Performing Identities: Post-Brexit Northern Ireland and the reshaping of 21st-Century Governance.

The Performing Identities project is being funded by the ESRC Governance After Brexit grant scheme. The project team will spend at least 16 months working on the a set of questions about the effects of Brexit on identity in Northern Ireland, along a new research assistant (Megan Armstrong) and in collaboration with Roots and Wings and the Human Rights Consortium.

In the Performing Identities project we investigate how identities in Northern Ireland will adapt to the profound changes in citizenship status and governance arrangements imposed by Brexit (and how they are, in turn, reshaping those arrangements). Brexit opens another chapter in the complicated constitutional and political situation in Northern Ireland. Since its creation in 1921 Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom has been unique. Through thirty years of conflict up to 1998 the people of Northern Ireland found themselves in an invidious position where cultural identity became bound up with citizenship, human rights and representation.

Northern Ireland has therefore long experienced unorthodox governance arrangements, but the outline Withdrawal Agreement points towards it becoming an increasingly radical constitutional space. Although Northern Ireland will remain within the UK post Brexit, the consequences of regulatory alignment will be such that for many purposes it could effectively remain an EU territory. The outline Withdrawal Agreement also holds the potential to radically reshape identity in Northern Ireland. It makes provision for as many as nine different categories of rights holder and although it formally preserves the right of choice of identity, it stands to incentivise the holding of an Irish Passport (as a result of the retained EU citizenship rights thereby provided).

The Withdrawal Agreement claims to align with the requirements of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, but it reshapes the ability of the people of Northern Ireland to choose their identity as British or Irish (Strand 1), alters the functioning of North-South Bodies (Strand 2) and stands to change relationship between the UK and Ireland (Strand 3). We examine how the efforts of the Withdrawal Agreement to preserve the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement end up reshaping the day-to-day functioning of its core ideas. Not all of these changes are necessarily negative; the advantages provided under the Withdrawal Agreement to EU citizens within Northern Ireland could ultimately help to dilute some of the persistent toxicity around identity (potentially leading more people who would self-identify as British to take Irish passports).

Our aim is to establish the agency of NI’s population in Brexit. We explore how EU, UK and Irish citizenship will be reshaped by their interactions with these new arrangements in the lead up to Brexit and in its early phases. The reclassification of legal categories of rights holder as part of Brexit will affect connected personal identities. Some people will be required to perform new identities to achieve classification as a rights holder (such as undertaking economic activity, becoming a dual national, marrying or entering a civil partnership). The enforcement of some nine legal categories of rights holder, upon which one’s administrative identity hinges, will be devolved to employers, landlords and NHS administrators, creating difficulties for individuals who fall into unfamiliar categories. The uncertainty surrounding this process is already skewing underlying identities. To understand the impact of these changes we will engage in participant action research, working directly with a range of affected individuals in Northern Ireland and drawing upon their experiences to shape our research. 

Over the course of the 16 months of this project the new legal-political landscape of post-Brexit Northern Ireland will emerge. The project both assesses these changes and works to inform the people of Northern Ireland of their options and challenges that will lie ahead. It will also inform policy makers and civil society of the new landscape in which they operate. Through our intense focus on the case study of Northern Ireland we will come to better understand modern governance in the UK, Ireland and the EU and what Brexit means for local, devolved, national and European governance.

For more, click here.