These Islands

By Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve CH CBE FBA HONFRS FMEDSCI HON.MRIA, philosopher and a crossbench member of the House of Lords

The first thing I should say something about is the phrase ‘these islands’. Where does that phrase come from? It is a term that we used in Ireland, north and south, particularly during the period of the Troubles, because of its complete neutrality. The traditional term had been ‘the British Isles’. That was not beloved in all quarters, so we started, in my family and many others, referring to ‘these islands’. Of course, when abroad, we then had to refer to ‘those islands’ and I think people thought, ‘What do they mean by “those islands”?’ That is the origin of the phrase, and so it is, like all phrases used in this discussion, quite a political phrase: but it captures something that is important.

am no geographer, but I think geography is very important to the understanding of what is going on in this discussion of islands. As we all know, the water is the easiest route to travel initially, rather than the land. Many of the stories about our early history that people in these islands grew up with are about the water. Think of Niall of the Nine Hostages; think of St Patrick himself, a Romano Brit enslaved and taken to Ireland, then traveling to Rome for ordination, back to Ireland and so on. Think of St Columba and the formation of the Celtic Church, which had such a profound effect on the conversion of Northern Europe. Think of St Brendan the Navigator and all those islands of birds. It is a long story, where the water is the thing that links, but seemingly not in this case; where the water is seen as dividing. I think that is interesting.

My field is not international relations but philosophy. I have, however, been struck by Kissinger’s World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, which is very much about the centre and the periphery, as opposed to about islands and mainland, and his suggestion that European history is marked by either weakness in the centre, in which case the periphery starts to encroach, or the amassing of power at the centre (of which the great examples of the modern era are Napoleon and Hitler), in which case the periphery exerts itself to avoid being overwhelmed by the centre.

Let us look at the question: is the centre too powerful or too powerless now? Where are we still in this sort of pendulum? I do not know, and it is tempting to caricature it as the peoples versus Herr Juncker, but maybe that is not the way to caricature it. I am very struck by the number of people around, including in this country too, who fear that the European Union may be not too successful, but actually a failed project.

Could it be that the EU lacks the powers to reform itself in the ways that are needed? Can the EU reform itself? Can it live with a currency that has condemned the Mediterranean nations to a very difficult economic future, though of great advantage to Germany, which is now the one of the workshops of the world? Does the EU have the possibility to reform itself? I think particularly of the League of Nations between the wars, where ultimately the institution did not seem to have the possibility to maintain or reform itself.

I want to make a very few remarks of a more philosophical sort on the much used notion of ‘identity’. In my youth, nobody would have understood the current use of the phrase. We had a phrase that was quite clear; it was ‘sense of identity’. What is your sense of identity? People would say what their sense of identity was. For some of us, it was complicated. People like me, with an Irish, a Scottish, a Welsh and an English grandparent had to tell quite a complicated narrative about our sense of identity, but the phrase ‘sense of identity’ was clear.

What does ‘identity’ as now used mean? It seems to me, to this philosopher, historically to be an appropriation of the French use of the term ‘identité’. Secondly, it apparently is used to run together what one feels about oneself and what one is. Those are surely different things. I think we are seeing a new development in the interpretation of ‘sense of identity’ if we look at the sexual politics of today, where people talk about their ‘identity’, and do not use the phrase ‘sense of identity’. It is my identity ‘as a lesbian’, my identity ‘as a heterosexual’, and ‘the most surprising thing that is happening to this terminology is that it is now taken that identity is a matter of choice. Now, can one have it both ways? Can identity be something weighty and that matters, and that is not the sort of thing that we should take lightly, because it is ‘who I am’ and, at the same time say it is a matter of choice? I do not think one can have it both ways. Down in the bowels of the arguments we are hearing there is tremendous confusion between the question of whether ‘identity’ is ‘sense of identity’, whether identity is a matter of choice, and confusion about the reasons when and why we need to take claims about identity or about sense of identity seriously.

