Reflections on the British-Irish Association in Oxford

 A tale of two Unions: can circles be squared by a new devolution settlement?  

This was written for the blog of the Constitution Unit of University College London.

In the wake of the Brexit vote there has been much discussion about the possibility of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where there were Remain majorities in June, preserving closer relationships with the EU than the UK as a whole. The idea that Scotland and Northern Ireland could be entirely exempted from Brexit lacks credibility, but that in an increasingly devolving UK demands from Scotland and Northern Ireland for some sort of continuing relationship with the EU should be examined closely. Failure to take these suggestions seriously could have significant implications for the future of the British Union.

No one can have been surprised that fundamental political fault lines opened up again in the shock of the Brexit referendum result. As the Westminster government struggle to find a platform to stand on to trigger Article 50, in Scotland the issues are being treated with considerable caution and in Ireland with something close to despair. Viewed from Westminster, each is still a sideshow because a brutal binary choice between the continuing UK and continuing membership of the EU is one they are not ready to face. Indeed, since the referendum polling in favour of fundamental constitutional change has barely shifted.  In Scotland support for independence still scores a few notches under 50 per cent, well short of the SNP’s target of 60 per cent for calling a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, while Sinn Féin promptly called for a border poll, an Ipsos MORI opinion survey for the BBC released published in early September found 63 per cent in favour of the continuing UK, only two points below a similar survey three years ago, with a resounding 83 per cent claiming the Brexit result did not affect their opinion.

But it would be a mistake to believe that in the end the Scots and all kinds of Irish will tag along behind England’s lead. New thinking is emerging that might allow the ‘nations’ to preserve relationships with the EU which are compatible with an increasingly devolving UK that has severed its main institutional links with the EU at the centre.

Constitutionally, the argument that their Remain majorities might win Scotland and Northern Ireland straight exemptions from the overall referendum result tout court lacks credibility. The ‘reverse Greenland model’ has its attractions but the difference in scale and complexity with the British Isles makes it difficult to follow beyond the basic notion.

But could demands in both countries for their Remain majorities to qualify them for a continuing relationship with the EU be accommodated within a UK embarking on a new stage of devolution?

Irish angst, north and south 

In Ireland there is a bigger but linked question. For nationalist Ireland north and south, the EU has an emotional significance beyond the literal terms of the Lisbon Treaty and the Good Friday Agreement. EU membership became the supra-national bond that brought both parts together and provided the essential context of equality between nation states for a reconciling relationship. Brexit sets all that back. Although supporting Leave in the referendum, the DUP are entirely aware of the dangers and showed no discomfiture at being on the losing side locally.

The emerging outlines of  Article 50 terms –  limited access to the single market,  an end to the customs union, restrictions on free movement – are, to put it mildly, not easy to reconcile with bland British assurances about  a continuing open Irish border (now tellingly  qualified as ‘as open as possible’).

At the recent annual British-Irish Association conference in Oxford, there was much talk of ‘flexibility’ and ‘variable geometry’. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny tried to square the circle of continuing Irish commitment to an EU of the four freedoms and a reconciled relationship with a Brexit UK that would keep the border open and preserve free movement between these islands. For the island of Ireland, three principles of the Good Friday Agreement are to be upheld: continuing access to EU peace funding (£425 million up to 2020), free trade within the island of Ireland (in the Irish view, guaranteed for the North as well, for everybody there can opt for Irish and therefore EU citizenship anytime they like); and – just for the record – the continuing alienable right to hold referendums on Irish unity, but long fingered to sometime in the future.

The implications are more than visionary. The impact of Brexit on trading relationships if tariffs return would be extremely severe. In 2014, exports of goods and services from the UK to Ireland totalled £27.86 billion. And 55 per cent of all of Northern Ireland’s exports go to EU markets, with the Republic being its single biggest export destination.

Although they have yet to disclose their hand as they in turn await disclosure by London, the Irish are willing to contemplate acting as the conduit for continuing EU Peace and structural funding for the North. This is a plausible line as many projects already have cross-border penetration. It could take on added importance if  fears are realised that British compensation for the loss of EU funding, including CAP payments to the devolved governments, will cease after 2020.

