Gavin O' Reilly
7 min readDec 9, 2018

An Irishman on Brexit Island

A human perspective on how Brexit is throwing up the biggest national identity crisis of our times.

I should explain something about myself. I live in London. I have done for twelve years now. I am Irish. I am also Northern Irish, if you were to draw the distinction (and dependent on the person, the importance of this distinction can vary wildly) Following the last general election, I have spent a lot of time explaining the context of the DUP, the Good Friday Agreement and what it all means in regards to Brexit to people I talk to in the capital, who seem for the most part unaware or at least removed from that wee province over there. This has surprised me, because from an English perspective it is, in theory, very much part of the UK, so why so little knowledge or understanding?

It has brought me to a period of reflection not just on Anglo-Irish relations, but also on national Identity in the UK and Ireland.

My Mum is from the south, my Dad from the north. I spent ten years growing up in the south, followed by ten years of painful teenaged angst and adolescence in the north. I am the youngest of seven and I am the only one in my family with a trace of northern twang in their accent. My parents have since moved back south, and none of my siblings are in Northern Ireland. My ties are all but cut except for friends and further out branches of family. If my experience was a case of moving around within the borders of the Republic of Ireland (or the ‘Free State’ as it is often referred to) I imagine these thoughts and reflections would be unlikely to bubble up as they are now.

When I am asked ‘Where are you from?’, I often stumble. I usually spill out something along the lines of ‘Donegal/Derry area’ or ‘I moved around a bit’. To call it an identity crisis would be over-the-top, I think an identity fluctuation would be more accurate. It is something a little uncomfortable and hard to pin down as I can never give a straight or consistent answer that doesn’t end in a babbling timeline of all the places I have lived, and where my parents are from. It is a bit more indescribable than other parts of my identity — gay, geek, design enthusiast. These are all boxes I easily and comfortably tick.

For those uninitiated or unfamiliar with the nuances of Identity politics in Northern Ireland as a whole- let me be brief. Ask a nationalist (most likely Catholic) where they are from and what they are, they will usually answer ‘Ireland and Irish’. Ask a unionist (most likely Protestant) the same question and they will likely answer ‘Northern Ireland and Northern Irish’. Ask someone what religion they are (the ultimate hot potato, yes potato, question you could ask in NI) and they may, however unlikely reply ‘atheist’, and the follow up question would undoubtedly be ‘aye, but are you an atheist Catholic or an atheist Protestant?’ It’s an old joke, but it does still illustrate how binary and often opposing identities are in the region.

Since Brexit has all but taken over all our lives in column inches and airwaves, and the DUP has risen from the corner of the British Isles to main stage British politics, I feel my somewhat hazy national identity being brought into sharper focus. Much, I think, like many people in the UK, the scenarios of Brexit and the ugliness of British politics as it stands has made us all consider our place in the UK, what it means to be Irish, Northern Irish or British and how we relate to and understand each other. How does this mix of standpoints contribute to our relation and identity to the rest of Europe?

From the outside, the Republic of Ireland, the place of my birth and my first ten years, has suddenly turned remarkably progressive and liberal. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993 and now we have a proudly gay and out leader of the nation. Unthinkable in my time in Ireland (North or South). Abortion has now been voted to be legal, that issue being one of the last big hangovers from a supremely Catholic state. Same sex marriage is now also legal. These two major changes also came from the public vote. These things make me proud and content to identify as Irish. I do, however, feel a twinge of guilt. A shame of sorts, for having left and not being part of the fight. In that way I feel my sense of southern Irish identity slowly diminishing as the country develops and changes, with me now a part time visitor and often time outsider and onlooker.

Given that I have been in the England for 15 years (3 year degree in Manchester before the move to the big smoke)which is longer than any of the places I lived in Ireland, am I British, or at least part British now? In five short years, my time living in England will eclipse my time in Ireland. I realise this is not a completely unique experience for ex-pats, but it does feel like some sort of turning point.

Northern Ireland, however, remains a quagmire of entangled legacy issues from the troubles, identity politics and a worrying lean towards hardliner religious beliefs* and policies. The DUP has strong links to the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, with the vast majority of members identifying as evangelical Christians. The region is, quite literally in a lot of ways, a law unto itself. No gay marriage here. No abortion. Also, no functioning government as I write. This is due to deadlock with Sinn Féin, with whom they should be power sharing and governing. They cannot get past issues of gay marriage, Irish language legislation and the funding of legacy inquests. In fact, back in September, Northern Ireland passed the record for the longest period without a without a sitting government. This is not something to be proud of, but is it a worrying portent of political upheaval on a growing scale?

Tumultuous circumstances of the region aside (and let’s be real, it has been in much worse states) I spent my formative years there and the very particular nature of Northern Ireland has absolutely influenced how I see the world.

All of these concerning elements are mostly overlooked by people outside of the province, particularly worrying when the majority party has some serious clout in Westminster as it stands due to unhappy set of circumstances following the last British General Election. (How much, remains to be seen)

The DUP calling any kind of shots in Westminster makes me feel about as comfortable as Theresa May is on the dance-floor.

England, from my viewpoint, appears to be taking a serious step backwards. I came here, like so many, for the chance of career prospects in my field not available at home. For something different, for cosmopolitan life. I love London, but Brexit is all consuming and the rhetoric and bile spewed on all fronts from the Conservatives to Labour to the press is enough to turn the most iron of stomachs. This is an ugly business, and an uncomfortable one. The uncertainties around Brexit has been enough to unsettle the economy, who is to say what the longer lasting implications will be? I do believe it has created, or at least highlighted, divides that seemed more ambiguous before. Are you English? British? European? What does any of this mean anyway?

I can relate to that. Trying to make concrete something as seemingly nebulous as a national identity, is an often frustrating pastime. While this has been something I would occasionally mull over a midday coffee in the past, it now feels more pressing and urgent, I think not just for me but for everyone here now. Where do I fit in? Is it time for me to move on again, as the circumstances of the country I am in is no longer to my pleasing? Maybe it is time to try out a different continent? Should I feel guilt for wanting to leave? Am I bound in some way to stick things out for better or for worse, in a way that I didn’t in Ireland?

How this will play into my feelings for staying in London and the UK is open to change. It has certainly made me think harder about my position here. In an ideal world (and here is my sci-fi utopian geekery coming through) we would be able to find a sense of unity and kinship through our shared global citizenship. For everyone here on Brexit island, we need to find a way to converse and negotiate our way through this respectfully and without suspicion and vicious non-sensical politics. If we can do this, we may come out with a sense of identity we can sit more comfortably with, and I will happily label myself an amorphous polymer of an Irishman.

· Further reading to some choice quotes and beliefs from the DUP from a recent article by The Independent

Gavin O' Reilly

Lord knows I can’t afford therapy, so some self indulgent ramblings will have to do.