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Fintan O’Toole: Prominence of Northern Irish identity will complicate a united Ireland

Irish unity would require complex political and cultural arrangements in which Northern Ireland continues to function as meaningful entity

The future of the island will be decided by the people who are least fixated on the future of the island. In other words, the decision on whether Northern Ireland stays in the United Kingdom or becomes part of a united Ireland will be made by those whose present answer to the question is “meh”.

The jury for the identity Oscars will be made up of people who are not all that impressed by any of the movies. This is what the Northern Ireland census, released last week, tells us.

The big story of the census was the confirmation that those from a Catholic background now outnumber cultural Protestants. That’s fair enough – when a political entity is specifically designed to have a Protestant majority, the loss of its raison d’être is pretty big news.

But even in Northern Ireland religion is not quite the same thing as politics. And the census also shows that well over one-third of people in Northern Ireland do not have an exclusively Irish or British identity. They identify either as Northern Irish only or as Northern Irish with some combination of the other two options.


This is the second paradox. Northern Ireland, in the underlying form it was supposed to take in 1921, has ceased to exist – yet more people regard it as an essential component of their national identity.

This Northern Irish identity has, however, no real legal status. “Northern Ireland”, of course, is an entity recognised both in UK law and by all parties to the Belfast Agreement.

But “Northern Irish”? Not so much. There are, in the agreement, “people of Northern Ireland” and “people in Northern Ireland”. But there are no “Northern Irish people”.

Lovely formulation

The agreement, famously and wonderfully, declares “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose”.

It’s a lovely formulation but it now looks increasingly at odds with what has actually happened. It offers three options: Irish, British, both.

The first two are solid enough: in the census, 61 per cent of people picked one or the other exclusively. But “both” has turned out to be a non-runner.

Just half of 1 per cent of people in Northern Ireland say they are British and Irish. That’s a mere 11,800 people. If they were all in same town, it would be the size of Castlebar.

To put it in context, more people in the North say their identity is exclusively Lithuanian than take the “or both” option offered in the agreement. In terms of effectiveness on this level, the agreement would have been better off presenting the choice to be “Irish or British or Lithuanian”.

Historically speaking, this is strange. For a long time, it would have been normal enough for a lot of people on the island (especially but not exclusively Protestants) to be quite comfortable with saying they were both Irish and British.

The vague hope in 1998, when the agreement was signed, was that this cohort of people would expand naturally. Instead it seems to have melted away.

What’s happened as an alternative is that the non-binary people now put a big dollop of Northern Irishness into their identity cake mix. They do this in a rich variety of combinations: Northern Irish only; British and Northern Irish; Irish and Northern Irish; British, Irish and Northern Irish.

Conceptual problem

I particularly like the 28,000 people who go for the triple whammy. They put an extra -ish into each of the categories. They are Britishish, Irishish and Northernish.

But there is a conceptual problem here. A very substantial part of the population has an identity that is not politically or legally recognised.

The architecture of the agreement is based on “two traditions” and a language of “parity of esteem” between them. But where’s the parity of esteem for the meh people? If you don’t particularly esteem either of the two traditions, are you not entitled to your own self-esteem?

And yet, it’s the meh people who hold the balance of power. It is people who feel attached to Northern Ireland, not as a polity but as a place, who will decide the result of any future Border poll.

This surely has profound implications for what a united Ireland even means. If nationalists want to persuade a majority in the North to vote for it, they have to be able to present it in a form that does not obliterate Northern Irish identity. They have to include and sustain that sense of belonging.

That doesn’t look like a simple offer of Dublin rule. It looks much more like a complex set of political and cultural arrangements in which Northern Ireland continues to function as a meaningful entity.

In a sense, Northern Ireland is already living in its own double afterlife. Its unionist and Protestant lives are over.

It died politically in 1972, when the old unionist monopoly was abolished. It has now died religiously, with the official end of the Protestant nature of the statelet.

But it is rather good at being undead. So long as so many people believe they belong to it, its afterlife will continue in a united Ireland.