But the fundamentals of free movement and free trade look even tougher nuts to crack. It is being quietly conceded that passports for everybody to cross the border, and customs checks digital and physical, are real possibilities. But what cannot be contemplated, it seems, is the return of customs huts and boards reading ‘HM Customs’ and ‘Custaim Stad’ across the road at the physical border. These would be a prime target for dissident republicans and would have ripple effects throughout the area. The Irish will plug the peace process for all it’s worth with the EU and the claims of Irish citizenship rights on both sides of the border with the British. The prospects of success are impossible to evaluate at the moment. The reaction to complete failure in Ireland hardly bears thinking about, however.

 Yet another settlement for Scotland?

For Scotland, similar ingenuity is being considered to soften the harsher implications of Brexit. The chance of a continuing relationship with the EU opens up when powers on the environment, competition and agriculture and fisheries return from Brussels straight to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Brexit, the argument runs, is a game changer in the independence debate. The EU safety net is removed.  While the circumstances do not favour independence, it is possible to imagine giving devolution an international personality and entering a partnership with the EU on other devolved matters as well such as health, workers’ rights, and student finance. The implications for UK governance and the devolution financial settlements would be fundamental. Future payments back from the EU would mean payments into it by the devolved governments. ‘Call it federalism if you wish’, writes Professor Jim Gallagher in the Daily Record. This is a case consistent with Gordon Brown’s recent conversion to federalism and a new financial settlement for the whole UK.

How would Westminster react?

There is no sign yet that Theresa May’s government, preoccupied with devising the main Brexit strategy, have begun to absorb these still very tentative but constitutionally significant ideas. They are unlikely to appeal to the fundamentalist Brexiteers. But they are sure to push their way to the forefront of debate when (or if) the representatives of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland take their places at the table before Article 50 is triggered. It will be a messy debate. Not all the arguments against them are pro-Brexit.

Peter Sutherland, an Irishman with unrivalled experience as a former EU commissioner and the founding head of the World Trade Organisation (and an honorary British knight), dismisses the mooted accommodations out of hand:

‘Leaving the customs union means a physical border in Ireland and the four freedoms are an indissoluble bond. It is inconceivable that separate arrangements for devolution will work.’

Sutherland’s logic leads to another test of public opinion at some stage, either by general election or a second referendum or both. Mrs May seems committed against them. There is also an element here of the Celtic tail wagging the Saxon dog that will raise the hackles of some Brexit supporting Conservatives. But the new ideas circulating in Scotland and Ireland should be developed. Failure to take them seriously could have significant implications for the long term future of the British Union too.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • billypilgrim1

    No, but they were Bible-believing Christians, so they will have been familiar with the fifth, seventh and tenth commandments.

  • billypilgrim1

    “if history has tides it also has eddies.”

    Swamps too.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    One of the great sadnesses of my life is that the dissenter tradition in the north has yoked itself to a most reactionary group of leaders, and that it will seemingly follow their lead (“not an inch”) in refusing to grow and change. As you say, “Opinion on the border has barely changed since it was set up, almost a century ago”, but for that period it has been a secure majority selfishly privileging its own narrow interests over the community as a whole. The massive voting majority which Unionism regimented to ignore Labour and Liberal thought for a hundred years with claims that any breaking of ranks would lead to Rome Rule, this is eroding yearly now.

    Both British and Irish governments “recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland” and at some point the majority of the population will express a wish to re-unify Ireland and the balance will shift against the current “opinion on the border” which is an historically situated thing. Let us hope that the majority then will be more generous than Unionism proved when it held the majority, something my own experiences of that world outside of the Unionist myopia suggest may well be so.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “I get the point that having recourse to the European Court of Human Rights is emotionally important for some nationalists.”

    And for anyone with the good moral character of our community in mind:

    Jeff’s case was filed through the European Commission on Human Rights, and through this bi-passed the very real possibility of being overruled by British Law.

    And “the Tories could take us out of the ECHR even if we stayed in the EU”………..

    Really? That’s certainly not my reading of the membership requirements of the EU, where the ECHR (European Commission on Human Rights) is intimately involved with the ECtHR (European Court of Human Rights). A great deal of the Belfast Agreement appears to pre-suppose a relationship between Ireland and Britain within the EU, and it is generally recognised in the south that possible friction will develop when Britain exits the EU, as Enda Kenny for one pointed out just after the result.

