“British, Irish or both” – Identity after the Belfast Agreement

“British, Irish or both” – Identity after the Belfast Agreement

Friday 3rd May 2013
(Note: The following is a summary of points which I will make in my contribution to this discussion. It is likely that I will also respond to the contribution of Professor Paul Bew, who is speaking before me.)

British, Irish or both? This question was being asked long before we ever heard of the Belfast Agreement; it was asked about the Norman-Irish lords in the sixteenth century and earlier who were described as “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. It was surely descriptive of the Irish nobility and landed gentry who have generally been known as the “Protestant Ascendancy”. After 1922 it may well have described the self-questioning of the Protestant minority who found themselves in the newly-established Irish Free State. Generations pass and perceptions of identity change. This question is now taken to refer virtually exclusively to the people of Northern Ireland. In my view this is correct. Despite the views expressed by Heather Crawford a couple of years ago in “Outside the Glow” I find it hard to believe that Protestant natives of the Republic of Ireland think of themselves as anything other than Irish. Still less would any doubts of identity apply to the many who no longer espouse any particular religious faith. As the present controversy about legislation for abortion shows there are deep divisions in Irish society, but they are not about being British – or even about hating the Brits. I think it is only fair, in contributing to this discussion, to identify my personal position in response to the question inferred in the title. I was born in Belfast, the daughter of a priest of the Church of Ireland. My father was a native of Spanish Point, here in West Clare.

Following his ordination he worked in East Belfast at the height of the depression of the 1930s and for the rest of his life lived and worked near Belfast. My mother came from Tullamore, from a family that abounded in Church of Ireland clergy (though her grandfather was the Governor of Tullamore jail). My primary education was in Belfast, my secondary and third level education in Dublin. Of course I retained my Northern family connections until the death of my parents and afterwards. My husband was a native Irish speaker from Ros Muc in Connemara and while I have lived all my adult life in Dublin I continue to have strong connections with Galway and have recently become Chairperson of the Governing Body of NUIGalway. While my Northern origins mean a lot to me, and I am proud of them, I have never thought of myself as anything other than Irish.

Towards the beginning of the peace process I served as chair of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle. The Castle itself was, I felt, a symbolic venue for that exercise – the centre of British rule in Ireland for so many years handed over to Michael Collins at the beginning of the new State – decorated with the formal portraits of royalty and Lords Lieutenant but also with the portraits of the leaders of 1916. At the time there was much talk of the setting up of “cross-border bodies” – I was inclined to feel that it was in my character as a cross-border body that I was selected as chair. We are asked to consider identity after the Belfast agreement. As regards identity consciousness in the Republic of Ireland, as actual violence in Northern Ireland retreated in time Irish identity was far less defined as being anti-British. Even Sinn Fein as an ordinary political party in the Oireachtas concentrates its fire on the austerity economic politics of the present government and on the difficulties of the under-privileged and the vulnerable. The divisions in society south of the border are now based on financial resources and social privilege rather than on religious denomination or national identity – again leaving on one side the present abortion controversy, and the North is not immune from that either! Because we thought optimistically that the Belfast agreement meant the end of “all that type of thing” we were shocked and amazed at the violent controversy over the flying of the Union Jack over the City Hall in Belfast. “What in the name of God do they think they are at up there? It’s only a flag” would have been a fairly typical reaction. There is far too little understanding of the continuing separation of the two northern communities and the semi-stifled bitterness that remains. Much use is made of that convenient entity “the island of Ireland” while the conflict of identities in Northern Ireland is kept well to the back of the southern mind.

Has the Belfast Agreement achieved any change in the division of identity between Northern unionists of all shades who would see themselves as at least politically British and nationalists who are at least assumed to wish and work for a united Ireland? The violent reaction to the City Hall flag problem would not encourage one to hope that anything has moved on the loyalist side, though much may be due to social and economic deprivation as well as political commitment. Talking to Northern friends and colleagues would not lead one to believe that the communities have come together at any real depth. There is, no doubt, polite middle-class interaction, but what is really said after those neat middle-class doors have closed behind people? Peace? Perhaps. Reconciliation? Not much.

Politically the Belfast Agreement carries some of the seeds of its own difficulties. The carefully choreographed arrangements of the Stormont political structure ensure that every issue is considered in the framework of divided identity. This has made it exceedingly difficult for any problem to be approached on a united basis of simply seeking for a solution. Every vote is a vote for identity – the middle ground, as in the Alliance Party, is ground down into irrelevance. Every public appointment is met with an effort to make sure “our man” or “our woman” is appointed, and esoteric calculations go on to try to work out artificial fairness between the two sides. At times I am reminded of the painting of the kerbstones in Newry – Green white and orange as one approached the town from Dublin and red white and blue on the more Northern side of the town. Is this what in the Forum we used to call “parity of esteem”?

Of course political interference in public appointments goes on everywhere – see, for example, the US Supreme Court and its judgments in Bush v Gore – but in Northern Ireland it is not just the normal party thing, the division is between two identities, to an extent two religions as well as two political communities. Has the Agreement set up a political system positively designed to keep two communities apart? Is a new identity beginning to show itself in Northern Ireland? Recently we are beginning to hear of the possibility of being “Northern Irish” Is this just a politically convenient label that can be stuck on almost anyone who resides within Northern Ireland or does such a description reflect a growing reality – even a loyalty to a new entity? Is it culturally and politically significant – or is it just a geographical description that could just as well be used for people from Donegal, Cavan or Monaghan – who, of course, also belong to Ulster? It seems to me to be a sign of a possible breakdown of old hard insistences. It could be worthwhile to encourage the growth of such an identity description, as it is now accepted through the Belfast agreement that the present political arrangement will last until constitutional change is justified by the wish of the majority. Even from my own point of view I could consider being both Irish and Northern Irish, and thus giving a different answer to the question in our title.

The concept of identity can change. In Ireland we have widened the concept of Irishness and opened it to those who were formerly rejected. In recent years the men like my own grandfather who fought in the British Army in the 1914-18 War have been rescued from nationally motivated oblivion and accepted as part of Irish history – and this is but one example of acceptance of those formerly condemned to outer darkness. In the present century increased immigration has brought us different cultures, and the achievement of Irish citizenship over time by immigrant people has become a proud ceremony rather than a sort of hole and corner acceptance. British identity too is changing – further steps to independence by Scotland and possibly Wales have altered the old certainties. The solid reliance on Rule Britannia is not so strong even on fairly nearby waves.

To use that convenient label again, can we on the “island of Ireland” have a new look at what we all mean by identity and who is included in our identities. Can we move away from rejection of “the other” and work for inclusiveness – in fact for peace and reconciliation.


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