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Identity? Mine’s knottier than yours

Richard Bourke

Imagine an Irish novel written to rival David Lodge’s 1975 Changing Places. It would be set in the summer of 2016 at the annual Irish Studies conference in Vancouver. Participants would jet in from a host of distant places: Australia, Europe, Asia, the United States. There would be the usual alcohol-fuelled antics in the evenings and a steady flow of disparagement among delegates in the breaks: “ah! sure we knew that argument already”; “she’s so pleased he didn’t make the shortlist for the job”. Yet there would also be an uplifting show of unity over Brexit. All would agree that it threatened complete disaster for these islands.

On the final day, academic proceedings would culminate in a roundtable starring Fintan O’Toole, Roy Foster and Ian McBride. Dervla Murphy would be in the chair to offset any impression that the big beasts of Irish culture were all male. The panellists would debate the question of why identity is so complex in the case of Ireland. The speakers would then agree that the best way to tackle the subject would be to examine it in the light of their own experiences. Since each of them embodied a living example of such an identity, exploring their own make-up would be the best way forward. After all, these three men were Irish in such multifaceted ways. Here was a perfect experimental microcosm that could elucidate the larger problem.

Yet soon debate would descend into competition. Each speaker would wonder quietly to himself: granting the many-sided character of all three men, who in the end epitomised the most complicated identity? “One of the things I deeply believe,” O’Toole once said, “is that we all have kind of official versions of ourselves, which are uncomplicated and simple and straightforward. And then we have hinterlands, which can in many cases contain all sorts of swamps and marshes and untrodden ground …” This applies especially in his own case. He grew up in a corporation house in Crumlin, is descended on one side from a Jewish immigrant from Hamburg, has uncles who fought in the British army, and relatives in the Caribbean and Pakistan. He is regularly in transit between Dublin and New Jersey.

However Foster may contain still greater intricacy in his person. For a start he is both Protestant and Irish. He grew up in Waterford yet rose through the ranks of the British academic establishment. He pores over Trollope and Turgenev with as much relish as he reads Yeats. He is equally at home as an Irishman and a European, the perfect picture of a hybrid citizen of the world.

Yet, arguably rivalling even the Foster alloy, McBride is somehow British and Irish at the same time. Growing up as a Protestant in a village in South Armagh, he had been harried from the beginning by the Irish Question, even though his allegiance was fundamentally to Britain. Like Foster, McBride was elevated from the provinces to the metropole, before long becoming a follower of the older historian. Naturally he aspired to Foster’s chair at Oxford. His apotheosis was complete when he secured the prize. As if to facilitate his transfiguration into the object of his esteem, the professorship was retitled the “Foster Chair”. It was the next best thing to becoming the person he most admired. In McBride’s case, not only were his social and political identities tangled, so too were his personal affiliations.

There is a serious point behind the imaginary scenario presented in this vignette. The idea of identity is pervasive in Irish life. It must come close to being a master-concept in the national consciousness, saturating academic discussion and spilling over into politics. But what in the end is the word supposed to describe? The notion is in fact more indeterminate than appears to be the case when it is wielded by prominent commentators on Irish culture and public life. The sheer unclarity of what is being talked about must lead to the suspicion that the concept fails to make sense of the problem it is supposed to illuminate.

This example of confusion is a product of a deeper syndrome. It derives from a general problem of misdescription in accounts of society. Conceptual schemes employed to reflect the world are sometimes liable to misconstrue their object. Yet schemes of the kind which fall short of comprehending the reality they are intended to depict are commonly mobilised in social and political controversies. Identity is one instance of this widespread tendency, an instance with a peculiar currency in Ireland. Identity talk now matters because it has been granted a new lease of life. This development is courtesy of the Brexit debate in Ireland.

