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Being British or Irish is just an accident of birth, say writer McVeigh

I was brought up to identify as Irish but if I'd been born at the top of my street I'd be British ... incredible to think I was one street away from being born my 'enemy'

In a searingly honest account, author Paul McVeigh reflects on growing up in Belfast's Ardoyne, feeling unwelcome in the Republic but at home in England - and argues why we all must be more open-minded about nationality if we want to move Northern Ireland forward.

Last year Ireland marked the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. This disastrous rebellion was the spark that led, a few years later, to Irish independence. Freedom came at a high price: a peace treaty with the British demanded part of the island remain under their rule which caused a bitter civil war that tore the country apart. The Pro-Treaty side won. A rift had been carved into the psyche of the newly freed Irish, and on the land itself, when the border between North and South was drawn.

I wondered what would come to the surface when the commotion of the 1916 celebrations stirred the relatively quiet waters of Northern Ireland. I expected trouble - the unionists flexing their muscles at emboldened republicans hankering for the freedom promised to the whole island in the 1916 Proclamation of an Irish Republic.

As 2016 came to a close, the anniversary would appear to have caused barely a ripple. It would be Brexit that would send shockwaves across the island. In the North, only two counties voted to leave, four voting to remain. Considering this, perhaps the most alarming question raised was whether Brexit would cause a return to the 'hard border' of the Troubles with Army checkpoints etc, or keep the invisible 'porous border' Ireland has enjoyed since they ended? It seems no-one is quite sure yet how Brexit will play out here.

If the centenary caused barely a ripple outwardly, it had stirred the silt deep within me, where my idea of nationality lay assumed and undisturbed. By the end of last year it had settled again reshaped.

My nationality can take a bit of explaining, especially when outside of the UK. I hold an Irish passport, yet am from the north of Ireland and spent the last 20-odd years living in England. I moved back to Northern Ireland during 2016, but consider England another home.

We Northern Irish are entitled to hold an Irish or British passport - or both at the same time. During the Troubles, some nationalists I knew held British passports for convenience as they were easier to obtain, cheaper and more likely to keep you out of trouble - being from Northern Ireland and holding an Irish passport could be seen as a political act, possibly representing an allegiance to republicanism and, by proxy, terrorism. Others would see a nationalist holding a British passport as cowardly, a shameful betrayal of your country.

It seems clear enough from maps that I should be British - the border is there and the North is often covered with the Union flag. This can make my Irishness difficult to understand when abroad. Recently an irate young Italian shouted at me that I could not be Irish because I was from the North: he knew this because he had been taught it in school. Now the Troubles are over, it would appear the sovereignty of North is undisputed but while the conflict was ongoing I found at least some understanding of our complex situation. People seemed to know there were two conflicting sides, so at odds about their nationality, it had caused a decades-long armed conflict. But those who knew something of the Troubles often referred to it as a war between Catholics and Protestants - even in England. This gives the wrong impression: it was not a war about religion. To simplify, it was a war between those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain under British rule and those who wanted freedom from it. Who you wanted to rule depended upon which area you were born in and, sometimes, which end of the street.

I was born in a part of Belfast called Ardoyne, a nationalist/republican area, which meant I was brought up to identify as Irish. As a teenager in the 1980s, I would hear republicans refer to Northern Ireland as 'the occupied six counties', a province of Ireland still 'unfree' of British rule. This is what I believed. One would think then, considering my Irish affiliation, that when I was old enough to flee the Troubles of the North, it would be into the arms of the South I would run. Instead, I fled to London. Partly this was for economic reasons and partly because I had a support network of family who had made the move before me.

Living in London, I never faced any bigotry or ill treatment because I was Irish. Nor when I moved to Brighton for a few years. The only borders I found in England where those created by wealth and race. At times, it seemed a betrayal to my background to say I loved living in England and to celebrate how well it had treated me. England was the old enemy of Ireland and arguably, in terms of republicans in the North, a current one. Yet, like my siblings, I never once considered living down south. There was more to it than economics and following the well-signposted path of those who'd gone before.

