Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Flag row is only one reason why more young Protestants call themselves British

Many young Protestants say pride in the British Army and anger at flag protests have reinforced their sense of Britishness
Born identity: The UDA mural in east Belfast where many young Protestants say pride in the British Army, and anger at flag protests, have reinforced their sense of Britishness
What future do you expect for Northern Ireland?
What future do you expect for Northern Ireland?

For nearly two decades of the Troubles, on Belfast's so-called "freedom wall" along the Newtownards Road, the local UDA transmitted a message to the world: "The conflict is about nationality."

Analysing the responses of the Protestant working class to the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll, specifically on the nationality question, you wonder how much has changed since that UDA mural went up.

In the 1970s, the UDA employed obscure academics and ransacked Ulster mythology to come up with the notion of a separate Ulster nation and people – the "Cruithin" – in pursuit of a home-grown anti-Irish/gaelic nationalism. The difference in the 21st century is that the public disorder of the past 10 months has convinced the most socially and politically alienated segment of the urban Protestant population that the only way is pure and simply British.

It is, perhaps, the most interesting outcome from the poll that, overall, 43.6% of Protestants see themselves as British, with that figure higher among the poorest socio-economic category (DE), where it rises to more than 44%.

In terms of age-group, the largest number who define themselves as British (as opposed to Northern Irish) are 18- to 24-year-olds.

The survey discovered that 37.4% opted for British ahead of Northern Irish in terms of best describing their cultural identity.

On a macro basis, there may be obvious cultural reasons why the British identity easily trumps the concept of being Northern Irish.

Over the last few years, there has been a series of set-piece events that have been gift-wrapped in red, white and blue: from the Queen's Diamond Jubilee to the 2012 London Olympics and the birth of Prince George.

The British brand has been back in vogue around the world and, no doubt, Northern Ireland's unionists felt they were part of the party, too.

However, there are possibly two other key factors at play which explain why young, urban, working-class Protestants feel more British now at a time when the very existence of the Union is coming into question, with the Scottish referendum in 2014.

The first is military. Or, to be more specific, the admiration young Protestants tend to have towards those serving in the British armed forces – especially in dangerous overseas theatres, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is no accident, surely, that among the voices emerging from this year's loyalist protests in places like east Belfast were ex-servicemen, who had done tours of duty in southern Iraq.

While there, these men would have felt part of a larger British enterprise; of being part of a wider family that fight and die together under the one flag.

The tradition of British military service, of course, goes back through generations, but it seems to have left an indelible mark on younger Protestants at a time (unlike the Cold War) when their compatriots are fighting and dying in real and often televised wars.

The other factor in bolstering Britishness as a cultural identity appears obviously connected to the toxic, unsolved dispute over the flying of the Union flag on top of Belfast's City Hall.

The flag protests have, in all likelihood, as the poll data suggests, solidified the concept of "British first" as how you define yourself in the world if you are, say, 18 years old, unemployed, or poorly-paid, and Protestant.

They now see the flag itself as an act of self-definition and social defiance. If you doubt the depth of feeling among the faithful over this, try reasoning with those on the protests.

Earlier this year, I argued that it mattered not if the Union flag flew on 18 days, or 365 days, over the City Hall, as it had no relevance to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, which remained in the UK and, as the poll this week demonstrates, should do so for some considerable time to come.

I pointed out that the head on the back of the £1 coin was a far more important symbol of where we were, rather than a mere flag.

It mattered not to a group of loyalists – young, old and some who should have known better – who surrounded me at a protest and kept up one line of questioning in a menacing tone, objecting to the argument.

For them, the flag was even more important than the currency. There is one other fascinating finding in the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll, which contains some disturbing data. It concerned people's projections 10 years into the future and the type of society they think they will be living in.

Among the menu of options they were given was a return to Troubles-era violence. For those aged between 18 and 24, of all religious groups, 21.1% believed there would be a re-run of the past conflict within the next decade.

Not surprisingly, those in the lowest socio-economic category (DE) are also the highest in terms of fearing the worst for society in 10 years' time.

Irony of ironies: those not even born when the ceasefires were declared, or were babies in prams, are the most likely to believe the current peace is but a pause before another bout of violence born out of conflicting nationalities.

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