Written by
Patricia O'Lynn

’British…? Irish..? Northern Irish..? European..? Neither!’ It was 5:45am on Monday 25 October. As I waited to board my flight from Belfast International to London Heathrow I tussled with myself over and over again.  ‘Am I British, Irish, Northern Irish or none of those?  And what exactly does ‘Britishness’ mean?’ Time was running out. That evening, I was due to take part in the Cumberland Lodge Debate, to launch of the foundation’s 2018-19 series on ‘Identities and Belonging’. 

The Debate sought to answer the question ‘What should it mean to be British?’, with panellists of different ages and from different parts of the UK bringing their own unique and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds to the conversation. As a native Northern Irelander, I am acutely aware of how controversial and evocative discussions on national identify can be and, therefore, I was slightly nervous and apprehensive about my contributions to the panel.  Despite having three months of preparation time and precisely 120 pages of handwritten ‘notes’, I still had not been able to reach a conclusion on what ‘Britishness’ should mean. 

'I am acutely aware of how controversial and evocative discussions on national identify can be'

Whilst preparing for the event, my thoughts wandered back to my childhood, when the constant threat of sectarian violence loomed over anyone who ‘wrongly’ identified as British or Irish in mixed company. This Northern Ireland seemed to be a world away, as I stood in a buzzing Belfast Airport. Excited travellers of all races and religions were busily going about their business, in what appeared to be a cosmopolitan country experiencing an age of peace, prosperity and progression. Yet, local newspaper headlines that very morning continued to report on the political stalemate at the Northern Irish Assembly, which by now was holding the world record for the amount of time a government has been officially collapsed. Political disagreements stemming from a sectarian bedrock still permeate Northern Irish politics and, therefore, the people. This acted as a stark reminder of how deep social divisions based on opposing views of national identity can really run, reinforcing my angst about the Debate. 

I reflected on the conversations I had had with academics, politicians, friends, family members and even diplomats, in pursuit of an answer to the question of, ‘What should it mean to be British?’ I searched for common themes and patterns in their responses, yet increasingly found myself even more frustrated. One of my interviewees simply stated: ‘It should mean nothing to be British; it means everything to be a good citizen…unless you get arrested abroad and you need an Embassy!’ He had a point. I make a conscious effort not to engage in discussions on national identity, in order to avoid what would inevitably result in a zero-sum, binary discussion of Britishness verses Irishness. I only ever invoke a sense of national identity when travelling. Even then I have the pleasure of choosing between one of three potential national identities - British, Irish or European - and I also have two different passports to prove it. 

When I am at home I opt for what I call the ‘social chameleon approach’: selectively moderating my identity and corresponding identity markers to navigate the situations in which I find myself. This is an art in itself, finely tuned during adolescence, as I navigated a society in transition from conflict to peace. I believe the technical term for this tactic is ‘cultural competence’, or according to Friedman (1994), ‘the ability to navigate through systems of meaning in other cultures and foreign contexts, via the skills to participate in and benefit from many worlds without becoming one of them’. 

With that in mind, I mostly agreed with each confidant who expressed opposition towards nationalism, in favour of either cosmopolitanism or a form of transnationalism. Yet I could not help but feel that we, as a group of young(ish), white, university-educated, mid-career professionals, were out of touch with large sections of society. The fundamental human need to belong continues to be so integral to the human psyche that to try and broad-brush this debate with a simple assertion that one’s national citizenship is secondary to the idea that we are all ‘citizens of the world’, would not only be inadequate, but also offensive. 

'the positive aspects of Britishness that we tend to claim ownership of - democracy, rule of law, respect and tolerance, individual liberty - are not exclusively British at all'

The best solution I could muster was to explain my position, divulge my personal tactics of social navigation, and highlight the fact that the positive aspects of Britishness that we tend to claim ownership of - democracy, rule of law, respect and tolerance, individual liberty - are not exclusively British at all. They are universal rights and values, belonging to citizens of the world rather than to national and cultural identities. But then again, how could I suggest that everyone should reconcile their multiple levels of identity from local to global spheres, when so many feel left behind, displaced, dispossessed and disregarded in the modern era of globalisation, rapid immigration and technological revolution? Are we asking the wrong question? Shouldn’t we be asking, instead, how we can foster a sense of belonging for those who feel left out, rather than closing down the debate with notions of Britishness?  

The cabin crew make an announcement: ‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Can all those boarding flight EZY1156 to London Heathrow please make their way to Gate 19? The flight is now open for boarding’. I look at page 120 in my notebook, beside which lies my British passport. Suddenly, a wave of clarity flows through my mind: ‘It is not Britishness (nor Irishness, for that matter) that binds me to this great nation; it is belonging. And what creates belonging? Commonality, in our irregularities’.

Patricia spoke at the annual Cumberland Lodge Debate - What should it mean to be British? - on 22 October 2018. She was joined on the panel by: Majid Majid, Lord Mayor of Sheffield; Anthony Heath, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford; and Anne Wafula Strike MBE, British paralympian wheelchair racer. The Debate was chaired by the BBC's Evan Davis. To find out more about this event, which launched our 2018-19 series on 'Identities & Belonging', please click here.

Resource Type
Published Date
14 November, 2018