  • John Collins

    Nub of endless NI problem, on the one hand ‘the Free State wasn’t allowed to drag a lot of people of British allegiance out with it’, but on the other hand Britain were allowed to drag too many of allegiance to the Free State ‘in’ with it. This is where I feel the sabotaging of the Boundary Commission, mainly by the British side, was another grievous error, to add to quite a long list of same on their part. And yes I do agree the the CNG Government of the day in the South have culpability in the collapse of the BC as well

  • John Collins

    You make very points. I could, for some reason, not get a reply to MU above his contention that there was only 25,000 in Ulster in the early Seventeenth Century. In 1649, at the time of Cromwell’s invasion, there was 1.7 million people in Ireland as a whole. It is shard to believe there only 25,000 in All Ulster only 40 odd years earlier

  • John Collins

    Are you of that. Please explain what happened at the ill fated Canadian dinner.

  • Roger

    I’m not too sure about dinners in Canada.

    But I can tell you the ROI Act nowhere says that Ireland was becoming a republic or anything of the sort or “leaving” the Commonwealth for that matter.

    In fact it was the view of Taoiseach of the day, John A. Costello, that Ireland hadn’t been in the Commnwealth since 1936. Opposition leader de Valera supported the legislation but argued its short title was a poor choice and misleading and ought to have been ‘Description of the State Act’.

    In short it was the view of Irish leaders at the time that Ireland had been a republic for some years prior to the ROI Act legislation. There was no ‘declaration’ of a republic.

  • John Collins

    Thanks Roger. I had not heard that idea before but it seems quite valid.
    Let me return the complement as best I can be filling you in on ‘the Canadian Dinner’. In 1948 the then Taoiseach, JAC, was in Canada and attending a banquet in Ottawa. On the Table in front of him there was placed a replica of Roaring Meg, of Londonderry 1690 fame, an act which the great Leader regarded as a great slight. There was also some suggestions that he was also granted reasons to be offended in other ways, real or imagined. Thus fuelled with national patriotism and surprisingly good brandy JAC is alleged to have made the ‘Republic’ announcement off his own bat and with no reference to his cabinet colleagues in Ireland. This version of events are however contradicted by most sensible historians, but it makes for a much better yarn.

  • billypilgrim1

    That was a staggering claim by M (sic) U, wasn’t it?

    I believe it’s called Terra Nullius, a legal term beloved of imperialists. If there was no-one here, the land can’t have been stolen, can it?

  • NotNowJohnny

    I knew two people who voted for Brexit who didn’t even want the UK to leave the EU. If you add the Remain vote to the soft Brexiteers it is clear that the majority of people in the UK wish to remain in the single market. If only they would run another referendum on membership of the single market (with the four freedoms) versus whatever alternative is finally negotiated. That would surely put an end to the hard Brexiteers.

  • John Papadachi

    The problem is that if it were a tri-fold choice the Single Market option would probably be the least favoured. The EU would have won with hard Brexit 2nd.Another binary referendum is likely to lead to hard Brexit.

  • Roger

    In truth I was familiar with that but you tell it much better.

  • John Collins

    Thanks Roger. Very interesting and probably very valid interpretation, although some say that Dev would have preferred to have let sleeping dogs lie at the time, as this outright, and very public, departure from the Commonwealth did nothing for any further attempts at re-unification

  • Roger

    Dev did say in the debates that he wasn’t one for blowing trumpets. Or something to that effect. I think he had a point. The ROI legislation was given inappropriate fanfare including its very short title.

    But I don’t think any of it affected re-unification one way or the other.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree the Boundary Commission was a missed opportunity. Short-sighted of both of them. A more accurate border would have been a benefit to all of us. Interesting to speculate whether a South Armagh in the Republic would have wreaked the same level of havoc on the rest of N Ireland as the actual South Armagh did.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    A fuller explanation of the relationship between the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU:
    Much as the European Court of Human Rights may be valued symbolically by nationalists, I wonder if a big part of that is for less than praiseworthy reasons. Is it not in part because the European Court of Human Rights’ remit covers what governments do but not what paramilitaries do? Shudder to think there might be some self-interest involved …

  • grumpy oul man

    Or maybe nationalists value the ECHR because they are aware how bad things can get if a group holds power without proper checks and balances, and really don’t have the any trust in the Tory record on human rights.
    perhaps you could explain what less than praiseworthy reasons humans rights enforced by highly respected courts could be !
    Well apart from the ridiculous paramilitary allusion, especially when you consider that it is not the nationalist community where the vast majority of paramilitary’s come from.

