Identities in a complex and changing world: A lecture by Francis Campbell
by Sophie AUMAILLEY for Northern Ireland Foundation
14 October 2016
Rethinking Conflict held an event at Skainos Center in East Belfast, featuring a keynote address by Francis Campbell.
Participants were welcomed by Gary Mason, who presented the speaker.
Francis Campbell has been a member of the Diplomatic Service, serving as Policy Adviser to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and holds several honorary university degrees.
He is currently the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University in London.
Francis Campbell started his speech asking two questions: “Who are you? Who am I?”
The answers seem to be dependent on various factors, firstly onwho is asking.
Campbell emphasised how social, cultural, economic aspects — among others — make him speak not about a single identity but rather about identities plural.
He wondered about the functions of such identities.
For him, they are declarations of our differences: they tell others about ourselves.
They are about how we want to be seen and perceived by others.
Campbell also stressed the importance of context, framing identities and being framed in return by them.
In the current context, the changing framework of the European Union with the Brexit issue is significant.
He felt that the two recent referenda answered to two different questions.
The Scottish referendum reaffirmed the UK identity in responding to the question “who are we?”, while the EU referendum defined “who we are not”.
What he regretted is that the campaign concentrated on the losses of leaving and the usage of fear.
Yet he believed that fear is not sufficient for keeping communities together.
He would prefer to have seen arguments about the benefits of staying in, and he deplored that the most positive aspects of the European Union were not advanced.
Campbell then wondered about the potential impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.
He said that at this confusing time, it is difficult to predict how so.
However, Campbell believed that the EU acts as an umbrella, allowing the reflection and integration of diverse identities.
Hence, he feared that Brexit would force Northern Irish to choose their identities.
This coerced choice threatens the very existence of multiple identities.
In this way, he worried about the counterproductive effect of Brexit in broadening identity.
This could lead to European, British, Irish or Northern Irish identities to be framed as an “either/or” rather than an “and”.
He also hoped that Northern Ireland will not face a resurgence of nationalism, like elsewhere in Europe.
For him, nationalism speaks only to one part of our identities.
It is therefore forcing separation and fragmentation.
The Troubles’ experience is worsening this fear in Northern Ireland, as most people know how bad this can be.
Francis Campbell concluded that Brexit could or could not be the start of a broader dismantlement process, within the European Union as well as the United Kingdom, but that “it is too early to tell”.
What will the umbrella for Northern Ireland’s multiple identities look like?