TThe polarization and politicization of identity in Northern Ireland, particularly within current unionism, gives rise to a misperception that one can only be Irish or British, not both. Northern Ireland was built as a Protestant state for Protestant people, with an integrated Protestant majority to maintain its place in the United Kingdom. “Loyal Ulster”, as it came to be known, was proudly British. But many of those citizens who had spent significant time on the so-called continent would find their perceptions of British identity challenged, at odds with Britishness within the United Kingdom as a whole. As one woman born and raised in Northern Ireland told me: “I moved to England and everyone thought I was Irish. »
I recently interviewed a number of people on the issue of identity change in Northern Ireland. Mark McKechnie, a 48-year-old IT worker from Bangor, said he would have considered himself “very strongly Protestant, even loyalist” until his 20s. This changed when he moved to England. “I went to tell the English that I was British and found a very different reaction,” he said. Today, it associates British identity with “the island (of) Britain”.
It’s an experience shared by many. Everyone I interviewed came from Protestant backgrounds, with proud British traditions. Yet when they set foot on the continent, they were sometimes greeted with mockery, mockery and oppositional reactions from the people with whom they had been raised to believe that they had the more in common. Tim McCullagh, a retired Royal Navy officer, told me he was often called “Mick”, a derogatory slur for someone of Irish descent. Heather Peddle, another person I interviewed, described herself as “strongly British”, but was commonly referred to as “the Irish girl” when she lived in London; Another woman told me that when she went to university in Newcastle, she had “aggressive” interactions with soldiers who held her “personally responsible” for their missions in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s state identity was artificially created in 1921, when six of Ireland’s 32 counties were divided into a new geopolitical entity. The partition of the island of Ireland divided not only the land but also the population, creating divergent and often contradictory conceptions of identity. This situation has become hyperpolarized and is intrinsically linked to political ideology. There is a persistent idea that people in Northern Ireland fit neatly into one of two categories: Irish or British, Catholic or Protestant, Unionist or Nationalist. Again empirical evidence shows that identities are not only plural but fluid.
McCullagh, the retired naval officer, comes from a “very Protestant background,” as he puts it, but today considers himself a Northern Irishman and a European. “I served in the British armed forces, but I felt more European because the more I worked with the European forces, the more connected I felt with them. » As social animals, we all crave – in one way or another – a sense of belonging and community. In Northern Ireland, historical and physical divisions, such as school segregation and so-called peace walls, were designed to separate communities. This makes it extremely difficult to discover your personal identity and sense of belonging.
McKechnie, the computer scientist from Bangor, has lived in England and Dublin. But he felt “more at home and closer to people in the rest of Ireland than to the people I met in Yorkshire and Sussex”. The traditions he had grown up with as an Ulster Protestant seemed foreign compared to the culture as it was practiced in Britain. Today, he describes himself as Irish and would vote for a united Ireland.
At its core, unionist ideology is rooted in attachment to the union, but in reality, Northern Ireland has always been a special place. He was never – and never will be – as “British as Finchley”, as one interviewee described him. The hard truth is that English people often don’t seem to care, and their concept of identity – of being British – is very different from that of the average Northern Irish person. This continental indifference towards Northern Ireland was illustrated in a 2020 report. YouGov poll which showed that 54% of the British public would not be bothered in any way by Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom.
This disconnect is partly the result of a lack of education and knowledge: English pupils learn almost nothing about the Irish famine, the Irish War of Independence, the creation of Northern Ireland and the decades of violence that followed. Ireland was the first nation colonized by England, and Northern Ireland’s continued existence is reminiscent of Britain’s imperialist history. Perhaps this is why there is a deliberate effort to avoid talking about its history and politics. This lack of knowledge leads to a greater level of ignorance on the part of the English, who know little and care little about the affairs of Northern Ireland.
More recently, Brexit has given people in Northern Ireland another reason to move away from the British identity and plunged unionism into political upheaval. Faced with the option of either remaining in a declining United Kingdom and being consumed from within by fervent English nationalism, or joining an increasingly progressive and influential Ireland with access to a separate European membership whole, it is no wonder that support for a united Ireland appears to be growing. A 2022 survey for the Irish Times showed that 54% of people in Northern Ireland favor EU membership, and 37% of all voters said the prospect would make them more likely to support Irish unity . THE Northern Ireland Census 2021 highlighted an increase in the number of people identifying as Irish over the previous decade, as well as a 5.6 percentage point decline in those identifying as British.
In Northern Ireland, we are often told from a young age, either through the way we are socialized or through the institutions that govern us, to which community or nation we are supposed to belong. But identity is not a fixed line. It is a state of constant change, constantly evolving, as the people I have spoken to attest to. The current Democratic Unionist Party adheres to this binary concept of identity: it blocked the formation of a power-sharing executive and assumed that the Unionist and Protestant community were homogeneous. Yet in 1991 its former leader Ian Paisley said: “I will never deny the fact that I am Irish. » After all, we were all born on the island of Ireland – not the island of Great Britain. As McKechnie says: “I realized I was Irish. »