    There are of course the Dissidents but they do not have the same cosy relationship with the two main nationalist parties as the loyalists have with the unionists.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for the Wikipedia link, MU, pretty much as I’d suggested then. Do you really think that the only actual role of the ECtHR is to let the bad boys get away with things? That’s a very “UKIP” style take on it! I know that there is a strong lobby to suggest that freeborn Englishmen (men, note) do not need a lot of Jonny Foreigners telling them what is decent behaviour, (something we all know always comes naturally to an Englishman), but perhaps Jeff Dudgeon’s case might just hint that having a higher authority to authoritatively review the failure of Britain (or its dependencies) to sometimes come up to standards of decent behaviour might not be so bad an idea. Unless you are certain, that is, that the particular local interpretation of “Britishness” should remain in its nexus of fundamentalism in the interests of “human freedom” (for the least progressive, that is).

  • MainlandUlsterman

    as I say, I think we should remain signatories and expect we will. Especially after Brexit it’s important to send out the message that we are still part of the international community and willing to be part of other shared endeavours like the ECHR.

    Sorry, Seaan, what I was correcting with that link was your sentence, “That’s certainly not my reading of the membership requirements of the EU, where the ECHR (European Commission on Human Rights) is intimately involved with the ECtHR (European Court of Human Rights).” It is actually a separate regime to the EU institutions, that was what I hoped the link explained. It’s quite possible for us to leave the EU and stay in the ECHR. Places like Russia, Ukraine, Norway, Switzerland are all signatories; and the UK was a signatory in the 1950s, long before EEC accession.

    Coming back to the original point, I asked Cu Chulainn: “Point to the sections of the GFA it [Brexit] reneges on please.”
    As the ECHR remains in place as it stands – Brexit ends our membership of the EU but does not end that – I am still waiting to be directed to the sections of the GFA that Brexit causes the UK government to “renege” on.

    I haven’t been through it with a tooth comb but I couldn’t find anything substantive. And so far no one has been able to point to anything substantive in the GFA that hinges on EU membership. I would be interested to see if anyone has anything. Because otherwise, this whole furore begs serious questions of how the SDLP – and some in Irish politics in the south – has played this so far. Sloppy stuff and scaremongering too. Looks rather like the nationalist public is being misled by some nationalist politicians, perhaps in an attempt to revive the sense of threat and victimhood on which they thrive. Whipping up bogus fears like this is irresponsible, cheap politics and not in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m not criticising what the European Court of Human Rights did, though some of its judgments have lacked a proper appreciation of the nature of anti-terrorist policing. I’m pointing out that because it was a place to bring a case against the authorities but not against terrorists, it was seen as useful by those who wanted to focus on state wrongdoing and who were disproportionately less fussed about the 90+ per cent of the Troubles that was the terrorists themselves. Unfortunately, that included some who weren’t actually terror supporters, but who still wanted to portray the Troubles purely in terms of state-on-nationalist actions.

    I should add, I don’t think we should quit the ECHR. And I do think it will be hard for Theresa May to get it through even if she were bent on it. There are enough Tories who would oppose that that it would be very hard to get through parliament. Plus, it’s really a side issue compared to Brexit – the NI complications are another reason not to do it – I just can’t see the Tories actually doing that. Sounding off about the ECHR is popular with the Tory right, so May may make noises in that direction to show she’s one of them. Actually coming out though is another thing entirely. Legitimate for people here to raise it as a big concern with implications for the GFA – but it is a different issue to Brexit itself. We’ll be still in the ECHR regime after Brexit.

  • grumpy oul man

    so when you said Nationalists you where talking about a few people (still having difficulty be precise in your language), and of course those who are victims of state wrongdoing are not entitled to Justice!
    After all the state has not exactly been forthcoming about its terrorist activities. but i guess to some on this site a innocent person murdered by the state or one of its agents is not as important as someone killed by themmuns.
    as someone who had a friend killed by a state agent (actually quite a few state agents, the Mount Vernon section of British Intelligence) i take offense in your attempt to connect my friends family with propaganda activities.

    Your 90% figure does not seem to take into consideration the vast amount of state involvement in terrorism.
    Of course i can understand why some unionists are opposed to any sort of human rights agenda, the NI state was devoid of those rights and designed by unionists to deny human and civil rights to a large part of the community and sure haven’t we seen on this very site accusations that the Civil rights movement here was responsible for the troubles by those very people who now have issues with the ECHR.
    Indeed we seen coordinated attacks by unionists on peaceful civil rights marchers, i think what we have here is a leopard refusing to change its spots.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As we all know, what is required internationally and the popular perception of things are two entirely different things. Perhaps the greatest bête noire of Eurosceptics after emigration has been the ECtHR itself, and its judgements. Much of the demand to assert full sovereignty appears to have drawn on a discomfort with the judgements of the ECtHR, framed ambiguously as some part of the European package.