I had crossed the border a few times in my youth. The first time was on a school trip in my last year of primary school. I think the outcome was heightened by the childish concepts around the South and my nationality. These would be my first steps onto undisputed Irish soil. Upon my arrival, I wasn't quite imagining a ticker-tape parade, or to be adopted immediately and saved from my terrible life up North. Not quite. But, at least, surely, after finally meeting my people, I'd feel connected, feel like I'd come home. That my brothers and sisters here loved us all up there and it was only a matter of time until we'd be united as they were all working secretly to come and save us.

I certainly wasn't expecting what I found. If the Army checkpoints hadn't been there, I still would have known I'd had crossed the border from the road signs in Irish and English, the speed limits in kilometres and the wildly different accents. But there was something less material, subtler than those signs but just as concrete. The reality was, I felt, for the first time, like a foreigner. I was struck by the sense of being other and this was as surprising as it was impactful. It was the look on the faces of some who turned to our accents that caused the biggest upset. I saw judgment and displeasure.

I remember telling my mother about my feelings, hoping I'd gotten it wrong, perhaps something, as a child, I didn't yet understand. She told me she felt the same thing as an adult. In subsequent meetings with the Southern Irish this feeling was mostly confirmed. Later, on a number of occasions while abroad, I remember meeting fellow travellers hailing from the South. We'd be chatting over a few drinks when a local in their pigeon-English would say with a big smile "Ireland? IRA! Bang! Bang!" then mime shooting us. I would dive under the table shouting "Don't shoot! I'm one of you!" or, if tired, give a well-worn smile of recognition of my lot. The Southern Irish always took it badly. In fairness, they weren't used to being shot at.

In my experience, their reaction was not a protection of me and what I had gone through, but rather it was, pointing at me, "That's them - not us. Not Ireland," or "The North is giving us a bad name!" type of reaction. There was defensiveness and anger in our political discussions which would baffle me as a young man and there was some under-the-surface guilt there, which, I found easier to understand. After all weren't they free Irish? Free from the British and the Troubles. Hadn't they abandoned us never to return?

Another reason that might account for this feeling of being unwelcomed in the South came from a recent discussion with an Irish author who told me that far from the North being abandoned by the South "it was the North who didn't want us", which, of course, was true. The Irish/Catholics in the North were the minority and the Unionists/Protestant majority did not want to be part of an Irish Republic. Ridiculously, I hadn't really considered this before. During the 1916 centenary I had developed a chip on my shoulder about the abandoned North and was righteously comforted by it.

The confusion around the Troubles being a war between Catholics and Protestants comes from the fact that, almost always, political allegiance is delineated by religion. Eighteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, education is still separated along religious lines and, by-and-large, so is Northern Ireland.

During the Troubles, Catholics and Protestant areas were often separated by Peace Walls or Peace Lines. I didn't hear this phrase until I was in my teens and thought it was a joke - they weren't Peace Lines, they were War Lines born from hatred. They were there to make it harder for the warring communities to attack each other, but they were also borders separating Little Britains and Little Irelands.

Even if there weren't Peace Lines you knew when you were leaving one community and entering another - flags hanging from windows and lampposts, and kerb stones which were painted red, white and blue, on one street, and green, white and orange (gold) in the next. Political murals also told you which country you were seen to be in.

But the walls are coming down. One at the top end of Ardoyne near the Protestant Shankill Road came down recently. And people are more inclined to go into the areas behind them, even if that means walking around the Peace Lines that still exist. I see this more in the younger generations, but not exclusively.

A Peace Line runs behind the long avenue where I live now which is next to the street where I was brought up. This month I crossed this border and saw the other side for the first time. This would have been a dangerous thing to do during the Troubles. Some would say it still is. My older sister told me she used to take a short cut through this park to her primary school before the Troubles and the wall went up. She wouldn't go there now, despite times moving on.

It is reported that the Protestant communities in Belfast fear these walls coming down. There is an attitude of 'First the walls come down and then they come' (they meaning Catholics). Even though Protestants remain in the majority they are an ageing population and Catholics tend to have larger families, 'breeding the Protestants out' is a phrase I've heard. Nationality in the North is as much a vote against as it is a vote for - the other side wants to call the ground beneath your feet theirs.

