Branagh’s Belfast is right, unionists didn't have a problem calling themselves Irish

Donald Clarke: Even Ian Paisley saw no contradiction in being both British and Irish

“The Irish were born for leaving,” Aunt Violet says in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. “Otherwise the rest of the world would have no pubs.” Unless you have spent the last few months with your beak in a bucket, you will be aware that the Oscar-friendly film is set among a Protestant community in the early days of The Troubles.

When we emerged from the press screening, a critic from another newspaper — apparently viewing me as the oracle on all things Ulster and Protestant — asked if a lady from that “community” would, in 1969, really have described herself as Irish.

Others were asking the same thing. In a touching piece for the Times in London, Nick Laird, raised in Tyrone, pondered the "sepia light" that illuminates this shamelessly sentimental film. "The idea that Protestants in working-class Belfast might casually refer to themselves as Irish requires a certain amount of wish fulfilment, or ignorance," he wrote. Does it really?

It would come as an enormous surprise if any Glaswegian or Edinburgher who voted against independence claimed they weren't Scottish as well as British

We all move through different versions of the same place. But there really was a time when unionists happily accommodated both Irish and British "identities" (as nobody then said). My late grandfather, a Protestant from rural Armagh, would have found the notion he wasn't Irish utterly absurd. No less staunch a figure than Ian Paisley saw no contradiction in being both things. "I would never repudiate the fact that I am an Irishman," he said in 1991.

Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Professor of Political Science at NUI, Galway, points us towards a survey carried out by Richard Rose in late 1968. Asked the question "Which of these terms best describes the way you think of yourself?" 20 per cent of Protestants responded "Irish". It is worth noting the word "best" there. The respondents are not merely saying they consider themselves Irish as well as British, but also that they would reach for the former adjective before the latter. (Thirty per cent plumped for British. Six per cent said they vacillated.)

There was always a benign blurring in sport. Unionist-inclined delegates were happy to wear blazers for the now-defunct Golfing Union of Ireland. Folk in sheepskin carcoats and Barbour jackets will shortly journey from Lisburn and Ballymena to yell "Ireland!" in the vicinity of Lansdowne Road. Not all of those vote Sinn Féin or SDLP. "You were always aware that you were Irish — you certainly weren't English," the sports broadcaster George Hamilton, who was raised as a Presbyterian in Belfast, told John Meagher in the Irish Independent recently.

Why would it be otherwise? It would come as an enormous surprise if any Glaswegian or Edinburgher who voted against independence claimed they weren’t Scottish as well as British. Indeed, any such suggestion would be treated with at best bafflement, at worst fury.

Yet something has changed in Ireland. Modern-day unionists approach the I-word with much greater caution than their predecessors. Brian John Spencer, an artist and writer working in Belfast, has gathered together some fascinating quotes on the changing perspectives for his blog The New Irishman. In 2012, Peter Robinson, Paisley's successor as head of the Democratic Unionist Party, demonstrated how far the culture had shifted.

Better the tyranny of the language pedants than the more violent alternative, but we seem to get more caught up in semantic distinctions than ever

“I consider myself an Ulster or Northern Ireland unionist, not an Irish unionist,” he said. “That is a significant change not just from 100 years ago but even from 50 years ago.” He went further. saying that “I accept that there are some unionists in Northern Ireland who are still relaxed identifying themselves as ‘Irish’, though they are a minority”.

Robinson correctly notes that the change has happened over the past 50 years. That is to say it is almost certainly to do with the conflict we see churning up in Branagh’s Belfast. As attitudes hardened, the need increased to define oneself more distinctly within one group or another.

Crossovers were discouraged. Reasonable unionists would explain that they avoided the word “Irish” as it might cause “confusion”. Less reasonable unionists appeared to be stripping themselves of an adjectival taint. Meanwhile, out there in the real world, the rise of identity politics hardened the craze for segmentation. Nobody “identified as” Irish in 1969. Nobody “identified as” anything in those days. You just were.

For all their abundant virtues, the Belfast Agreement and the resultant Northern Irish Assembly — with its "designations" — did little to break the urge to categorise. Better the tyranny of the language pedants than the more violent alternative, but we seem to get more caught up in semantic distinctions than ever. Just observe how many now bristle at "the South," long uncontroversial, as an informal synonym for… well, I hardly dare say what.

“I am dismayed by the fact so many unionists today do not identify as Irish,” Brian John Spencer says. “I am also dismayed at how the Republican movement so readily push the divisive notion that republicans and nationalists are Irish citizens — and unionists are somehow not Irish.”

At any rate, the answer to the question posed outside the cinema was “yes”. Unionists once had few reservations about calling themselves Irish. Now many do. We should all be sad about that.