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Genes don't decide if you're a unionist or a nationalist - you do

A study has shown that, on average, people here are 48% Irish and only 24% British. But it’s not your DNA that shapes how you think about society and the world - the reality is much simpler, writes Malachi O'Doherty.

Published 01/08/2016

Identity: The Union flag and the Irish tricolour, emblems of Britishness and Irishness respectively, sway in the breeze outside Windsor Castle
Identity: The Union flag and the Irish tricolour, emblems of Britishness and Irishness respectively, sway in the breeze outside Windsor Castle

When I was young, I learnt that I was a descendant of a royal house. I was one of the O'Doherty clan of Inishowen.

Since the British had unseated us, it was no longer clear who the rightful heir to the throne was. Perhaps it was my older brother. He was 10 minutes older than me, but in a royal house, that can make a difference.

I liked being royalty for a little while. The fantasy fuelled two indulgences. One was the notion that I was high-born and better than the other boys in my class at school. The other was that I was a victim of history, stripped of my heritage. I could lord it over people and at the same time moan about how I was hard done by.

There are not many fantasies that placate such a spectrum of self-justification. I'd hit the jackpot and was entitled to be a smug whinger for the rest of my days.

Then I went to Derry and found that Dohertys were all over the place, that we are as common as bog cotton in East Donegal.

And I got over it.

But I wonder if some similar opportunity to enjoy both royalty and victimhood had slipped away from John Hurt. A few years ago, he appeared on Who Do You Think You Are with high hopes of connecting himself to Irish aristocracy, only to find out that he is not Irish at all.

The poor man looked stricken, as if he had checked his balance at an ATM on the first day of his holiday and found he was in the red. Well, at least I can be smug with John Hurt if nobody else. I am actually Irish. Aren't I?

Well, I might not be as Irish as I think.

We are confident that we know the balance of British and Irish populations in Northern Ireland, because we can check the census records and voting patterns, but these are massively out of step with the findings of the website Ancestry.

We are, on average, 48% Irish here. Well, that nearly matches the census returns for people who identify as Catholic/nationalist/Irish in Northern Ireland. But that is not what the figure refers to.

What it says is that we are all mixed up, that few - if any - are wholly Irish, that everyone is a genetic cocktail. Your part of that 48% might be 10%, or 90%. Add it all up, even it out, crunch it through the database and that's the figure that comes out.

The figure refers to the population - not to any individual in it. Statistics is a bother that way.

But the picture is more worrying for the British-as-Finchley unionists among us. We - that is me and you and Nelson McCausland and Gerry Adams and the rest of us - are, on average, 24% British.

That's a very poor match to the section of the population that identifies as British in the census returns and votes for unionist parties. Well, now, what are we to make of that?

For years, people have been speculating about the demographic shifts and how they might play out, presuming that a Catholic/Irish majority was on its way and that, when it came, the political balance would tilt that way, too.

But Irishness already predominates - and by a considerable margin, if we go by genetics. And it doesn't make tuppence-worth of difference, anymore than my royal ancestors who built stone towers in Donegal, in which to huddle and shiver in their furs against the west wind, did to my standing in the classroom when I was 10.

Identity is not blood. Clearly, a lot of those people who identify themselves as British and unionist - maybe most of them - are descended from Irish people who were here before the Plantation of Ulster.

And some - though maybe not as many - of those who declare themselves Irish to the core, have a lot of British blood in them.

That's how we come to have McGuinnesses, Adamses and Morrisons on both sides of the argument.

Complicating things a bit further, the Scottish are currently about 43% Irish, too, and some of that Irish blood we have here now may have come over with the Plantation.

That wrecks all possibility of constructing, or even destroying, an argument for, or against, that historic event having had any impact in shaping the positions held by unionists and nationalists today.

In other words, it's all just messed up. It's not your genes that determine whether you become wither a nationalist, or a unionist. You decide that for yourself.

I know some people who have switched from being nationalist to unionist here, or the other way round, but even then they tended to imagine that they were following an historic influence, as children of mixed marriages, switching from the culture of one parent to that of the other.

You can kid yourself that you have an identity that runs in your family, but it may not run from very far back. You are what you want to be.

I am an O'Doherty, with an input into my genetic make-up from that angry lot of shivering clanspeople in Inishowen. But it's impossible to say, unless I have my DNA checked, how much O'Doherty is in my mix.

Some years ago, I had minor surgery, after which the scar healed in an untidy way, looking like a long worm under the skin. My GP told me that this was something more common among black Africans, and suggested that I have some genetic inheritance from that stream. Maybe I do.

There is only one option left to us as the genetic record dismantles all prospect - as it does - of our claiming to have been born British, or Irish.

We can only really get away with declaring allegiances on the grounds that we want them. I am Irish if I want to be. I am British if I want to be.

And while I cannot stand firmly on any insistence that nature has made me irrefutably Irish, there is one thing I can insist on: that is the right to identify myself more or less as I please and to insist that no one can contradict me.

Of course, it would be a bit tricky choosing to identify as African, as Rachel Dolezal found when she was forced to resign as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, on the grounds that she was white.

I'll accept that I am stuck with being white - mostly.

As for the rest, I'm working on it.

A study has shown that, on average, people here are 48% Irish and only 24% British. But it's not your DNA that shapes how you think about society and the world - the reality is much simpler, writes Malachi O'Doherty

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