One of the most interesting questions in the Belfast Telegraph’s latest poll concerned ‘cultural identity’. Respondents were asked ‘which term best describes you?', with 33% plumping for British, 13% Northern Irish and 21% Irish. 33% preferred to say ‘other’, or express no opinion.
I suspect that many of the others who refused to give a definitive answer felt that they couldn’t reduce their identity to one of the three categories. Most of us probably feel British, Irish and Northern Irish or any combination of the three.
That’s a strength, rather than a weakness.
In the early 1990s I had a discussion with a friend who was also a strong nationalist. He argued robustly for equality and ‘parity of esteem’ for the Irish in Northern Ireland. I asked whether his definition of Irishness included me, pointing out that my definition of British included him.
He laughed and he said he would get back to me, but I’m afraid he never did! A number of years later I told that story to members of Sinn Fein. They also laughed and said they would definitely get back to me, but I’m still waiting.
In Northern Ireland, any inclusive definition of Irishness has to encompass the British tradition on this island. Many pro-union people see themselves, as Northern Irish certainly, but also as Irish, as well.
The same logic applies to Britishness, bearing in mind that the UK is a multi-national state, combining England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, increasingly, people of Indian, Pakistani, Latvian, Polish, Chinese or other heritage.
So, when it comes to looking at identity and to our future, it’s time that we bought into inclusive concepts of identity for the people of Northern Ireland. Whether it be inclusive Irish or inclusive British, Northern Irishness or even the European identity.
The political extremes like to use exclusive concepts of identity to maintain divisions and drive us apart, largely for their own narrow agendas. The reality is more complicated and interesting. We should be happy to celebrate this diversity and complexity.
Hands up the football fans who support Celtic or Rangers and also love/hate Man United!