If we can’t agree on a name, does Northern Ireland even exist?

Region? Statelet? The difficulty is separating an Ulster identity from a Northern Irish one

‘It would require an anthropologist of some diligence to weed out the fewer Northern Irishisms from the many Ulsterisms.’ Photograph: Getty

There exists a photograph of this writer standing before a giant “71” mounted outside the Botanic Gardens in Belfast. I am very small. But even if I were larger, the towering red digits would suggest totalitarian confidence of a Riefenstahlian stripe. That wasn’t quite how it was.

I had been brought to the now largely forgotten exposition celebrating – or commemorating, or perhaps merely acknowledging – the 50th anniversary of Northern Ireland. I remember having a nice time. I also remember not really understanding what it was all about. It is difficult to mark the creation of an entity that defies easy definition.

A young Donald Clarke before the giant 71 outside Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, erected to mark the 50th anniversary of Northern Ireland

Fifty years later, the situation has gotten little clearer. Indeed, confusion has increased. The Border became largely invisible following the Belfast Agreement. Brexit then threatened a harder division before one incarnation of the frontier was moved to the Irish Sea. What sort of thing is Northern Ireland? It is not the sort of thing the Isle of Man thinks itself to be. It is certainly not the sort of thing the Panama Canal Zone once was. Maybe it should be compared to one of those compromised territories – the Territory of the Saar Basin, say – that sprang up in the aftermath of the first World War. No, that doesn’t work either.

When it comes to golf, soccer and the Commonwealth Games, Northern Ireland is one of the four constituent nations that make up the United Kingdom. Even the most fervent unionist would, however, have trouble arguing that the northeastern rump can claim nationhood with the same confidence that Wales or Scotland would bring to such a conversation.


People still occasionally fall into the trap of calling Northern Ireland a “province”, but, as the good people of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan will fight to remind us, Ulster has never been so constituted. So don’t try that either.

Nobody can argue with “region”. How could they? The area between your fridge and the dog’s basket is a region. So is your bottom. So is the Kuiper belt. That word conveys none of the constitutional idiosyncrasies that sets Northern Ireland apart. We get more precise with “jurisdiction”, but who, aside from m’learned friends, is likely to use this in everyday conversation? The word does not accommodate itself to poetry or romantic ballad. Try bellowing out “A jurisdiction once again!” at your next drunken session. “Statelet” is just a snide diminution; it is to “state” as “factoid” is to “fact”.

Pondering all this, one is tempted to argue that Northern Ireland does not really exist. It is Narnia. It is Shangri-la. It is, perhaps more convincingly, Westeros north of the Wall. All land borders are, of course, man-made and notional (a concept Celtic nationalists embrace more enthusiastically in Ireland than in Britain), but they do, at least, usually wrap themselves around an entity that has an agreed name. Wake from your dreams and embrace the reality of Northern Ireland’s unreality. It was never there.

And yet. To bastardise Dr Johnson’s famous refutation of Bishop Berkeley, if you give that quasi-national, partially-provincial region a kick you will still walk away with a sore foot.


A school of Northern Irish identity does exist. If you were talking to your doctor about it, you would, to their undoubted irritation, describe it as an uncomfortable feeling you can’t quite put into words. It is something to do with plain speaking. It is something to do with differently flavoured Taytos. It’s something to do with the BBC iPlayer. When certain Northern nationalists speak of “Free Staters” they rarely do so with unqualified affection. We need hardly clarify the unionist position on the Border.

The difficulty is separating an Ulster identity from a Northern Irish one. Perhaps the distinction is so fine as to barely matter. The Boxing Day Test is of only limited use. On Twitter, Derry’s own Eamonn McCann denounced “bamsticks who denounce me as a ‘West Brit’ for calling Boxing Day ‘Boxing Day’”. Hang on? “Bamstick”? Where else in Ireland would you find such a fine Scottish word being brandished in defiance? Maybe in Donegal. After all, many still say Boxing Day there too. Perhaps the Veda Bread Test is the one. If you are not familiar with that delicacy then you are certainly not a stateleteer

It would require an anthropologist of some diligence to weed out the fewer Northern Irishisms from the many Ulsterisms. But some shared cultural preferences have grown up in the “six counties” (a first mention here for that euphemism) over the past 100 years. The whatever-the-hell-it’s-called has, after all, been in existence longer than modern Saudi Arabia. It arrived just 50 years after the unification of Germany.

Nothing so nebulously formed can, however, survive forever. Half a century ago, the organisers of the exposition were already revealing some doubts about the project. The event was called Ulster ’71, not Northern Ireland ’71. Maybe that just fitted more neatly on the T-shirts.