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

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Newcastle Law School


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.

Planned Impact

There are four main categories of beneficiary; communities, civil society, policymakers and the public. This project generates societal impacts across short, medium, and long terms through a variety of dissemination and engagement methods. The performance of Post Brexit identities will have a significant impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland. At the core of this project is therefore the production of materials of direct use and benefit to those whose performances will be reconstituted Post-Brexit. Core features of this activity include our innovative use of legal participant action research and partnerships with leading creative collective Roots and Wings and prominent civil society coalition the Human Rights Consortium. Working with these groups invests them in the broad dissemination of our outcomes and ensures that the materials delivering our findings are orientated towards the needs of communities and civil society.

Communities: Post Brexit, individuals will be required to perform certain administrative identities to ensure continued access to citizenship and rights in Northern Ireland (and across the UK). The co-production of animations and briefing documents with Roots and Wings and the Human Rights Consortium will ensure that these materials are useful and relevant to the ends users.

Civil Society: The Human Rights Consortium as a civil society coalition will act a bridge between the project and civil society in Northern Ireland. Through existing work on Brexit and Northern Ireland the project team has forged a range of contacts in Northern Ireland with whom we can discuss and disseminate our work (including completing commissioned work for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission). We envisage these groups making use of our briefings and animations as a direct resource in their own work with individuals and groups affected by Brexit. Our existing materials have been used in these ways and we have developed the experience necessary to create effective, informative and accessible documents on legal developments.

Policy Makers: The investigatory team has built a significant network of contacts in political parties, civil servants and governments in the UK and Ireland. We will use these existing links to engage other policy stakeholders and to ensure that our Policy Papers and Briefing Documents reach their intended audience. The dissemination of these materials will be coordinated to ensure the maximum reach across the political spectrum. Activities specifically aimed at policymakers will include providing evidence to parliamentary committees (in Westminster, Dublin, Brussels and the devolved administrations), and the production of specifically targeted briefings and commentaries which are tied to particularly negotiation topics, the withdrawal agreement and subsequent negotiations towards a trade agreement as they arise and are relevant to Northern Ireland.

Public: We will prepare a number of OpEds and blogs, using contacts already developed in our Brexit and Northern Ireland work, which will be widely distributed using the Governance after Brexit online presence and our own project website and twitter feed. These activities, and our commitment to open access research, will make our research outcomes widely available and accessible.

The project team is highly experienced. Our research has already had significant societal impacts, being presented on BBC TV and radio, Channel 4, RTE TV, and in multiple UK, Irish and international newspapers. Our material has been relied upon in Westminster, in Dáil Éireann, in meetings with very senior politicians working on Brexit, and has been used extensively by civil society. We have undertaken consultancy for statutory human rights bodies, prepared an Open Access book on Brexit and Northern Ireland directed at a lay audience (Policy Press, August 2018), and have pioneered the use of innovative commentaries on Brexit's dense legal texts.


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