Now let me come to something much more concrete: the Common Travel Area between the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and some other bits. The Common Travel Area seems to me to be one of the first things that has come to the surface in the debates, post-UK referendum, and for good reason. It is, first of all, older and, secondly, stronger than the Schengen area. The relationship between citizenship, movement and borders within these islands — you see how useful the phrase is — dates from the 1920s. (Before that, it was one state.) The Common Travel Area is stronger than Schengen, because not merely are those of us who are citizens either of the Republic or of the UK entitled to move without passports, to work, to travel, to live in either country; we are also entitled to vote in whichever country we live in and that is an absolutely fundamental difference. Indeed, we are conscious of the Irish vote within parts of the UK, as a potent political force. The relation between the Republic of Ireland and the UK is something stronger, older and, I have to say, deeper in our marrow than the relations between other European states.

In the former Soviet Union, they used to have a phrase ‘near abroad’. Well, I think the Republic of Ireland, for most of us living on this island, is not merely near abroad. It is not really abroad. We have not merely history, which of course includes animosity, but we have law. We have a habit of working, of moving, of travelling to and fro. What is to happen if Brexit is carried through to the Common Travel Area? How do you have a land border of the EU running across the island of Ireland, and maintain the Common Travel Area? Would it not mean, as people phrase it (not very nicely) that there was a back door into the United Kingdom, via the Republic of Ireland, for any European citizen entering the Republic of Ireland?

The head of UKIP in Northern Ireland said before the referendum, ‘I support patrols, active patrols’. Those of us who have lived on the island of Ireland or have close ties, know what that means, because we have had two periods in which that border has been reinforced. One was during WWII, when it was to a considerable extent reinforced, but there was no external pressure on it, because German submarines basically ensured that there was no migration into the Republic during those years or very, very little. (Indeed, sometimes it was also British submarines.) I vaguely remember that, before my brother’s birth in 1944, we could not return to Northern Ireland but had to move to relations in Wiltshire, because of what was going on in the Irish Sea and the consequent prohibition on travel. That was one period. The other period was during the Troubles in the 1970s. We knew what ‘active patrols’ meant then.

The Government has been at pains to emphasise that this is not what will happen. The Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are agreed this far: the Common Travel Area will be maintained. Reassuring, but I have little idea how they think this is to be done. When you think about it, it is not simple to have that land border of the EU across the island of Ireland, but to maintain the open borders between the Republic and the UK, let alone between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The one answer I have had from somebody who has held ministerial office is that it would be done by passports. So I have a question: who has to have a passport and when do they have to show it, for what purposes? It is no good saying that illegal migrants have to have passports and have to show them when they do something, because you do not, ex ante, know who the illegal migrant is, so it cannot quite be that, can it? To date, I have not been able to see a clearer answer than that anybody, man, woman or child, would need a passport and this passport would need to be shown when travelling, when seeking employment, when registering for medical treatment and for a host of other purposes.

The Conservative Party historically has been deeply opposed to ID cards. In a way, a requirement for passports is more acute because, today, to be effective ID cards have to be biometrically complex and expensive. I think of all the families, in Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Dublin, who go to and fro because this is the Common Travel Area and we work here and we work there. Are they all to have passports and how is this to work? Have the government addressed this question?

There is a separate and equally difficult question, to which I have seen no answer at all so far and that is about the movement of goods. I do not think this has been thought through, and I think it is something on which those who think that they will maintain the Common Travel Area while exiting the EU owe the peoples of these islands an answer.

Download the full European Union and Disunion report.

BARONESS O’NEILL OF BENGARVE CH CBE FBA HONFRS FMEDSCI HON.MRIA combines writing on political philosophy and ethics with a range of public activities. She comes from Northern Ireland and has worked mainly in Britain and the US. She was Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1992–2006 and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She was President of the British Academy from 2005–2009, chaired the Nuffield Foundation from 1998–2010, and has been a crossbench member of the House of Lords since 2000. She is the 2017 winner of the prestigious Holberg Prize, the ‘Nobel’ of the social sciences and humanities. She chaired the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2012–2016. She lectures and writes on justice and ethics, and in particular on the work of Immanuel Kant. Recent publications also address questions about accountability and trust, justice and borders, the future of universities, the quality of legislation and the ethics of communication.




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