Fintan O’Toole exemplifies the trend. In the introduction to his recent account of the meaning of Brexit in Britain, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, he confesses: “I know exactly what an either/or identity feels like.” He knows this, we learn, because he has been exposed to the relevant tensions in his own life. Here O’Toole builds on a recognisable tradition of recycling national history in autobiographical terms. In a similar move, in States of Ireland back in 1972, Conor Cruise O’Brien accounted for the divisions on the island in terms of the different branches of his own family. Public chronicle was rendered in the form of a Bildungsroman. The approach looks back to Stephen Dedalus’s coming of age in Joyce’s Portrait – except that in the original the protagonist was the product of larger forces whereas in O’Toole the individual is made to encapsulate a political system.

It is only a short step from presenting oneself as the embodiment of a social crisis to portraying society in reductively psychological terms. Accordingly, throughout O’Toole’s study, a tremendously convoluted political predicament is condensed into a psychodrama. In fact, throughout this polemic, it is fair to say that the most difficult situation facing Britain and Ireland since the 1990s is depicted in simplistically histrionic terms. Crude psychoanalytical diagnoses litter the argument. “Sublimation”, “transference” and “displacement” do most of the theoretical work. In this vein, we are invited to believe that the Brexit project cloaks an underlying condition: namely, the English “need” to conceal base motives behind a rhetoric of victimhood.

The real roots of Brexit, according to O’Toole, can be found in a species of national anger – a “rage” superficially directed at Brussels bureaucrats, but one really provoked by a recurring penchant for racism. At the same time, this bigotry is held to feed off the most gratifying self-pity. The self-pity in question, however, is Janus-faced in character: on the one hand it is apparently encouraged by a sense of superiority, on the other it supposedly trades on the feeling of martyrdom. If one places the intricate social, political and economic reality covered by Brexit alongside O’Toole’s delineation of the situation, it is hard not to feel that his exposition is a kind of hoax – an account whose sheer extravagance is meant to distract from its fanciful nature.

It is reasonable to speculate that O’Toole was at least in part tempted to adopt these extreme tactics on account of repeated references by leading Brexiteers to Britain as a “vassal” state, or even a “colony” of the European Union. He is of course right that such characterisations are fatuous, yet surely he understands what tends to incite them. Back in 2012, commenting on the Irish referendum on the Fiscal Compact, O’Toole argued in The Irish Times that “Ireland is no longer a self-governing nation – the most important economic and fiscal decisions are taken elsewhere”. In fact, in general terms, following the response to the 2008 financial crisis, O’Toole saw in the European troika a threat to democratic accountability: “what,” he asked in 2013, “in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, is the most important political institution? The answer is obvious: the Troika.” He continued: “And then some other questions: what is the constitution of this body? Who elects its leaders? Under what set of laws does it operate? Above all, who holds it accountable? To whom does it answer? No one – not national parliaments, not the European Parliament.”

Britain, of course, was never subject to the troika, and its influence upon the European Union has been immense. But if it is absurd to describe the UK’s status as one of vassalage, it is also ludicrous to refer to the European Union as a “Club”. It is a system of governance geared towards an “ever closer union”, an objective first announced in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Secession from this arrangement might be a mistake, but it is hardly incomprehensible except by resort to a narrative of narrow-minded prejudice. There is no doubt that nasty attitudes were ventilated during the Brexit vote, but it is also clear that knotty issues were at stake.

Irish precedents can be instructive in this context. In 1891 WEH Lecky marvelled at the progress of secessionist sentiment in Ireland in the face of the country’s tangible advances under the Union. After all, Lecky reflected, the “whole system of religious disqualification and commercial disability has long since passed away. Every path has been thrown open, and English professions, as well as the great Colonial and Indian services, are crowded with Irishmen. The Established Church no longer exists. Representation has been placed on a broadly democratic basis.” Yet still the country clamoured for Home Rule, which Lecky believed would inevitably lead to independence. To such a commentator, the sense of Irish grievance since the 1870s looked pretty much like unaccountable self-pity.

