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Sat 26 September 2020
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In the first in a series of short documentaries exploring Brexit, identity and the future of the United Kingdom, Byline Times travelled to Northern Ireland and the Republic to uncover what Britain can learn about the dangers of a repressed English nationalism expressing itself through the UK leaving the European Union.

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That Brexit was primarily an English vote and an English expression for its repressed identity to be recognised, is the subject of a new series of films by Byline Times.

At the heart of the UK leaving the EU is a question of identity: what is the UK – in the world, and in and of itself?

With Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU in 2016, can the Union survive Brexit, or is it a colonial hangover destined to go its separate ways?

Why are some comfortable expressing their identity in plural – European and British, for instance – while others feel embarrassed to admit that they are English? And what is Englishness and can we create a new positive idea of it?

What does the rise of a fierce nationalism do to a country and what could it mean for the UK – not only in Scotland, where the First Minister is making the case for a second independence referendum to be held following Brexit, but in Northern Ireland and England and Wales too?

In the first part of The Great British Break-Up, Byline Times’ editors Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu travelled to Dublin and Belfast with film-maker Sheridan Flynn to explore these questions – and in particular: what can the UK learn from Northern Ireland’s history of The Troubles and identity conflict?

In Dublin, Byline Times met the acclaimed playwright Frank McGuinness, who grew up close to the border with Northern Ireland, feeling repressed as a gay man in a Catholic society.

“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.”

In Belfast, the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mike Nesbitt told Byline Times that the biggest threat Northern Irish unionism now faces is an English nationalism manifesting itself through Brexit – ironic because “for decades unionists have looked over our shoulders at Irish nationalists as the threat”.

“The real threat is English nationalism and these are probably the same people who allowed their sons to come over here and lay down their lives, fight the IRA and protect the Union and now I think they are ready to let go,” he said.

It was also a concern for Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister and leader of the Alliance Party Naomi Long, who told Byline Times that the Democratic Unionist Party had been foolish to trust Boris Johnson and the Conservatives.

“Brexit has, as an English nationalist project, really pulled apart the four parts of the UK,” she said. “Irish nationalists don’t want to see a border on the island of Ireland. Unionists don’t want to see a border in the Irish sea. But Brexit requires a border in one of those two places.

“Everyone was saying for months that Boris Johnson will use the DUP for as long as they’re useful, as will the ERG (European Research Group) and the hard Brexiteers, but they are not defenders of Northern Ireland, they are not Northern Ireland unionists, they don’t care one way or another what happens to us.”

In the documentary, Byline Times also speaks to Sinn Fein politician Alex Maskey about The Troubles and to the writer Malachi O’Doherty about why the United Kingdom is under threat like never before.

The team will next travel to Scotland to explore what can be learnt from its approach of creating a ‘civic nationalism’, in the second part of The Great British Break-Up.


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