotland’s job to counterbalance a conservative majority in England and Wales.
It feels to me quite likely that calls for Irish reunification and Scottish independence will grow over the next Parliament, and it is hard to see how they can be resisted over the long term. Whether I carry a passport from the United Kingdom of England and Wales, or – who knows – the United Republic of Ireland and Scotland, may affect where my taxes are paid, who governs me and how easily I can travel abroad, but it won’t make much difference to the way that I think of myself and my countries.