In our latest Girl in Luxembourg column, Christelle McKillen examines her identity - and the spanner in the works that Brexit has thrown in.
I come from a place variously described as a country, province or region – depending on your political persuasion, but to most people it’s known as ‘Northern Ireland’. A popular nickname over the years has been ‘our wee country’ which is endearing to some and offensive to others - in whichever way you want to call it, it is an area of land divided into six counties with a population of around 1.8 million, in population only 2.9 percent of the whole UK.
Northern Ireland is a specific place to come from, in the sense that when you go to mainland Britain you are considered Irish and when you go to the Republic of Ireland you are a ‘Nordie’.* We have a very much unique, if somewhat blurred, identity, and now a unique position in Europe with the dawn of Brexit.
Having never left Northern Ireland for an extended period of time until I was 21 years of age, moving ‘to the continent’ was a massive culture shock. Whilst no one would ever associate Northern Irish people with terms like ‘exotic’, on the student scene of Florence, Italy my harsh accent was somewhat of a novelty, my newfound friends marvelled at how I pronounced the word ‘mirror’ and ‘shower’ (it has softened considerably since). To me at that age, NI was the centre of my universe and I was surprised to discover how little people knew about it, about our history, and about how life is organised into more or less two different communities. Even the most basic fact that as a resident of Northern Ireland, I am automatically entitled to both an Irish and British passport as a dual-citizen seemed surprising to many.
Brexit ‘put us on the map’ so to speak. Not since the height of The Troubles has Northern Ireland been thrust onto the world stage as much as it has been over the past two years. I have lost count of the amount of times people in Luxembourg have asked me ‘so what actually is the Irish backstop’?
Brexit jargon has made it into our everyday lives without anyone really stopping to consider the meaning behind it, whilst London and the House of Commons appear on our TV screens more often than not, the child of divorce that is Northern Ireland is usually overlooked.
Born into a Catholic family in 1989 in a still deeply divided society, 9 years before the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed, I grew up attending school based on my religion which was and still is completely normal. Learning that certain areas, pubs, or hotels were for Protestants and not for Catholics (or vice versa) was also just standard – second nature. Learning how to tell if someone is Catholic or Protestant based on their first and/or last name and how they pronounce the letter ‘H’, what kind of sports they play etc. - these are all little ‘tricks’ that would sound bizarre to anyone not brought up in that environment. The education system in Northern Ireland is still predominantly divided along Catholic and Protestant lines, and in such a case there is little room for mixing socially. When you go to university usually in the ‘capital’ that is Belfast, there are also certain areas in the city where Catholics live and certain areas for Protestants. After 18 years of more or less only socialising in your own community it is somewhat difficult to integrate with ‘the other side of the house’, as is the colloquial term.
Since leaving several years ago I have studied and/or worked in several European countries. People always ask, ‘So what exactly is that whole Catholic and Protestant thing about, I mean it’s practically the same, you are both Christian?’ I try to explain it has nothing really to do with religion, it is a political and cultural divide enshrined in our history and even in our modern-day education system and society.
For me, leaving on Erasmus for that one year literally changed my entire worldview and I can’t overestimate the impact it had. When I returned back home, I seen things in a whole different light, I resented how deeply entrenched our prejudices were. I hated and still hate the fact that due to extreme policies from hardline unionist parties, things like abortion and gay marriage are STILL illegal in Northern Ireland today.
For me, being a European citizen - moving/studying/working freely within European countries - is absolutely integral to my identity and so when Brexit was announced more than two years ago ( I was living in Brussels at the time) I felt utterly devastated. Northern Ireland coming out from the shadow of the Troubles into a liberal, open and ultimately European society was being taken away from us, despite the fact we voted to remain. I don’t know if I ever would have ‘felt European’ if it wasn’t for the Erasmus programme which gave me my first taste of living in mainland Europe. Now in Luxembourg eight years later, I take it entirely for granted the fact we can be in any one of five different countries in an hour or so and that we have three official languages (even if I can’t speak any of them very well).
The British Isles are certainly not a harmonious utopia - England and Northern Ireland are vastly disconnected both politically and culturally, despite belonging to the ‘same country’. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that when I travel to mainland England and attempt to pay for something with Northern Irish Sterling (yes GBP) the assistant will almost always examine the note carefully, ask what it is or just won’t accept it at all. It is also very much evident when English tourists in Ireland don’t know when they are in the North or the Republic and so produce both euros and sterling in bars/restaurants and then ask, “which country am I in?”
One only has to read the comments section of any Brexit related article in the UK media to get a feel of the current atmosphere, with comments like “What has NI ever done for England apart from built a ship that sank?” It’s fair to say we are not in it together.
The cultural and political gulf between the British Isles has never been wider and forcing that gulf into the island of Ireland once again, by not only separating people as Catholics/Protestants, Nationalists/Unionists, but now as EU and non-EU risks to undo any unifying progress that has been made since 1998.
Ireland is now averaging a record 3,000 passport applications per day this year, as people wake up to the potential disastrous impact of Brexit and because many people, young people especially, no longer identify with this new nationalistic Britain. What the future holds for the UK is anyone’s guess, but the feeling, at least in Northern Ireland is that irreparable damage has been done regardless of the outcome now.
As an Irish citizen, a British Citizen, and a Luxembourg resident – I feel a bit pulled in every direction. Arguably what Brexit has achieved in perhaps uniting the 27 other countries of the EU against the chaotic shambles that is the UK and thereby deterring them from ever trying to follow the same route, it has lost in terms of protecting peace and prosperity in an otherwise overlooked region.
For now, we wait…
* Nordie: An Irish Slang term that people from the Republic of Ireland use for someone from Northern Ireland and/or Ulster.
Christelle McKillen works in communications for RTL Group and in her spare time writes about expat life, like many a millennial she considers herself a budding Instagram aficionado @girlinluxembourg