The relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland is back in the spotlight after a landmark general election in the Republic. 

British Council CEO Sir Ciarán Devane introduces a timely book of essays exploring the close links between Britain and Ireland.

Alternative definitions of Irishness

Like many on these islands, my view of who I am and my view of who we are collectively have both changed beyond recognition. Being Dublin born but spending my adult life in England, having an Irish language campaigner and a Royal Navy admiral in the ancestry, loving the buzz of London as much as the wilds of Kerry, I understand the complexity of embracing all that is good about being simultaneously Irish and British.

My own eyes first opened to an alternative definition of Irishness when I shared an office in a chemical works with a colleague from Ballymena. He also taught me that Britishness was not the same as Englishness, something I had managed to miss in my upbringing.

As a young scientist and young engineer out of our home environments, in our conversations we talked about how being different did not mean being better, how pride in a tradition did not mean being superior, and how we both saw the strengths and weaknesses of our backgrounds more clearly for being out of them. 

Three decades later the young engineer finds himself as chief executive of the British Council , an organisation whose goal is to create a ‘basis of friendly knowledge and understanding’ between the people of the UK and people around the world.

The belief is that when people know each other, understand each other, trust each other, then good things are more likely to happen.

That philosophy means that we believe that peace, prosperity and progress depend on a shared appreciation of differing values and experiences. To build a better world means to build better relationships and to engender trust.

The challenge to the status quo on the islands presented by Brexit, with all it means for everything from border communities on the island of Ireland to constitutional arrangements in Britain, makes it feel right to bring out a fifth volume of Lives Entwined.

It is a timely reminder that we are all more complex than we think, all more interesting than we know, and that we all add to the rich tapestry which makes up the communities and societies that enliven this part of North-West Europe.

The first edition of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined was published in 2005. Since then, at moments in our story together, politicians, journalists, academics, lawyers, civil servants, novelists, poets and civil rights activists, people with diverse perspectives, have been invited to reflect on life in these islands and the relationships between the peoples who inhabit them.

From the outset, Lives Entwined has been about dialogue and reflection on British–Irish relationships. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the British Council.

Stepping beyond ourselves 

Lives Entwined V is no exception. It explores the theme of ‘shifting borders, shifting identity’ and offers contemporary, authentic and often challenging perspectives. Poignant tales, sharp insights and fresh nuances are prised from the knotty complexity of cultural relations between Britain and Ireland, firmly set in a context of profound change and flux.

There is striking social change on the island of Ireland, the absence of devolved government and renewed paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland; the approaching centenary of partition, a possible poll on Irish unity, fresh questions about the continued validity of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, and, of course, the UK’s departure from the European Union. 

John McCallister and Ian Marshall explore the place of Unionism on a changing island and call for a fresh articulation of an open and pluralist unionist vision. John shows that shifts in self-understanding are an innate characteristic of unionism and nationalism, of being British and Irish, and makes the case that what truly destabilises our relationships is the myth of pristine ‘fixed’ identities.

He argues that two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland will better promote pluralism than one single monolithic state. Ian warns that any moves towards forced unification driven by ideology would end up as flawed as the outcome of what many regard as a forced partition.

Susan McKay interviews women who knew and who were changed by the life and death of Lyra McKee. They are strong, open, progressive and believe that they deserve better. Traditional identities are less important for them and they hunger for a better life for all, freer and less constrained by the past.

But there are some in society who are, ‘stuck in their ways and … tramping on the futures of the young.' For these women, Lyra’s death was a reminder of older, darker realities in the face of which, in Lyra’s own words, ‘peace and moving forward seem like the only options.’

Glenn Patterson introduces his friend, Donovan, a photographer who provided the images for the cover of this book. At the intersection of lives, powerfully, we witness moments where meaning is made. 

In Berts Bar, what may be a double gin sits comfortably alongside the observation that art might be the only way to deal with the legacy of the conflict. Whatever the future holds, life and friendship go on.

Diarmaid Ferriter lucidly demonstrates that the deep and imbalanced relationships on these islands are not just a matter of politics: they are economic, social, cultural, personal and profoundly emotional. Points of connection have been untidy and characterised by misunderstanding. Anglo-Irish mistrust has returned. The relationship stands in need of careful repair.

Through work in theatre, Grace Dyas questions the narrative that conflict is over. She imagines a world driven by compassion but feels stuck in the space between what was, and what’s next. 

Meanwhile Pádriag Ó Tuama wrestles with poetic forms, the nature of time, and contested histories, to create poetry that does more than tell us what we already know. He insists that we already know what saves lives – a ‘spirit of concord’ allowing peaceful, democratic solutions.  

Having lived in Dublin and Belfast, Conall McDevitt reflects on identity, which he sees as constantly changing and adapting; rich, plural, complicated, full of contradiction. It is, he suggests, more fluid and more a matter of choice than it was even 30 or 40 years ago.

Young people are more globalised and less bound by narrow, local self-interest. Ireland has been left out of the Brexit conversation and the border has casually returned. Now, he argues, success for any part of these islands depends on success for every part.

Shannon Sickels (Yee) describes herself as ‘an immigrant, biracial, ethnic minority, queer artist–parent with a disability.' In Belfast, she and her partner became the UK’s first same-sex civil partners. Later, they joined the crowds at Dublin Castle celebrating the result of the same-sex marriage referendum and ‘felt braver, stronger, justified, unabashedly visible in a way we hadn’t realised we weren’t. I remember returning to Belfast and slumping back into invisibility out of cautious habit.'

Now, she feels caught ‘between stagnation and progress’ but is sure that peace and reconciliation must now promote compassion and understanding in opposition to sectarian binaries. The arts, for Shannon, are a way to do just that.

Kate Ewart-Biggs gives us a deeply personal and moving insight into three generations of her family. From the death of her father, through her mother’s dignified and principled response, her own international experiences and then to her daughter grappling with identity.

Her experience of living in different worlds showed her that ‘prejudice is always personal – as I learned as a child, it does not happen to someone else so that you can walk away from it.'

We are presented with an alternative reality where prejudice and intolerance are challenged, where trust is valued, where people have the courage to step beyond themselves and to cross boundaries.

Several of our authors have grappled with what Pádraig Ó Tuama describes as the uncertain art of saying something in uncertain times. All have succeeded. Of course, diverse perspectives are presented, but common themes have emerged.

There is a shared sense that we, on these islands, have been on a journey. At times we have been in much darker places; at other times, things have seemed much better. As the UK has left the European Union, relationships across the islands have been damaged and there is agreement that we must commit to repair them for the good of all. 

Whatever happens next, there is an assurance that life and living will go on. Friendships and human connections are where many of us find the meaning, the means and the will to push through to wherever we are going.

On that continuing journey we are presented in this collection with challenges to discover, perhaps through the arts, ways to deal with our shared history; to stand against the tendency to define our relationships in narrow terms of toxic binaries; to step beyond ourselves and to cross boundaries.