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Brexit and the Fracturing of British Identity: A Warning From Ireland

Hardeep Matharu speaks to acclaimed playwright Frank McGuinness about where the nationalist Brexit project being trumpeted by Boris Johnson could end up

Frank McGuinness. Photo: Hardeep Matharu

Brexit & the Fracturing of British IdentityA Warning from Ireland

Hardeep Matharu speaks to acclaimed playwright Frank McGuinness about where the nationalist Brexit project being trumpeted by Boris Johnson could end up

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Brexiters have learnt nothing about how divisions around identity can tear a society apart. They seem happy to ignore the realities of how this played out to devastating effect in Northern Ireland. And they are peddling a “dangerous class-driven myth of what it is to be Britain” which will do “untold damage” to the UK. These are the fears of one of Ireland’s most renowned writers.

The poet and playwright Frank McGuinness was born in the Republic of Ireland, close to the border, and moved to Dublin in the south when he was 18.

In an interview with Byline Times, he said he is frightened about the forces Brexit – “an absolute catastrophe” – could unleash in the United Kingdom because he remembers all too well the “daily dose of terrifying violence” caused by a divisive identity war in Northern Ireland, which was just 10 miles away from where he was brought up in Buncrana, County Donegal.

“If ever there was a country that learnt what disunity could do to itself, Ireland is that country, Ireland north and south,” he said. “And now, here are our neighbours – who I have no hesitation in calling our beloved neighbours – about to inflict this state on themselves and about to do it in the name of national pride or in the name of regenerating themselves.”

The 66-year-old who was in his mid-teens when The Troubles began, believes Brexit is being championed by a narrow sect representing “a class-driven, class-ridden occupation of what it is to be Britain”.

“They are peddling a myth and a dangerous myth – and dangerous myths have caused untold damage to my country and it’s going to cause untold damage to Britain,” he added. “I certainly do not believe that the United Kingdom has a glorious future.”

Instead of reassuring him, McGuinness said that the Good Friday Agreement left him with a “profound foreboding” – because, despite it, it was difficult to forget how close the “horror of the past” had been, which left “no sense of security or a sense that this is over”.

That those campaigning for Brexit, particularly figures in the Conservative Party, showed a complete disregard of this history betrays a narcissism he brands “terrifying”.

“There was a complete absence of any acknowledgement that here was a possibility of the war [in Northern Ireland], and it was a war, starting again by reason of not knowing what you’re doing,” he said. “They didn’t know their country. That’s what I feel about the Brexiteers. The supposedly pro-UK party [the Conservative and Unionist Party] was profoundly ignorant of its own country and the consequences of profound ignorance is always and ever profound grief.”

Dangerous Simplistic Identities

McGuinness remembers the border of his youth, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as a “symbol of hate”.   

The issue of identity, which he explores poignantly in works such as Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, has always been a prominent, challenging part of his life – unsurprising given that he is a gay man who grew up in a repressive, religiously-dominated Republic and lived very close to the border with Northern Ireland where The Troubles were unfolding.

He grew up in a “shadow of not really belonging to where I was from”.

This “contributed to a profound sense of unease and then certainty, that you had to be very sure of where you are coming from and what you are arguing” – an approach to life which was not conducive to developing a dialogue with others who have different ideas. “You got to know your barriers, you got to know the terms of your fighting talk, but the reality was you had to be in the battle and that wasn’t easy,” he explained.

Did he feel that people were trying to impose an identity on him that he didn’t relate to – for their own ends?

“One of the great difficulties in possessing a challenging identity is that it gives opportunity for others to speak for you, and many of the people who tried to do that I profoundly disagreed with,” McGuinness told Byline Times. “I felt a sense of ‘well you’re not quite right in making the claims that you are making’, whatever side of the political divide you’re on, for yourself or for myself.”

One of the big problems around identity – which Brexit has arguably exposed – is the desire for simple labels and affiliations, which save people having to do the harder work of finding out who they actually are.

“I didn’t believe in the simplicities that I was supposed to have inherited or the simplicities that these people were fighting for,” McGuinness said. “I always saw where I came from and my identity as something far more complex and nuanced and shaded.”

For him, Protestant identity, for example, is not about “sticking a banner around your neck and marching on The Twelfth. There are far more profound metaphysical and constitutional implications to that cultural identity”.

Why do so many look for these simplistic identities?

“There’s a great comfort in having an easily identifiable definition of who you are and part of that great comfort is it’s quite easy to target who you’re not and turn your dislike or hatred or you violence against them,” he said. “I think that is very attractive because it gives a short-term solution to what might be darkly troubling you at a deeper level. 

“These facile identifications and this facile talk about identity are basically agendas for not confronting what you are and who you are what’s truly happening to you.”

Giving an example of this from his personal life, McGuinness said he acknowledges that he can never have a “balanced reaction to the Catholic Church” because of his “facile response” to the repression he feels he endured at its hands for being gay.

“There’s a degree of comfort in fighting against those who stopped me from being who I am and a comfort in disliking them intensely… It’s that lack of forgiveness which allows me to have a facile response to what the Catholic Church sets out to do in every arena. I’m wrong to have that but it’s comforting to know that that’s what I’ve always done and will probably always continue to do”.

When McGuinness moved across the country to attend University College Dublin – where he is now a professor of creative writing – he says he finally had enough “distance” from the identity war ripping the island of Ireland apart and he was able to see the ludicrous nature of some of the claims on identity being made. He was repulsed by the extremism on both sides, he said.

Does the UK have any hope of emerging from Brexit unscathed?

McGuinness’ favourite city in the world is in the very heart of it – London. “It provides a model of how to live together,” he believes.

Only time will tell whether the capital can act like a lighthouse in the years ahead or merely stand alone as a fading beacon as Britain leaves the EU and English nationalism is made to confront its essence.

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