Belfast Telegraph

Brian M Walker: A case of mistaken identity

The notion that all Protestants are unionists and all Catholics nationalists is an anachronism, as the history of the last century shows

An Orange Order demonstration in the 1960s
An Orange Order demonstration in the 1960s

By Brian M Walker

Questions of identity in Northern Ireland are often viewed in simplistic terms. On the one side there are unionists/loyalists, who are mostly Protestants and who see themselves as British. On the other side there are nationalists/republicans, who are mostly Catholics and who see themselves as Irish.

In fact, in the past it has never been this simple and it is certainly not so today. This view fails to understand how our ideas of identity have changed dramatically over the last century. At present, our identities show considerable diversity which belies the simple picture described above.

Matters of identity have long intrigued me. My father was Belfast-born, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, an Army chaplain and a D-Day veteran. He considered himself to be a loyal British subject and citizen of Northern Ireland. He was also a proud Irishman.

In the early 20th century most unionists in Ireland viewed themselves as Irish. They were Irish, loyal to the British Crown and subjects/citizens of the United Kingdom. Elements of an Ulster consciousness can be observed in these years, but this did not exclude an Irish dimension.

In 1912 at Westminster, T P O'Connor challenged Ronald McNeill, later Lord Cushendun, on this point: "I observe the honourable gentleman called himself an Ulsterman. Does he mean by that he is an Ulsterman and not an Irishman?" McNeill replied: "I used the expression 'Ulsterman' as a more particular phrase. Of course I regard myself as being an Irishman."

With the Ulster Covenant, northern unionists sought to maintain the existing constitutional position for the whole of Ireland, but this changed to a determination to retain just six of the nine counties of Ulster for the link with Great Britain. For many unionists, Ulster became more important ideologically and institutionally than Ireland.

Events led to the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 and the establishment of Northern Ireland. In the new polity there was emphasis on symbols, such as the Crown and the national anthem, and less emphasis on Irish symbols. Still, there survived important all-island links, as in the Churches and various sporting and cultural bodies.

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Unionist politicians emphasised their Ulster and British credentials and beliefs. Sometimes, however, they acknowledged an Irish dimension. On March 5, 1929, in a parliamentary debate, Lord Craigavon declared: "We are Irishmen... I always hold that Ulstermen are Irishmen and the best of Irishmen - much the best."

In 1949, at an Orange demonstration, Brian Faulkner objected to the way in which the south had now 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."

In 1968, just before the outbreak of the Troubles, Richard Rose conducted a survey in Northern Ireland about national identity.

Of the Protestants polled, 39% saw themselves as British and 32% as Ulster, but also 20% viewed themselves as Irish, 6% as sometimes British and sometimes Irish and 2% as Anglo-Irish.

We can assume that most of those who defined their identity as Irish were unionists.

He quoted the unionist MP and Stormont minister Robert Simpson, who described in 1970 his nationality as follows: "Certainly we are Irish. When your forefathers have lived in Ireland for hundreds of years this is obvious. But we are also British. We are United Kingdom citizens, paying United Kingdom taxes and electing representatives to the United Kingdom Parliament."

The Rose survey revealed that, among Catholics, 76% saw themselves as Irish, but also that 15% viewed themselves as British, 5% Ulster, 3% sometimes British and sometimes Irish and 1% Anglo-Irish.

Subsequent decades, due to the impact of the Troubles, saw important changes in identity. Later surveys, conducted by Edward Moxon-Browne, revealed that "after having borne the brunt of the IRA campaign, Protestants have swung more definitely towards adopting the label 'British'".

By 1989 just 3% identified as Irish, compared with 14% for Ulster and 68% for British.

By the same date, having lost faith in "the possibility of reform within existing institutions", Catholics choosing a British identity had fallen to 8% and an Ulster identity to 2%, while support for an Irish identity stood at 60%.

This 1989 survey also revealed that 16% of Protestants and 25% of Catholics opted for a Northern Irish identity.

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement acknowledged the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, or British, or both. Some unionists became more relaxed about accepting an Irish dimension.

At his meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin in April 2007, DUP leader Ian Paisley said: "I am proud to be an Ulsterman, but I am also proud of my Irish roots." While on May 30, 2008, on UTV, he referred to himself as an "Irish unionist".

Nonetheless, surveys in the last two decades have shown only a small increase in the number of Protestants who identify as Irish. In part this may be because Irishness and Britishness are still viewed by many as exclusive and diametrically opposed to each other.

For the first time, in 2011, the UK census recorded national identity.

It found that of the resident population of Northern Ireland, 40% described their national identity as British only, 25% as Irish only, 21% as Northern Irish only and 14% as other identities, including a combination of the above.

It also revealed that 94% of people with an Irish-only national identity were, or had been, brought up as Catholics, while 81% of those with a British-only national identity were, or had been, brought up as Protestants.

The Northern Irish identity deserves further comment. As Edward Moxon-Browne has commented: "As a badge of identity, it is clearly less divisive than many others. Its attractiveness rests on an inherent ambiguity."

For many Protestants, the term "Northern Irish" probably derives from the name Northern Ireland, part of the UK and likely includes some who earlier called themselves Irish.

For many Catholics, the term "Northern Irish" is probably a northern variant of Irish, part of Ireland. At the same time, Northern Irishness can be seen as a common identity.

Devolution in the UK has had significant implications for identity in the UK. It has led to a new appreciation that the UK is a multinational State.

In the 2011 British census for England and Wales, just 19.1% associated themselves with a British identity only, with most others opting for English, or Welsh, identities. Of course, all remain British citizens.

The census reported an increase in "national consciousness" and noted that national identity in the UK is now "multi-dimensional". This has important consequences for Northern Ireland. For many, their identity is already "multi-dimensional". It is likely that this will grow in the future.

For unionists, it means that more can, once again, acknowledge an Irish/Northern Irish identity, alongside their Britishness and their unionism.

Professor Emeritus Brian M Walker is the author of Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities And Commemoration (The History Press Ireland, 2019)

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