By Devin Windelspecht, Global Co-op
The streets that wind their way through Belfast used to be battle lines. Twenty years ago, Northern Ireland existed in a state of conflict known as the “Troubles”: a thirty year period of conflict between Catholics and Protestant paramilitaries, in which frequent assassinations, bombings, and civil unrest became a defining feature of daily life. By the time my cab reached Belfast City Airport, only fifteen minutes had passed since I left the city center, but my driver says the same trip used to take two hours, and four separate police checkpoints, barely twenty years ago.
My trip away from Belfast was meant to escape this for a time. While the months I had spent on international co-op working at a Northern Irish peace center had proven to be an incredible and life-defining experience, the province is also very insular, to the point in which the outside world can feel far removed. In taking a week off to travel through the United Kingdom, I wanted to not only see a part of Europe I had never traveled to before, but also to take the time breathe and to step away from post-conflict reality of Northern Ireland.
My plane landed in Scotland in the rain, and it did not stop raining for nearly an entire week. But even amongst the rain and cold, I quickly found something in the Scottish people that felt different from the Northern Irish. It wasn’t just the distinctive accent, or the Scottish music playing out from the city pubs. Rather, there was a warmth to the people here: a willingness to chat at a bar or coffee shop, or become excited upon learning of one’s American identity. Absent was the cautious, if polite, guardedness I had come to expect in Northern Ireland, the subtle guessing as to your religion or politics as people tried to place your stance on the conflict.
Yet despite this genuine warmth, there too were cracks in Scotland that I saw showing beneath the surface. In Glasgow, I witnessed a man on the street corner preaching about the dangers of immigrants while Somali women hurried past with their heads down. In Edinburgh, a city in which the Scottish flag flew from nearly every building, anti-Brexit demonstrators were faced pro-Union counter-protesters in the city’s parks. Even present was a form of systemic discrimination against the Irish themselves, who often lived in the most impoverished of Scottish neighborhoods and represented the only Catholics in a Protestant-dominated country.
Immigration, Brexit, Scottish Independence – even without a war to divide people along sectarian lines, there remained the same question I had first seen in Northern Ireland: the question of “Britishness.” Are the people of Scotland British first, or Scottish? Do immigrants belong to this identity? And what of the people from Northern Ireland who live here – are they British, Scottish, or something else, something “Irish?” Does it even matter?
There is no border or customs on the train from Edinburgh to London, and as the hours passed, the rugged Scottish countryside gave way to quaint English forests and fields. As the scenery changed, the people on board shifted from something distinctly Scottish to a more multicultural mix: English, French, German, even Pakistani and Arab. Stepping out from King’s Cross Station, it became clear just how much this mix reflected London itself. While walking to my hostel through the city’s streets, I witnessed an incredibly vast tapestry of people unlike anywhere I had seen in the world: Chinese floated by in tandem with Arabic, French beside Swahili and Yoruba, Hindi in step with English. The capital of England seemed to me the least English city in the country, and perhaps the most global in the world. And therein lies the conflict.
Even as I toured such British icons as the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, and Big Ben, the centuries-long union between Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland was already beginning to fray at the seams. As London and the United Kingdom have become more global, more multicultural, there is a sense that the “British” identity of the country is disappearing, a feeling that is reflected the U.K’s exit from the European Union, or “Brexit.”
Just as Northern Ireland has struggled between the competing identities of Catholics and Protestants, and Scotland grapples with its own identity and independence, England itself also seems to be questioning what being “British” means. Is it merely a nationality, born from centuries of history between the different cultures of the British Isles? Or is it something else, something that is bound to a set of ideals, principles, and laws over ethnicity and heritage?
I can’t answer that question, nor is it my place as an American to do so. But the answer to this question, whatever it may be, will define the United Kingdom’s future. Either the idea of Britishness will have to change, becoming as global and multicultural as its capital, or it will continue to remain a chiefly national construct, one that may not be able to survive the increasingly independent identities of the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Returning to Belfast, I realized that the deep divisions I had worked in during my co-op were by no means unique to Northern Ireland. Yet just as the people of Northern Ireland have learned to live in peace despite their differences, the people of the United Kingdom can too live together even as they wrestle with their future as a nation. It is the decisions that are yet to come – Brexit among them – that will decide whether the U.K. will fall apart under the weight of its differences, or if it can come together and become once more a truly united Kingdom.