But there was of course an alternative view of Ireland under the Union. In 1911, after the introduction of further land reform in addition to the provision of a system of local government, Erskine Childers still felt entitled to describe Ireland as a “Crown Colony” lacking proper control over its destiny.  If, as O’Toole fairly notes, the concept of “colonial” status achieved its most outrageous application at the hands of Brexit campaigners, it is clear that the term has long been employed to cover multiple circumstances. O’Toole himself illustrates the slippage in his own usage by deploying the blanket formula “colonial times” to refer to historic relations between London and other territories – including Dublin, Delhi and Nairobi.

My aim here is not to re-assess the demerits of Brexit as canvassed by O’Toole. The vast constitutional, commercial and geo-political issues raised are beyond the scope of essayistic treatment. Besides, there is a core of truth to one of the book’s main claims: the implications of Brexit for the Irish border were only considered by British opinion when it was too late. However, what interests me is the intellectual climate in which a thesis like O’Toole’s can even begin to seem convincing. What the appeal of the book shows is that psychological accounts of large-scale operations can so easily be made to look credible – as if states had specific “characters” and whole societies had “personalities”. Indeed, the trope of personification is liberally strewn across these pages. This outcome was partly predetermined by the fact that O’Toole wants to decode Brexit in terms of a prevailing “structure of feeling”.

By this phrase, borrowed from the literary critic Raymond Williams, O’Toole largely seems to mean what he also dubs a “mentality”. This he further glosses as a “collective consciousness”. On this reading, Brexit mania was impelled by a concerted mental process. Now, while it seems reasonable, and often necessary, to generalise about attitudes, the result cannot be said to comprise a “collective” entity. General attitudes can only be made up of individual dispositions, and shared beliefs do not constitute a group mind. For this reason, describing “identity”, or “memory”, as corporate enterprises is bound to distort any attempt at social explanation.

Not only is identity a key concept in O’Toole, he even takes his subject to be a “crisis of English identity”. Is there, however, such a thing as an identity crisis? That brings us back to where this argument began: what is the word identity intended to pick out? The question is important, not merely because the label is pervasive across the Brexit debate, but also because it has circulated for so long in the Irish context.

As early as 1976, former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald referred to conflict in Ireland in terms of “double identity crises … North and South”. Six years later FitzGerald’s Dimbleby lecture was entitled “Irish Identities”. In due course the New Ireland Forum would be convened around the same idea. Soon the designation had wider, academic traction: the year after FitzGerald’s lecture, the Irish historian Nicholas Canny would write of an Anglo-Irish identity developing in the Elizabethan era. Three years later the political scientist Jennifer Todd examined the legitimacy of assorted identities on the island of Ireland. By 1990 the historian Toby Bernard was anatomising a crisis of identity among Irish Protestants in the seventeenth century.

Identity studies in Ireland took off in the 1980s. This development was to some extent fostered by an atmosphere in which literary analysis enjoyed an authority going back to the “Celtic Twilight”. Not only was the dominant trajectory of modern writing understood within a loosely neo-Hegelian framework based around the rise of subjectivity, but further this narrative had particular resonance in Ireland: Yeatsian masks, Beckett’s Proust, and Heaney’s archaeology of the self all underlined the centrality of personal identity. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland should open with the statement that “identity is seldom straightforward and given, [it is] more often a matter of negotiation and exchange”. In modern literature, and in Ireland, the paramount focus is the self.

More generally in the 1980s it was theories of nationalism that gave the concept of identity a boost. Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm lent weight to the subject. Then Linda Colley’s Britons introduced the theme into British history. In the Irish case Roy Foster in effect turbocharged the notion. Irish identity was rechristened “Irishness” and placed at the centre of cultural and political debate. Foster’s synthetic study, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, identified the concept as its principal theme. Too often Irish identity had been exclusive and essentialist, he argued. What was needed was “a more relaxed and inclusive definition”. In subsequent essays inclusivity was conflated with pluralism and contrasted with a cramped and parochial sense of self. Latterly openness was fused with Europeanness, and Brexit with intolerance and ignorance.

