Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Yes, I call myself Northern Irish but that could change

I want a province that is at peace with itself and retains pivotal links with the UK, the Republic, and Europe, says Malachi O'Doherty

Our report last December into census findings
Our report last December into census findings
Malachi O'Doherty

I am one of those who ticked the Northern Irish box in the census form. I can't speak for many others who did the same thing, but I can explain my own thinking and suggest that it is probably not far removed from that of some others anyway.

I did not expect that the 'Northern Irish' would weigh in the Sinn Fein argument for a referendum on Irish unity, precisely the opposite.

The argument which they are making is that the Northern Irish count with those who described themselves as Irish and together they represent a large body of people who are Irish by some measure and, therefore, are more likely to identify with the whole Irish nation than with the UK.

I actually am Irish and that isn't going to change, but that is a description of my cultural and geographical origins, not of my political intentions.

I would not describe myself as Northern Irish if I thought that, in doing so, I was demeaning or denying the actual Irishness of my roots.

I would not go so far as to say that I am proud to be Irish any more than I am proud of my feet, but that Irishness is part of me and I don't want to lose it.

I am also, in some measure British; my language is English; I watch more BBC than RTE. And I am European in that I have travelled widely in Europe, had strong relationships within both French and German cultures.

All of this is important.

When I tick a box that says I am Northern Irish, I am saying that my strongest identification is with this region and its people and that I want political stability here in a Northern Ireland that is connected to Ireland, Britain and Europe.

I am saying that I see a decent prospect of that being achievable and that I put my political hopes in that future.

I would describe myself differently if those hopes turned out to be ill founded, that is if political stability here ultimately proved impossible and if the prospect of wider connectedness evaporated.

For instance, I do not want an Independent Six County Ulster. That is probably the least desirable option for me for it would be conservative, xenophobic, potentially theocratic and fractious and would probably split.

Nor would I be comfortable in a union with Britain that took us out of the European Union. That sense of being in a larger union that connects me to Ireland and the European mainland is important.

And I would not want to be struggling to make politics work in Northern Ireland beyond a point where it became obvious that the place is never going to work. What that means is that though Gerry Adams was never able to make an Irish republican out of me, Peter Robinson might.

As somebody who designates as Northern Irish, I am saying that where two large communal camps here obsess about identity over practical politics, I prefer politics to work and can compromise further on identity to achieve that.

But a question of which identity I would opt for arises when the ground beneath my feet shifts. There are two immediate dangers of that happening.

The first is the resumption of sectarian violence through the flags protest.

Worse even than the protests on the street, for me, was the ill considered response of most of unionism which answered the call of the tribe, made excuses for the protesters, further legitimating them.

Unionism always makes the same stupid mistake; it rallies around the call to save the Union when the Union is not in danger.

My belief is that the Union was never in danger, even during the worst of the Troubles, yet unionism exacerbated a bad enough problem by feeding its following on paranoia.

Which way would I tilt if the political settlement of the Agreement unravelled and there seemed no prospect of another to replace it?

Normally, I would tilt back towards qualified Direct Rule, ghastly as that might appear.

But a balance in size between the two big communities, neither being in a majority now, would at least insure that one would not dominate the other.

But I would not want to go deeper into a Union with a UKIP-minded Britain that had pulled out of the European Union.

I see nothing attractive about being in a Little Britain, smug about its independence from its neighbours, particularly if that included the strengthening of the border for trade control.

Already it is plain that when David Cameron promised a referendum on Europe, he didn't give a moment's thought to how withdrawal would impact on us here, or even in Scotland for that matter.

I would, of course, go on living in Belfast, but feeling much less attached to the political and cultural context and hankering like other immigrants for my Irish and European home.

For now, my Northern Irishness describes my hopes, but as an identity it is, I now realise, provisional.

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