“We want to be British, we don’t want to be European”
This phrase was uttered by an interviewee in Jeremy Paxman’s BBC documentary about the EU which was broadcast about a month before the referendum. It has stuck with me ever since as I think it is central to understanding the outcome of the vote.
Identity is a very personal and complex issue. I personally believe that everyone should be free to choose their own identity rather than having one thrust upon them. I also think that people should be allowed to have more than one identity and not be pigeonholed because of a single defining characteristic. All of the above is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that I grew up in Northern Ireland where the issue of identity is a very thorny one, to say the least.
The Good Friday Agreement, the historic pact which secured peace in Northern Ireland in 1998, has a wonderful passage about national identity. It states:
“the people of Northern Ireland can choose to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both”
I know many Northern Irish people from both sides of the sectarian divide who indeed choose to identify themselves as both. I am one of these people and always say I have a British head but an Irish heart. This dual identity perhaps also makes Northern Irish people more willing to call themselves Europeans than our English cousins.
Another factor could be age. The person interviewed on the Paxman generation was in their 70s and had lived through the aftermath of the Second World War. This was a time when Europe was deeply divided and there was a strong suspicion of anyone of foreign extraction. Holding on to your national identity was vitally important. The younger generation live in a time of increased mobility, intercultural marriages, bilingual children, Erasmus programs and low-cost flights. All of these factors make younger people more likely to embrace their European identity.
In conclusion, we are all more than just one thing. For example, I am proud to say I am Irish, British, European, a linguist, a member of the LGBT community and, as of 25th June 2016, the founder of a wonderful pro-EU community known as “48 and Beyond.” Let’s all embrace our different identities and the potential contradictions they may cause instead of desperately clinging on to just one of them.