“Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.’ “ – W B Yeats
There are many different aspects to our own personal identity and being. ‘Political identity’, relating not just to political views on a left-right spectrum but also perceptions of ethnicity and nationality, is what will be explored in this piece. Our own personal identity is likely to be made up of numerous other aspects including our work occupation and status, our family status (as child, sibling, parent, grandparent etc), our friendship network, our age, and our personality. While all aspects of our identity and being may interact in a deep way, this piece is primarily concerned with political identity on the island of Ireland, and particularly in Northern Ireland.
Identity is complex. Although often perecived as a ‘given’, it is changeable. In the Republic there is quite a high level of identification with the state despite misgivings that individuals might have about the state’s policies. Yet self identity in the Republic has changed quite rapidly from, say, the time of the papal visit of 1979; at that stage (quite a conservative) Catholicism was a fairly predominant part of most people’s identity – and a rejection of that as part of their identity only held by a small, niche number of people. Today there is a much more diverse picture and society is much more secular.
What is intriguing in the North is the way in which the two primary conflicting identities have evolved in counterindication to each other. ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ identities have evolved in many different ways since the Ulster Plantation of the early 17th century. One big change fairly early was that ‘Catholics’ became English- rather than Irish-speaking. ‘Protestants’, some of whom had fought for independence from Britain in 1798, went from ‘British and Irish Unionist’ to ‘Northern Ireland and British’ unionist after partition; while fully identifying as British they came to see the primary political unit as Northern Ireland (thus we could have Rev Ian Paisley telling British prime ministers not to meddle in Northern Ireland). And despite all the changes in four centuries, the ‘integrity’ (= strength and destructiveness) of the quarrel between ‘the two sides’ has remained unchanged for some on both sides.
But in Northern Ireland also there has been change. For the first time, perhaps, it is becoming possible for a real ‘middle ground’ to emerge, people for whom being ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ is not a matter of life and death and they could be persuaded either way. This is not to deny that such people may not have residual prejudices, coming from their upbringing and socialisation, but they are more pragmatic on constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland and not as susceptible to the playing of ‘orange’ or ‘green’ cards.
In both jurisdictions, the incoming of people from elsewhere, particularly in the last couple of decades, has been very positive. The presence of ‘other’ identities has had various effects. One is that people can realise that life here is attractive enough, even if only for economic benefits, for people to come from elsewhere, and this helps indigenous people to appreciate what they have, economically and culturally. In the North, it has helped people to realise that “It’s time that we were learning to count higher up than two” (Colum Sands’ song ‘The Donegall Road, see https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/posters/ ).
However in the North the two conflicting identities are usually used to bolster each other. A strident call from one side is likely to lead to at least as strident a call on the other, and so it goes on. And the more strident the call, the greater the fear is likely to be in the opposing camp. This ramping up of the amp causes greater instability and unease, and this in turn leads to the greater possibility of violence.
Given that neither ‘Protestants’ nor ‘Catholics’ are now in a majority in Northern Ireland (whichever of them is more numerous, and the recent census will likely reveal the result), with the balance held by ‘others’, there is an historic opportunity to make new decisions. While the direction signs might currently point towards a united Ireland of some form in the medium term, this should not be considered a future fait accompli. Following the Good Friday Agreement, most Catholics were relatively happy with, or tolerant of, the state of affairs in Northern Ireland, and the fact that things have changed is primarily to do with two factors – unionist relectance to move on some supposedly agreed issues, and Brexit.
There is a problem with simple ‘majority rule’ in any society but most especially in a divided society. The fact that Catholics seemed to be fairly happy in post-1998 Northern Ireland was to do with feeling accepted – they were told they could be British, Irish, or both. Even if the state itself was still British, and the symbols of it likewise, they felt that enough had changed in terms of respect for their traditions that they could live with it.
But Catholic feelings of confidence and the demand for equality did not come from nowhere. Of course increasing demographic equal numbers between the two ‘communities’ has had an effect but self reliance within the Catholic community from the time of partition has been a very significant factor which laid the ground for the civil rights movement of the ‘Sixties, along with such factors as free secondary education. Tragically, and for many different reasons, this then turned into the Troubles. But equality had to be part of the emergence from that period of violence, and it was, in the Good Friday Agreement even if its consociational elements in some ways solidified that Catholic-Protestant split. The violence of the Troubles has actually delayed society in the North from moving on.