If I had been born at the top of my street, behind the corrugated-iron border, I would have been British. Incredible to think. My whole idea of myself, the attachments made to a culture, heritage, religion, nationalism and politics are all an accident of birth. I was one street away from being born my 'enemy'.

A friend from Ardoyne walks his dog in the park at Ballysillan regularly. I went with him to see for myself the park behind my street I'd never been in. I would never have gone there before (and I'm still not sure I would again by myself). While there, we saw neighbours of his so I took from this that others from my area use it too.

Fear is a huge part of the problem. Time is solving some the problem. I am afraid but am dipping my toe in the water, while my younger friend is not afraid at all. I think it's more than the fearlessness of youth, it's that there are now generations who have grown up without the Troubles. My friend says - that's old talk now.

The centenary of 1916 and moving back home to Belfast caused a lot of old feelings and resentments in me to feel fresh and new. By the end of 2016 I had changed my mind about some fundamental concepts of my national identity.

Are you born or do you become your nationality? Is it something from which you can't escape and, if so, is nationality a kind of prison? I'm beginning to think so. Those bordered communities of my youth were physical and mental prisons. In my youth, both communities were fighting over which nation they stood in. When you've had to fight for something, you are, of course, more emotionally invested and hold on to it more fiercely. Even if you wanted to, could you really have stayed neutral while growing up in Belfast at that time? For those generations, is it necessary to keep holding that tightly all these years after, or, is it possible to loosen the grip or even let go completely?

Last year I found it hard to comprehend someone changing their nationality. For example, I found it puzzling that in the fallout from Brexit some in Britain, outraged at the thought of leaving Europe, were applying for Irish passports. To me, it seemed as though their passport (their nationality) was more like a football jersey they decided to change because their team had lost. Could someone who'd visited Ireland once or twice soon feel comfortable calling themselves Irish? A new Brexit-Irish?

Though I'd lived in England for a long time and voted to remain, I couldn't imagine being angry enough to want to change my nationality. If the shoe was on the other foot, I wouldn't apply for a British passport. But as the year came to a close I found my position had shifted, in that I could understand your idea of nationality changing and wanting to realign yourself with those you identify with, your tribe if you like. If there was such a thing as a Northern Irish passport I'd consider getting one. This had a lot to do with my experiences with promoting my novel The Good Son.

The book is set in Catholic Ardoyne, and I wondered what the reaction would be from readers in the Protestant community. The response has been an eye-opener. It made me realise that poverty, political strife and living in fear was what we had in common. And the Troubles has become this shared experience that binds those generations as much as it divides. I realised I had more in common with poor Belfast Protestants who had experienced the Troubles than Catholics who held the same passport as me in the South of Ireland.

Working with The British Council, who have been very supportive of me, helped change my opinion too. I remember talking to The British Council when they first invited me to travel to Mexico with them. I felt I had to say that, though from Northern Ireland, I was in fact Irish and held an Irish passport. They were completely understanding of that. Working with them and thinking about the many happy years I spent in England, where most of my friends and some family now live, it just didn't make sense for me to hold on this hardened border of my nationality in my mind.

Not all borders are obvious. Not all are signposted. Not all are physical. Borders exist in the mind too, and these lines take as much effort to remove as those in the physical world. I thought I would mark the centenary by lifting up my Irish flag to wave it. Instead I've come to the conclusion that I'd rather celebrate by setting my flag down. I realised there had always been a place in mind, a borderline drawn around my tightly held Irish nationality that couldn't let new ideas pass. There could be no movement or negotiation. I think, like my young friend says, 'that's old talk'.

Thinking about my Irishness during the centenary year of 1916, explaining the issues with people who had no knowledge or experience of Northern Ireland and moving back to Belfast, all contributed to a softening of my beliefs that allowed them to be reshaped. I no longer have the hard border that was made by the Troubles and I had patrolled ever since. If I want Northern Ireland and its people to move forward, then so must I. I feel my nationality and my idea of it is now more porous, like the border of Northern Ireland. I hope it remains that way.

  • This essay was commissioned as part of the International Literature Showcase, an initiative by Writers' Centre Norwich and the British Council to support UK writers. It is part of a series of work responding to the theme Crossing Borders

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