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British or Irish - who do you think you are?

By Brian Walker

In Northern Ireland there is a strong tendency to see our society as sharply divided between diametrically opposed ideas of identity, of Britishness and Irishness.

We should be aware, however, that these divisions are not clear cut and are in a constant state of change.

In a major speech shortly after announcing his resignation, Bertie Ahern declared that one of the saddest developments in recent decades has been “the reduction in the number of people in the North from a Protestant unionist and loyalist background who regard themselves as Irish, or as both Irish and British”.

Given that the conflict in Northern Ireland is often seen as arising from sharp divisions between unionist and nationalist and between British and Irish identities, many people today will have found his comments difficult to understand. In fact, he highlights the point that divisions over identity in our community are not fixed or permanent, as is commonly imagined.

One hundred years ago most unionists in Ireland, north and south, regarded themselves as Irish. Of course, most also saw themselves as British citizens and were very keen about links to the Crown and to Great Britain.

From 1912 onwards, however, with the deepening crisis over the future of Ireland and the rise of a new organised resistance in Ulster to home rule, attitudes among northern unionists over identity began to change considerably. For many ‘Ulster' now became more important than ‘Ireland'.

Post-1921, in the new Northern Ireland, we can witness the development of a heightened sense of British identity, embracing Ulster, or Northern Ireland, which denied increasingly any sense of Irishness. At the same time, the new Irish Free State experienced the growth of its own heightened form of Irish/Gaelic identity.

The movement in the northern unionist community away from an Irish identity, however, did not take place overnight and in fact many unionists retained a strong Irish dimension.

In 1925, in protest at a decision to set up a separate medical register for the south, the Belfast unionist paper, the Northern Whig, declared: ‘When Ulster declined to join the south in separating from Great Britain it did not surrender its title as part of Ireland, nor renounce its share in those Irish traditions in art, in learning, in arms, in sport and in science that were worth preserving in a united form'.

In many areas and for many unionists an Irish identity survived. For example, the churches, various sporting organisations and some academic bodies maintained their all-Ireland character, and many unionists were happy to be involved in this Irish dimension.

In addition, many unionists continued to regard themselves as Irish, alongside other aspects of their identity. In 1929, in a debate in the Northern Ireland parliament, a unionist MP stated: “We are Irishmen ... I always hold that Ulstermen are Irishmen and the best of Irishmen — much the best'.

The speaker was none other than the unionist leader, Lord Craigavon. In 1936, he would repeat this point: “While we are Ulstermen, we are also Irishmen'. When Craigavon died in 1940, John M Andrews, his successor, paid tribute to him as a “great Ulsterman, a great Irishman and a great Imperialist”.

For some unionists, the decision of the southern government to take the name of Ireland for its own state, under the 1937 constitution and again with the declaration of the republic of Ireland in 1949, was a matter of resentment. In one of his first public speeches, on July 12, 1949, Brian Faulkner declared: “They have no right to the title Ireland, a name of which we are just as proud as they.”

Faulkner continued to see himself as Irish and to talk of his “fellow Irishmen”. In an article in 1971, he wrote that, in the same way as Scots can be Scottish and British, “the Northern Ireland citizen is Irish and British; it is a question of complement, not of conflict”.

Nor was Faulkner exceptional in this view. In the late 1960s Professor Richard Rose conducted a survey of opinion in Northern Ireland about national identity. Of the Protestants, nearly all of whom we can assume were unionist andcarried British passports, 20% saw themselves as Irish, 32% as Ulster, 39% as British, and the rest as a mixture of these identities.

The following decades, however, would witness a dramatic drop in the percentage of Protestants who viewed themselves as Irish. The figure fell to 8% in 1978, 4% in 1989 and 1% in 1993.

Writing in 1995, Rev John Dunlop, former Presbyterian moderator, observed that: “Twenty-five years of IRA violence have, for many, all but destroyed whatever identification with Irishness there may have been.” He also argued that Irish nationalism, north and south, had developed an ‘exclusive and excluding Irish identity' which had helped to undermine the sense of Irishness held by many unionists.

In recent years, however, there have been important changes. Since the ceasefires of the mid-1990s, political violence has become virtually negligible. The 1990s also witnessed significant efforts by leading southern politicians, such as Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, to create a more pluralist concept of Irish identity.

In the 1990s a number of important figures from a unionist background sought to justify a sense of Irish identity among unionists. In 1994 the author Sam Mc Aughtry wrote: “We, all of us in Northern Ireland, together with the people of the republic, are the Irish nation...We Protestants should see ourselves as Irish people with British citizenship.” At his party conference in 1995, backing a civic unionism and a pluralist UK, David Trimble declared: “It is possible to be Welsh, or Scottish and British. Similarly one can be Irish or Ulster and British as well”.

This diversity of identity was acknowledged in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It recognised ‘the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose'.

How do members of the Protestant community see their identity at present? A good insight is provided by the findings of ARK in their 2007 survey which was published recently. It remains the case that virtually no Protestants are nationalist. Some 61% of Protestants continue to define their identity simply as British, while some 5% record Ulster. The figure for those who call themselves Irish has increased but still stands only at 4%: this compares to 1% in 1993 and 3% in 2006.

Where there is most significant change, however, is in the category of Northern Irish. This form of identity was first recorded in opinion polls in 1989 when 16% of Protestants described themselves as Northern Irish. By 2007 this figure had grown to 27% (we may also note that in the same year 23% of Catholics also called themselves Northern Irish).

This rise in popularity for a Northern Irish identity among the Protestant and unionist community in Northern Ireland is significant.

It can fairly be viewed as evidence of support for a form of Irish identity. In addition, it is likely that among those who simply call themselves British there are those who have a new sense of an Irish awareness.

We may even note the comment of Ian Paisley at his first talks with Bertie Ahern in Dublin in April 2007: “I am proud to be an Ulsterman but I am also proud of my Irish roots.” On May 30, 2008, on UTV, Dr Paisley referred to himself as an “Irish unionist”.

Recent Remembrance Day and Armistice Day commemorations, both in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have served to highlight the overlap between British and Irish identities. This debate on identity will continue. It is clear that we are currently experiencing a greater sense of diversity in the matter than in the recent past.

Brian Walker is Professor of Irish Studies in the school of politics at Queen's University Belfast

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