Attracted to these same idioms, Fintan O’Toole already has form in marshalling the idea of identity as an overarching explanatory model. In 1997 he subtitled a collection of his journalism Irish Identities. These interventions were naturally against “fixity” and in favour of hybridity. But here, as elsewhere, ambiguity surrounds the meaning of identity. On the one hand the noun refers to the nature of the self over time. This is a quintessentially epistemological issue with roots in the European philosophical tradition – in Descartes’s cogito, Hume’s personal identity, Kant’s unity of the knowing subject. However, on the other hand, identity often means identification, in effect denoting the idea of public attachment. Identity in this case blends into allegiance. Neither O’Toole nor Foster keep these senses clearly separate, and confusion is often the result. Is Brexit a product of English nationalism or a crisis of personal identity? Or is it, by any chance, neither of these things?

O’Toole might feel entitled to amalgamate these alternatives since they were merged by earlier theories of identity which launched the concept on its career. As the American historian of assimilation Philip Gleason has shown, the category rose to prominence in the US under the influence of the psychoanalytically-trained child psychologist, Erik H Erikson. Erikson was a European immigrant of uncertain parentage. The experience sparked, by his own account, feelings of uprootedness. As an analyst he later developed the idea of an identity crisis, understood in terms of a moment of adjustment during adolescence when young people underwent reorientation that affected their sense of themselves.

This diagnosis enjoyed success by repackaging insights transported from Freud’s Vienna into a land of affluence and immigration. Erikson, moreover, did not operate alone. In addition to disseminating his ideas across the psychology profession, he also established alliances with a number of anthropologists – mostly students of Franz Boas like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. As a result, the idea of identity was combined with that of culture, a notion that was similarly accruing value as a lens through which to explore race relations. In due course, the related concept of ethnicity would emerge. In the midst of the confrontations over civil rights in America, Erikson himself tried to illustrate how his psychoanalytical armoury had relevant sociological purchase. Inclusive identities, he argued, were good; exclusive identities were bad; and the negative attitudes of the “American Negro” could be traced to damaged self-perception forged by the national culture.

The term identity took off in 1950s America when an explosion of research in the social sciences overlapped with attempts to investigate relations between individual and community under the influence of concerns with mass society and integration. It coalesced with topics like national character and social personality, but it had limited interpretative value. Notwithstanding these limitations, in some circles it presided as the sole tool of analysis deployed to unravel complex phenomena. To expect so much of one straightforward thought was patently over-optimistic. Imagine trying to decipher something as multifaceted as an economy with such a rudimentary device.

It is of course true that subjectivity is housed within a perplexing, anxious and changeable creature. It is also right that the self is formed in interaction with social opinion, and co-opted as the subject of allegiance in public life. But these dialectical processes are not reducible to schematic representation. Each component in the second sentence of this paragraph involves multi-dimensional issues that stand in need of elucidation in their own right. For instance, political allegiance implies an object of attachment, which includes a bureaucracy, a state, a constitution and a form of government. How we feel about our government is in turn affected by the economy, by law and order, by immigration, and by foreign policy. These elements require discrete and connected scrutiny, and so can hardly be understood by lumping them under a single abstraction, especially an abstraction as simple as identity.

Accounts of abstruse social and political mechanisms depend on the quality and versatility of the categories employed to throw light on how they work. In cases where the framework of analysis is wanting, the interpretation will inevitably be deficient. From the beginning the idea of identity was clumsy, and it has scarcely gained in subtlety through repeated usage. In portraits of Irish history, culture and society, the concept has been incessantly invoked as a method of explanation even though it appears to explain so little. With O’Toole on Brexit the idea was allowed to run amok, and we need to call its bluff.


Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought and a Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge. He has published widely on intellectual history and the history of political theory.