    The Belfast Agreement is full of ambiguities and evasions. This was of course something of a necessity in preparing any document that two political camps utterly opposed to one another would need to sign. But on the issue of sovereignty, for one thing, it has leant heavily on the habits of partially surrendered sovereignty which the EU has developed in all its members. The exit vote, while in part a protest vote, has also been a response to the sovereignty ambiguities we have all grown accustomed to over the last forty years. We have disagreed over the extent of joint sovereignty in NI in the past, but one thing is very certain. any polity, such as NI, where it has been accepted that it is “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments” has relinquished a substantial part of its sovereignty. This could be glossed over, along side other issues in the Belfast Agreement, as long as it was under the blanket of joint EU membership, but with a potential assertion full British sovereignty, it is to say the very least becoming stretched. You have only to begin to think just how the co-operative sections of the Agreement will need to be re-imagined by two polities moving away from “ever closer union” to see how much the Agreement is suffused by the understanding that both partners are relying on joint EU membership for it to work. This is pragmatic politics, not “scaremongering” as you suggest, and the fears are very far from “bogus”.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    MU is not alone in this. Most Unionist posters have developed a tendency to use the term nationalists very broadly as a portmanteau term where the SDLP (for example) gets amorphously conflated with the actions of PIRA during the troubles. Both are certainly nationalist, but any constitutionalist nationalism and violent nationalist separatism, while entirely different things to most people, have habitually been seen as one single “nationalist” thing by Unionism. Historically, Unionists have similarly conflated the old IPP of Home Rule days with the Fenians, the IRB and Griffith’s Sinn Féin as their own demands would have been eroded by any recognition that The really ironic thing is that NICRA was composed of a broad section of people from across the entire political spectrum, including moderate Unionism, and for anyone involved the charge that it was a nationalist front is simply so absurd as to be incredible. Of course this is a broad popular perception, and a reasonable number of Unionist politicians can perhaps see beyond this, if only for practical purposes of everyday political exchange at Stormont and Westminster, so I’m still shocked to find any intelligent Unionist defaulting to the generalised version in their comments.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I didn’t say all fears about Brexit were bogus – I’m a Remainer – I said the assertion that Brexit breaches the GFA is bogus.

    What you miss is that nationalists in NI still have the right to hold Irish passports. One interesting question is whether that confers EU citizenship on them, I suspect it does. They can enjoy similar rights to other EU citizens living in non-EU countries.

    It is a mess of course, I’m not going to try and sell Brexit to you, it was an act of utter idiocy in my view. And I do understand the concern from those in the UK who identify themselves more with the Dublin government, or indeed the French government or Spanish or Latvian government, than the UK’s and feel vulnerable just now. But I think this “reneging on the GFA” stuff is pretty irresponsible trouble-making – people ought to be very careful about talking in those terms, especially when Brexit does not per se affect that treaty itself. I agree it’s important to reassure people around it. But some humility too please from Irish nationalists in NI – they don’t have nor should they have, or any group anywhere of that size, a veto or a local carve out on big UK-wide national decisions like Brexit, involving all 65 million of us. They may not want NI to be in the UK, but they are a minority on that within Northern Ireland – and quite a small minority at that. Political nationalism in NI, to me, rarely accepts with circumspection and humility the popularity within NI of NI’s UK status. This is another example of them not getting it and over-estimating the importance of united Ireland-ist politics. We’ll make it work and they are part of that conversation, but the prima donna flouncing and victim-playing is rather annoying and unhelpful, if not unfamiliar.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Delighted to be in complete agreement with you on the exit vote MU (I simply cannot bring myself to use “Brexit”, just too “The Sun” for me!)

