Shaded and faded loyalties to mould the future Ireland
OPINION:I have my great-grandmother’s Ulster Women’s Unionist Council badge which she must have worn sometime after the first World War. It has the legend “For God and Ulster” and two inter-twinned flags.
A union flag to represent Britishness and an Erin Go Bragh flag to represent cultural Irishness. Such mixed symbolism was once commonplace. For example, the mythical figure of Cúchulainn stands in the GPO as a representation of unbroken Irish resistance but also appears on loyalist gable ends as a sign of Ulster’s defiance.
In social terms there is a history of mixed marriage, Catholic unionists and Protestant republicans and those who stood somewhere between the two.
For some of us the arrival of punk on to the narrow streets of Belfast or Derry inspired a sense of anger and rage about a conflict that took lives but led nowhere.
When Stiff Little Fingers sang of sectarianism and in so doing pointed a finger at multiple protagonists it created, for some, a sense of inclusion into a life of opposition to the repetitive and dull edicts of thoughtless and naive bigots.
However, in retrospect those teenage dreams of a new future did little to shape or fashion politics and in some instances they merely encouraged some to get on the boat and head off to less dangerously confusing places. In essence, the guns were put away not because civic society sought a new beginning but because loyalists and republicans either realised the futility or incapacity of their violence.
There were undoubtedly good causes articulated against conflict. Yet Northern Ireland, if we are really honest, has never produced a strong and enduring anti-sectarian or post-nationalist cause, proven by the low numbers of pupils in integrated education.
That is not to detract from those who led good causes as they showed leadership where there was none. But in reality the changes that are taking place, and which shade the standards of the orange and the green, are being shaped by forces beyond the Dáil and Stormont.
There have been undoubted changes in Northern Ireland as testified by the decline in violence and the stability of powersharing. Unsurprising then that the 2010 Life and Times Survey indicated that a mere 3 per cent of respondents felt that relations between Catholics and Protestants had worsened over the previous five years.
Green and orange
Furthermore, the bedding down of devolution seems to have drawn some Catholic respondents away from a desire for unification. In 1998, 49 per cent of Catholics wished for a reunited Ireland compared to 33 per cent in 2010. Between 1999 and 2010 the share who considered themselves to be Northern Irish rose from 19 per cent to 28 per cent, with a significant decline in Protestants and Catholics who considered themselves to be British (-13 per cent) or Irish (-10 per cent).
Two-thirds of those aged 18-24 now consider themselves to be neither unionist nor nationalist. In parallel to these identity shifts turnout in Northern Ireland Assembly elections between 1998 and 2011 fell from 70 per cent to 54.5 per cent. It is probably best to now think of various shades of green and orange, more diluted forms of identity and a blurring of nationalist and unionist orthodoxies.
But we must not read this dilution of identity as being movement oriented. There is no significant politics of inter-community identity nor is there a vocalisation of the positive shifts that are taking place.