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We all can be Irish, British or both

By Professor Brian M Walker

Published 10/06/2015

Sir James Galway performs at Crumlin Road Gaol as part of BBC Music Day
Sir James Galway performs at Crumlin Road Gaol as part of BBC Music Day
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has a light moment with former First Minister Ian Paisley as they touch swords during the official opening of the Battle of the Boyne site in Drogheda on May 6, 2008

Sir James Galway was condemned by some for saying he considered himself Irish rather than Northern Irish, but he is far from the first to do so. And among his predecessors is one Rev Dr Ian Richard Kyle Paisley

Comments last week by Sir James Galway raised interesting questions about Irish identity. He referred to himself as Irish, which some commentators have seen as irreconcilable with accepting a Knighthood from the Crown. In fact, it is perfectly possible to be both Irish and British.

At the beginning of the last century most unionists in Ireland, north and south, saw themselves not only as British citizens, loyal to the Crown, but also as Irish. They were part of the United Kingdom, with its Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish national parts and they wanted to keep it that way, a view not shared by Irish nationalists and republicans. Northern opposition to Home Rule after 1912 led to a growth in Ulster identity.

After the new State of Northern Ireland was established in 1921, there was increased emphasis among unionists on their British and Ulster identities. Nonetheless, many northern unionists retained a sense of Irishness.

In 1925, in protest at a decision to set up a separate medical register for the south, an editorial in the Belfast Northern Whig declared: "When Ulster declined to join the south in separation from Great Britain, it did not surrender its title as part of Ireland and renounce its share in those traditions in art, in learning, in arms, in song, in sport and in science that were worth preserving in a united sense."

In fact, in many areas of life in Northern Ireland, an Irish dimension survived. Northern Anglicans remained members of the Church of Ireland, northern Presbyterians remained members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and northern Orangemen remained members of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. Various sporting bodies, such as those for rugby and hockey, continued to organise their national teams on an all-Ireland basis.

There were unionists who self-identified as British, or with Ulster, but had no difficulty in seeing themselves as Irish as well.

On March 5, 1929, Lord Craigavon, in a parliamentary debate, declared: "We are Irishmen… I always hold that Ulstermen are Irishmen and the best of Irishmen - much the best."

After Craigavon died his successor as Prime Minister, JM Andrews, said of him that he was "a great Ulsterman, a great Irishman, a great imperialist".

In 1949 Brian Faulkner, in one of his first public speeches as a unionist MP, objected to the way in which the south had adopted the title of Republic of Ireland: "They have no right to the title Ireland, a name of which we are just as proud as they."

When it was suggested to the Northern Ireland Cabinet in 1959 that the name of Ireland in the title of the State should be dropped, Faulkner objected successfully on the grounds that he was not prepared to concede to the south a monopoly of the term "Irish": he saw nothing incompatible between being Northern Irish and British. When Richard Rose, in the late-1960s, before the outbreak of our Troubles, conducted a survey of people's identities he found that among Protestants, 20% identified themselves as Irish, 6% as sometimes Irish and sometimes British, 2% as Anglo-Irish, 32% as Ulster and 39% as British. It can be assumed that most of those Protestants who called themselves Irish were also unionists and carried British passports.

We can note that 15% of Catholics self-identified as British, and it is likely that most saw themselves as Irish as well.

In the course of the Troubles, however, with stark polarisation over identity, the number of Protestants who described themselves as Irish fell until, by 1989, it stood at only 3%. From this time there has been a rise in a Northern Irish identity among Protestants, although the majority have continued to identify themselves simply as British.

Still, there were unionists who regarded themselves as Irish as well as British. In an article in the Belfast Telegraph on February 2, 1994, the writer Sam McAughtry declared: "I embrace my Irishness and am glad of it. I am a citizen of the United Kingdom and I want it to stay that way. I am Irish and I want to stay in the United Kingdom. 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."

The 1998 Belfast Agreement acknowledged such dual identity. It referred to all the people of Northern Ireland "in the diversity of their identities and traditions". Crucially, 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".

Since then many people have become more relaxed about their identity. At his April 2007 meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin, the DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley remarked: "I am proud to be an Ulsterman, but I am also proud of my Irish roots." During her visit to Brakey Orange hall in Co Cavan in November 2008, Irish President Mary McAleese declared that, after the 1998 Agreement, it was "possible to be both Irish and British, possible to be both Orange and Irish".

The rise of devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales in recent years has served to highlight the fact that the British State is made up of different nations.

While, in the past, people in Britain would have stressed their Britishness, now they are much more aware that they are also Scottish, Welsh or English.

In the UK, citizenship and nationality are different, but complementary elements of identity. This raises important questions of identity for many unionists in Northern Ireland, who emphasise their British identity.

Unionists in Northern Ireland are British citizens, but they enjoy different nationality from those in other parts of the UK. While they are British, they can self-identify also as Irish, or Northern Irish, or with Ulster.

British passports declare that those who hold them are citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At the same time, those of us who live in Northern Ireland, or are from Northern Ireland, and own such passports are perfectly entitled to call ourselves Irish as well as British, as many have done in the past and as makes sense today.

In this light, the position of Sir James Galway as regards his Irish identity and his British title is a reasonable one.

  • Brian M Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies in the Politics School at Queen's University, Belfast, and author of A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace (Palgrave Macmillan)

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