The United Kingdom’s (UK) “Brexit” referendum on 23 June 2016 has raised in Northern Ireland the expectation of transformative social, political and economic change, including a return to the open hostilities that marked the region from 1969 to 1998. This chapter, based on ethnographic research in the Northern Ireland borderlands, examines new and old nationalisms in the region that have in some ways been a reaction to the crisis that has befallen the British Isles, including the Republic of Ireland. These nationalisms also reflect the nationalist conflict that has plagued Northern Ireland since it was set up as a distinct political entity within the UK in 1921. The old and new nationalist rhetoric and actions that are the main focus of this chapter are in large part responses to the anxieties and opportunities that Brexit represents to members of the Irish Nationalist community in Northern Ireland. These Irish Nationalists fear a return of a “hard border” as a result of Brexit, which would subvert 20 years of peace, reconciliation and cross-border economic and political development. Nationalism also figures prominently in Unionist political responses to Brexit, where, in the borderlands, British Loyalists nominally support Brexit, even though many worry about the economic devastation it might cause to what is still a region dependent on agriculture.
- Northern Ireland
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The two main communities (Coulter 1999) in Northern Ireland are usually identified as the Irish Nationalists and the British Unionists. The former group identifies mostly with the Roman Catholic Church and faith, the latter with various forms of Protestantism. Those Irish Nationalists who have adopted more radical strategies, including for some violent means, to achieve the political and cultural unity of the Irish nation, which would involve the dissolution of Northern Ireland so that its territory and people might be integrated within an Irish national state, are known as Republicans. British Unionists seek to retain Northern Ireland as a constituent region of the UK , and include a subset of Loyalists, those fiercely loyal to the British crown and way of life. In this chapter, I use the term “Nationalist” to refer to the minority community of Irish Nationalists in Northern Ireland, while “nationalists” refers to those people of all political affinities who display particular support for their nation and/or nation-state. Thus, Unionists are decidedly nationalist but not Nationalist.
This chapter is based on approximately 28 interviews I conducted, in semi-structured and conversational environments, with local and Northern Ireland government elected representatives, party officers, activists and supporters, of Sinn Féin (23) and the Democratic Unionist Party (5). This research relied on contacts and cooperation I had received in previous research projects in these borderlands. In that research, I examined the changing dimensions of local and European identity as they related to the transformation of the Northern Ireland border due to European integration (see, e.g., Wilson 1993, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2010).
The main site of my previous ethnographic research on European funding (Wilson 2007) is now the principal site for my current research. Whitehill (a pseudonym), is a village just a few kilometers from the international border, midway between the administrative hub of the region in Newry, site of one of the two local government District Councils that is part of my current study, and Crossmaglen, the market town and informal capital of Republican South Armagh. Whitehill is approximately 12 miles from each town, and 45 minutes by car from Belfast. These three sites are known for their remarkable economic development initiatives and achievements since the BGFA of 1998, but also for their strong support of the Republican movement.
This was apparent to me in my research trips to the border region over the last three summers, but it also was confirmed in discussions I had with colleagues in the Queens University of Belfast where I have a continuing appointment as a visiting professor. Queens University has in fact turned into the global center of excellence in regard to all things Brexit.
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Wilson, T.M. (2019). Old and New Nationalisms in the Brexit Borderlands of Northern Ireland. In: Donahue, K., Heck, P. (eds) Cycles of Hatred and Rage. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14416-6_2
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