Brexit and the resultant Northern Ireland Protocol have put a cat among the pigeons for many unionists and loyalists. They see their British identity being eroded. They see Northern Ireland being treated differently to Britain, and it being the only part of the UK to be in this position. You can understand the angst. Are they on a slippery road to a united Ireland?
There are many problems here and with some loyalist perceptions (as well as republican demands for a unity referendum within a set time frame). We are not advocating either a united Ireland or a continued United Kingdom – though the latter could disappear like smoke if Scottish independence becomes a reality. If Catholics were relatively content in a post-1998 situation where they remained in a United Kingdom, with symbols of that state, what is to say Protestants could not be relatively content in a united Ireland which gave them respect and equality? Are Northern loyalists totally dependent on external shows of Britishness? Do they have the self confidence to negotiate whatever comes their way? Are they committed to democracy now that they are no longer an arithmetic majority?
Most people in the world do not have the luxury of living in a state and with a government they support. Many ethnic minorities are ridden over roughshod. In both autocratic and democratic societies, policies adopted may be ones which are anathema to an ordinary person. Having a government which is in accord with popular will and collective wisdom, subject of course to human rights concerns, should be a universal aim but even so is easier said than done, and especially in divided societies. The fact that this is not a reality for most people around the world is not a reason not to seek it. And equality and respect should be shown to all people, whatever their ethnicity or political beliefs (again subject to human rights considerations) by governments; that is the minimum that should be expected.
Irrespective of what constitutional outcome is likely to be arrived at, the way forward for unionism is to strive for fair treatment for all, for justice and human rights for all, and to bend over backwards to ensure that nationalists and non-aligned people feel included and catered for. In Susan McKay’s words, “if unionism won’t share Northern Ireland, it is going to lose it.” If treated as they should be, Catholics and nationalists might be persuaded in sufficient numbers for Northern Ireland to continue in the UK for the forseeable future. There is plenty to celebrate in British culture (though not, we hasten to add, in how it is treated by the present English nationalist government). If the DUP and its forthcoming new leadership goes backwards into loyalist flag-waving mode then that does not serve their community well. Inclusivity rather than exclusivity has to be the message, and ‘what we have we share’.
We are also very uneasy about unionist/loyalist and republican reliance on military shows of identity. Celebrating battles over others (who happen to be ‘in the room’) or, indeed, in the case of republican militarism, celebrating heroic defeats (1916 Rising) does not serve any side well. Celebrating victories and battles against ‘the enemy’ may create a sense of sectarian solidarity but it does nothing to move society on to inclusive solutions.
For both unionism and nationalism, there has to be a proper focus on economic, social, and community issues which are common to both (the most deprived ward areas in the North are still predominantly Catholic) with need being the criteria. When there is poverty and educational deprivation it is difficult for any society to move beyond its difficulties, and that is greatly magnified in a divided society like Northern Ireland.
Political identity in a society like the Republic, where there is no great debate about its statehood, can be problematic where people feel estranged from politicians and the Oireachtas. Engagement can come through people feeling politicians and the system are on their sde or at least concerned with their issues and problems. It can also come through the work of such entities as Citizens’ Assemblies. If there is a high level response to community and pressure group campaigning then people can feel the system is working. If it all seems remote and irrelevant then there is a problem. Despite being a relatively small society, the system in the Republic can seem remote from people for a variety of reasons including unnecessary centralisation. These issues need constant attention.
But it is a different ball game in Northern Ireland where the very nature of the state is in question. As indicated in this editorial, the way forward is through self confident adherence to justice, human rights – and we would add, nonviolence – for all. Consensual and multi-option voting systems have a role here in encouraging collective thinking. And burying our heads in the sand on any aspect of the future is not enough. Unionists not only have to consider how to make Northern Ireland work for all but what their role would be if it did indeed come to a united Ireland of some form. Nationalists need to consider how they can make the inclusiveness of their ideology a reality and ensure that Protestants and unionists feel that their presence is valued and their rights will be honoured, whatever flag flies at Stormont.
Change is one of the few constants in the world. Northern Ireland and its dreary steeples may give the impression of changelessness but much has changed, on all sides. The North is in an infinitely better position than thirty, forty or fifty years ago. Enabling self confident, engaged, political identities is a key part of taking any society forward to meet its potential. Education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels is an important factor in achieving this. Perhaps it can be said that in Northern Ireland that process has been begun, and there is a glint of light at the end of the tunnel, but it is a very long tunnel and there is still a lot of hard digging to do. The Republic too should keep moving to engage citizens in a real and meaningful way in change and governance.