Belfast Telegraph

You don't have to be either British or Irish - you can be both

Reducing identity politics to a binary option, as Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster have, is to confuse nationality with citizenship, writes Brian M Walker

At an event during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, the leaders of the two main parties in Northern Ireland, stated their ideas of identity, of Britishness and Irishness, which were viewed as diametrically opposed.

We should be aware, however, that our divisions are not clear-cut and are in a constant state of change. There are other ways at looking at these ideas of identity, to which, interestingly, Theresa May, the prime minister, drew attention.

One can be British and Irish. That is how I view myself. As my passport records, I am a British citizen. My nationality is Irish. I live in the United Kingdom which is a multi-national state.

One hundred years ago, most unionists in Ireland, north and south, regarded themselves as Irish. Of course, most also saw themselves as British citizens and were very keen about links to the Crown and to Great Britain.

From 1912 onwards, however, with the deepening crisis over the future of Ireland and the rise of a new, organised resistance in Ulster to Home Rule, attitudes among northern unionists over identity began to change considerably. For many, "Ulster" now became more important than "Ireland".

Post-1921, in the new Northern Ireland, we can witness the development of a heightened sense of British identity, embracing Ulster, or Northern Ireland, which denied increasingly any sense of Irishness. At the same time, the new Irish Free State experienced the growth of its own heightened form of Irish/Gaelic identity.

The movement in the northern unionist community away from an Irish identity, however, did not take place overnight and, in fact, many unionists retained an Irish dimension to their identity. When Lord Craigavon died in 1940, John M Andrews, his successor, paid tribute to him as a "great Ulsterman, a great Irishman and a great Imperialist".

In the late-1960s, Professor Richard Rose conducted a survey of opinion in Northern Ireland about national identity. Of the Protestants, nearly all of whom we can assume were unionist and carried British passports, 20% saw themselves as Irish, 32% as Ulster, 39% as British and the rest as a mixture of these identities.

The following decades, however, would witness a dramatic drop in the percentage of Protestants who viewed themselves as Irish, largely in response to Irish republican violence. The figure fell to 8% in 1978, 4% in 1989 and 1% in 1993.

In recent years, there have been important changes in people's identity in a number of ways. This development has been influenced by the new awareness of different national allegiances in other parts of the UK, following devolution.

For many unionists, as well as for people elsewhere, there is a realisation that a British identity alone is not sufficient.

There has been a growth in those who see themselves as Northern Irish. This identity was first recorded in opinion polls in 1989. At the recent 2011 census, the number of Protestants who described themselves as Northern Irish, or Northern Irish and British, stood at 26%, while 68% still described themselves as British only.

Also, there has been a revival in the number of unionists who are happy with an Irish identity. The possibility of a diversity of identity was acknowledged in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. 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".

In 1995, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble declared: "The United Kingdom is a genuinely plural state, in which it is possible to be Welsh, or Scottish, and British. Similarly, one can be Irish, or Ulster, and British, as well."

At his first talks with Bertie Ahern in Dublin in April 2007, the DUP's Ian Paisley stated: "I am proud to be an Ulsterman, but I am also proud of my Irish roots." On May 30, 2008, on UTV, Mr Paisley referred to himself as an "Irish unionist".

Nonetheless, the number of unionists who accept this description has grown only slightly in recent years. This is likely to increase for reasons spelt out by Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference.

In her speech, she talked of the "British dream" and the "British people". She also spoke of "our precious Union of nations - four nations that are stronger as one".

The modern British state is clearly acknowledged here by the prime minister as a multi-nation entity.

To what nation do we belong? For unionists, the answer can be the Irish nation. Unionists can perfectly legitimately see themselves as part of the Irish nation, a part that values its British citizenship.

In the future, given developments in Britain, it may be possible for unionists to acknowledge an Irish identity, without feeling they are compromising their Britishness.

This debate on identity will continue. Perhaps, this will create greater space for people in Northern Ireland to adjust their identities to allow the emergence of a more pluralist and less sharply divided society.

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

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