The dictionary defines the term Identity "as the fact of being who or what a person is."
The dictionary defines that term, but it doesn’t mention the unique affinity that identity has in the North of Ireland - it cuts across religion, political expression and national identity, leaving all citizens of- and around- the region vulnerable.
The Good Friday Agreement is widely championed as a beacon of hope, a reminder that peace is possible in even the least likely of places. It marked the beginning of a process of reconciliation after decades of violence and trauma. The Agreement required the interventions of the Irish, British and American governments in order to convince the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s regional political parties to take a profound leap of faith. The people of Ireland, North and South voted overwhelmingly for the promises on its pages in 1998. Born out of that Agreement was a peace accord founded on the principles of equality and mutual respect, with an onus on the co-guarantors to protect and enshrine these foundations into domestic policy and practice. A complex combination of legislation, reform and good will has been essential to the creation of newly formed institutions.
The peace process afforded us the great privilege to choose our nationality and put us in a unique position within the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement sought to protect the delicate identity balance that exists in this region, removing it as a source of conflict. I did not quite understand the intricacies or complexities around this right until beginning the process of applying for my US husband’s immigration status within the UK. We took a legal challenge against the British Home Office after they declared me British and denied my husbands application. It’s a case that took immeasurable effort and half-a-decade before securing substantive changes to domestic UK law and eventually, reaffirming the identity and citizenship provisions that we had sought to protect. For me identity is personal, I’m an Irish citizen, not by choice, not from a decision but because my Irishness forms an integral part of who I am. In choosing to defend the right to be accepted as Irish under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement I became acutely aware of the peristsent barriers to both reconciliation and the full realisation of our rights as Irish citizens.
Two decades removed from the Good Friday Agreement, our politics often feels more polarised than ever before, and it is that polarisation which drives so many of our young people away to places unencumbered with these divisions. Those who stay are forced to endure an oftentimes toxic political environment, which for many inevitably culminates in disengagement from politics entirely. And yet, there remains hope.
The Good Friday Agreement laid the groundwork for a softening of hard identity lines in Northern Ireland, today the majority of people identify as neither unionist or nationalist, the once binary descriptors of citizens in the North. Yet despite this progress the people of Northern Ireland are often still referred to as one or the other. The people of the Republic Ireland aren’t referred to by their political or religious affiliations, but those of us half-an-hour up the road all-to-often are.
This localised practice is a blockade to true reconciliation, and it is a habit that both the Irish and British governments are guilty of helping to perpetuate. We are citizens first and foremost – what belief system we may or may not hold should never be seen as our only defining feature with which to brand us for political gain, especially in a region with such a turbulent history with weaponised ideology.
Brexit has irreconcilably altered identity politics in Northern Ireland with thousands of citizens at an increasing rate claiming their birth right to Irish citizenship. As more and more citizens in the North join the Irish nation it is imperative that we establish what that citizenship entails.
As an Irish person residing in the North of Ireland, I have, at times, found myself feeling as if I were on the outside looking in. I have no right to political participation in my home nation- a principal considered by many to be an integral part of citizenship. I’ve watched, bursting with pride, as Irish citizens returned home to vote for the monumental referendums in 2015 and 2018, dedicated not only to their country, but to democracy, and have longed to be a part of that movement. While still maintaining strong cultural roots, Ireland has in recent years strived to shed that which has long been recognized as a conservative and restrictive shroud, at long last allowing itself to become powerfully reimagined as a progressive society. However, the country continues to be an outlier on the world stage when it comes to enfranchising their citizens abroad.
We are, at present, in the midst of a crisis like no other – a global pandemic which has transformed the way many of us live our lives and has required us to curtail hard-fought civil liberties and societal norms as we all collectively work to save lives- ironically- by staying apart. This viral outbreak has brought about a kind of communal pause from the fast-paced lifestyle to-which so many of us have become accustomed. This period has served as a poignant reminder of what matters most to us all- our family, our friends, our communities. All of us have been brought together in shared grief and solidarity, despite being pulled apart. Our collective response to this emergency has been a display of strength, the power of humanity, and our will as a people.
The Irish President represents the Irish nation and serves as a symbol of Irish culture and tradition. The office of the President recognises all Irish citizens as equals and represents the Irish people on the world stage and yet those of us half an hour up the road, on the island of Ireland can cast no vote for our President. As we emerge collectively from this crisis and begin to carve out a new normal, it's my hope that we can carve out a more inclusive concept of what it means to be Irish outside the State.