Belfast Telegraph

Questions of identity remain. It's the answers that have changed

By Ed Curran

So do you consider yourself British, Irish, Northern Irish or what? Questions about national identity and constitutional aspiration raised in the latest Belfast Telegraph poll reveal again the apparent depth of division in Northern Ireland.

Saying we are British or Irish is simple. Defining the extent to which we feel British or Irish is not so easy.

If the opinion pollsters had been around in the 1960s to ask the question 'Are you British or Irish?', they would have found few complicated answers. The responses of most interviewees would have been written in the deepest shade of orange or green ink.

Virtually everyone knew where they stood. Loyal to London and Protestantism on one hand; loyal to Dublin and Catholicism on the other.

Sixties' people existed in two great monolithic politico-religious blocs - the unionists, the nationalists - corresponding, as near as makes no difference, to being 100% undiluted British Protestant in one community and 100% Irish Catholic in the other.

Then along came the Troubles, Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, the Social Democratic Labour Party, the UVF, the UDA, Official and Provisional republicans. Faced with such an array of political and militant choice, we had the opportunity to determine the extent to which we felt British or Irish or somewhere in between.

The monoliths of old-fashioned simplistic Catholic nationalism and orange-dominated unionism were shattered on one side by the young sophisticates of the university-educated SDLP and on the other by the fracturing of relations between the London and Stormont governments.

The process of redefining our constitutional attitudes towards being British or Irish was under way and has continued to this day.

Is the sense of Britishness of the Ulster Unionist Party, the same as that of the Democratic Unionist Party?

And what of the unionists who vote for the Alliance Party or the Ulster Democratic Party, or who have supported organisations such as the UDA and UVF? What is their national identity because in 2010 it seems to me there is no longer a one-stop-shop for Ulster's sense of Britishness.

As for nationalists and republicans, how far does their Irishness go beyond the defence and promotion of cultural identity? How do they propose to scale £9bn brick wall which stands between their aspiration for future unity and the economic reality of Northern Ireland today? Answers please!

So here we are in 2010. I would say Northern Ireland has become less British and more Irish than it was 50 years ago.

We have come a long way since the day when Ian Paisley objected to a Tricolour on display in a window in Belfast's Divis Street.

From a 50-year-old unionist majority rule state, through a transitional conflict of nearly another half-century, we have now a fragile British-Irish partnership of sorts which looks as if it might take as long again to mature, but could still unravel.

Being British or Irish in 2010 is very different to being British or Irish 50 years ago.

Just as the Protestant edifice has been shaken and stirred by secularism in the past half-century, so Catholic Ireland is now shuddering in the face of sexual scandal.

Northern Ireland may not experience earthquakes, but its foundations are like two great tectonic plates grinding and grumbling against one another, occasionally causing seismic upheavals.

The earth beneath us is on the move and no one can be certain what shape the landscape of the future will take.

Many Protestants know they are not as British as they once felt. The events of the past half-century have tried and tested the parameters of their loyalty to London and their United Kingdom citizenship.

Nationalists and republicans compromised their constitutional aspirations in the Good Friday agreement. They opted to live in yet another half-way house, admittedly a far cry from the partition settlement of 1921, but in a place apart nevertheless.

We are where we are. British, but not as British as before. Irish, but a long way from a united Ireland. We are where we are because there is really no rational alternative.

When the opinion pollsters ask us, we say we are British or Irish, but in truth we live in a power-sharing limbo-land.

We behave as if we were more British than the British and more Irish than the Irish because it salves our respective constitutional consciences to do so.

No doubt, our sense of Britishness or Irishness will be reinforced in the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912, or of the Easter Rising in 1916. Such occasions will stir the constitutional pot yet again.

This brings me back to the questions of identity in the Telegraph opinion poll. Of course, you may consider yourself British. Of course, you may consider yourself Irish.

But reach down into the depths of your soul. On a scale of one to 10, answer the question as to how British or Irish you really feel in 2010.Your honest response may not be as obvious as the outside world thinks.


From Belfast Telegraph