    I’m afraid we’ll still have to disagree about what you describe as ” the popularity within NI of NI’s UK status”, as something that could stand without a great deal of serious qualification. I have seldom passed a week without hearing some damning criticism of the UK and its values from amongst local people within Unionism whom I know, not to mention my Unionist family members. Of course I’ve met people with a strongly stated commitment to Britain, but few without such strong reservations over what most people consider to be the norms in modern Britain as to bring into question anything beyond pure contingency, the friendship of the small weedy boy with the big bruser who will protect him from getting a “beating” from the Dáil. This kind of “popularity” is a very insecure foundation to build on and I’ve long been all too aware of how very little “respect” or “popularity” NI can count on from most of those I’d know in the UK, certainly from those close to power at Westminster who fully recognise the very contingent nature of much of the Unionist “commitment” to Britain. I know you have a different experience, but I can only write as I find things.

    The Belfast Agreement itself is simply too reliant on an assumed common EU membership to not show signs of serious strain once the exit from the Eu is negotiated, unless of course such an exit simply shadows Norway (for example) and Britain agrees pretty much to follow EU directives but without formal membership. There are certainly ways that the full implications of exit on the Belfast Agreement can be averted of course, just as the implications of the Agreement itself have been fogged to avoid creating opposition within Unionism before it was even voted over.

    I’d imagine that the tacit “joint sovereignty ” issues over section vi of Part 1 of “Constitutional Issues” in the Agreement means that any Irish passport holder in the North is “Irish” and continues to be a citizen of a state which is a member of the EU, but as they are living in a state which potentially will not continue to be within the EU, the liminal status which this clause implies is seriously in question. You have suggested in the past that such people currently hold Irish passports as any Irishman living in Yorkshire might, as aliens in another national polity, but section vi implies the “birthright” to be recognised (by both Governments) as an Irish Citizen and to my thinking “as a birthright” for someone born in, and living in a place, means something which is significantly different from such “alien” status. This liminal ambiguity within the clause has depended on the dual nature of our status as either British or Irish citizens, and as citizens of these two states living together as members of the EU. This is simply not going to be an option in the future.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you maybe see it differently because you see ‘Britain’ as somewhere else, in the way Eurosceptics portrayed the EU as somewhere else – in both cases missing the point we are part of it. European-ness comes from us, where we are, it doesn’t just emanate from Brussels; and likewise Britishness comes from us, where we are, it doesn’t just emanate from London. If you don’t have a subsidiarised model of Britishness, then you will be forever baffled by the people of Northern Ireland, in my view.

    The Irish citizenship thing is surely an important thing for nationalists and Brexit doesn’t affect that. Don’t Irish citizens in NI, who are also UK citizens, have the best of both worlds?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I actually am perfectly at home in Britain, have lived there and had a most interesting film career there, for about thirty years. I have no idea what your accent is like, but in my own experience even now the average Briton would have some difficulty identifying me as other than a rather “posh” Englishman (from my Anglo-Irish accent, noticeably different to an Etonian for example, but not to most middle class English), so I really don’t think of Britain as “other”, certainly not in the way that I’ve found most British people I meet think of Ireland, north and south both, as quite “other”.

    Certainly identity is, in part, how one defines ones self, but it is also a matter of many other important factors. The culture and language one has inherited from one upbringing informs who one believes the self to be, and as any one person is simply one unitary part of a community where give and take must determine things, who that community believes you to be must seriously be taken into account in how you may interchange with them. Your existential definition of Britishness may be a final determinant for your own personal self expression, but it seems to me you are conflating the purely personal aspect of identity with the equally significant social identity construct, which must inevitably answer to who or what others think you to be. If one understands that there is a collective meaning to social identity, something which is constricted socially is both part of the personal construct, and in many ways must inevitably transcend it, then while you are perfectly correct in claiming that identity “comes from us”, this “us” will inevitably mean very different things across Britain, and to speak of some collective “Britishness” being concurrent with the personal identification you are making simply cannot be seriously sustained. Put simply, claiming Britishness where others qualify that claim by evaluating it to any degree negatively against their own claim means that such a claim is not uncontested to say the least. This is what I’m referring to above, where most English people I would meet throughout my career in England would certainly think of anyone with a recognisable Northern Irish accent as “other”, something they would perhaps be ready to discuss with me as I seemed so very “English” to them, and not at all other. Your interpretation of identity is only one of many possible interpretation markers, and a most contested one at that where many factors such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, generation, locality may all contribute to interpretations and evaluations of degrees of “Britishness” for others who claim the same identity.

    I’m not in any way “baffled by the people of Northern Ireland” but their frequent hostility to any aspect of Britishness that is different to their own perception of their particular interpretation of a British identity certainly does not suggest the community of interest you appear to imagine exists simply of the back of personal self-labelling!!!