Emerging Northern identity must not be torn apart by tribes


When the last census in Northern Ireland revealed nearly a fifth of the population define themselves as actually belonging to the place and not to somewhere else, this struck political commentators as a conundrum.

Given that the region is virtually defined by conflict over identity and the political system has been devised around a means for bringing together in powersharing those who prefer to think of themselves as wholly British or wholly Irish, the census result is a meaningful development. It augurs a transformation to a society that isn’t divided and is composed of people who don’t agonise about who they are or where they are from.

It could be evidence that the Belfast Agreement is working; alternatively it could be a hint that there is a declining need for the agreement’s convoluted structures and the contract between fractious communities at its heart.

Region vs nation

The problem is we don’t know what it means. Why are so many people content to label themselves by an identity which attaches to a region rather than a nation?

Already, two opposing political movements are taking hope from the development.

Sinn Féin is almost giddy with excitement that these new Northern Irish are at least half-Irish. They are not, after all, calling themselves West British. So they must be at least half-amenable to the suggestion that both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland should merge into a single polity. It stands to reason, if you are Gerry Adams.

At the other side are the new liberal unionists. They have an ambition which it would be cruel to mock. They believe that unionism need not be tribal, that the union with Britain is in no actual danger and therefore it is unnecessary to rally all Protestants around its defence, within a single political party or cluster of parties working in cohesion. Even further, they think that tribal unionism’s big handicap is that it is uncongenial to people who regard themselves as Irish, who come out of a Catholic community, who are content with the link with Britain but who wince at the sight of red, white and blue.

Basil McCrea and John McCallister have left the Ulster Unionist Party in protest against the tribal wagon-circling which they see in electoral pacts with the DUP and which they believe is all the more destructive in a new climate of tension created by the protests over the union flag at Belfast City Hall.

Their hope is the “Northern Irish” might be people like themselves, content within the union, happy to be a wee bit Irish, and sick and tired of politics that presumes you are a Prod or a Taig and condemned to vote accordingly. They might be right. They might not. The safer bet in Northern Ireland has always been that the tribe trumps every other concern.


I can offer a little guidance to both camps claiming the Northern Irish, for I am one of the 21 per cent who self-designated in that way.

And I like the idea that identity is something I choose rather than inherit. In that, I may be among former unionists who can reason for themselves that Irish unity would be a good thing, as Sinn Féin supposes.

Yet how unlike Sinn Féin to regard identity as flexible. It is happy with unionists changing identity but very caustic about nationalists who do so.

I am Northern Irish and by that I mean simply I am content within the current constitutional arrangements. I would like to change them but not radically overthrow them. I am not available to any campaign for Irish unity. As for the new unionism that wants to shift from tribalism? I’m all for that. I’d be even more for the same relaxation of identity-fixation emerging among nationalists.

Which tells you another thing about identifying as Northern Irish. Northern Irishness is not an identity one would kill or die for. It’s a much more easygoing approach, depending– for me – on two things.

The first is the stability that tells me Northern Ireland will actually work. That’s in jeopardy.

And the other is Europe, that great encompassing identity that dilutes others. How Northern Irish could I be if David Cameron took us out of the EU? And the Border became a real barrier again? Not very, actually.

* Malachi O’Doherty is writer in residence at Queen’s University Belfast. His latest book, On My Own Two Wheels: Back in the Saddle at 60, is published by Blackstaff Press

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