DUP and Sinn Féin pulled back from the brink amid fear of the ‘others’

Emma de Souza: North’s next election could be a game-changer as identities shift

Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill outside Parliament Buildings, Belfast, on Thursday. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill outside Parliament Buildings, Belfast, on Thursday. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

 

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been brought back from the brink of what would have been a sixth collapse with a late-night announcement of a deal over the introduction of Irish language legislation.

If the Northern Ireland Executive has not progressed the legislation – which will give Irish equal status with English – by the end of September, it will be introduced in the UK parliament in Westminster in October, according to Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The compromise opened the door for Sinn Féin to renominate Michelle O’Neill as Deputy First Minister. DUP leader Edwin Poots, followed suit, nominating Paul Givan as First Minister, albeit without the full backing of his party.

An early Assembly election that neither party wanted appears to have been avoided. Both parties have good reason to be wary of going to the polls, not least because of the unknown voting intentions of the increasing number of people in Northern Ireland who don’t conform to the traditional nationalist-unionist divide.

According to the latest Northern Irish Life and Times Survey, which was published last week, some 42 per cent of people in Northern Ireland define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. This once-perceived “alternative” grouping has been steadily growing in numbers over the past two decades, in tandem with an increase in the number of individuals who identify as Northern Irish. The growth of both groupings is indicative of a significant change in the beliefs and identity of people in Northern Ireland which has yet to be reflected in electoral politics.

The new survey found that 36 per cent of respondents describe themselves as Northern Irish – an increase from 27 per cent in 2019. It coincides with a marked decrease of 10 points in the number describing themselves as British, to 29 per cent. The number identifying as Irish remained unchanged at 25 per cent.

Younger generation

The shift away from identifying as British is accentuated among the post-Belfast Agreement generation, A mere 14 per cent of participants aged 18-24 described themselves as British, in stark contrast to 49 per cent of the over-65s.

The increasing manifestation of a unique Northern Irish identity has not gone unnoticed by UUP leader Doug Beattie, who stated recently that the “growing demographic of people who see themselves as Northern Irish . . . they’re happy with the status quo as long as Northern Ireland is succeeding.”

With the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future firmly embedded into mainstream discourse throughout the island, it can be of little surprise that unionism would attempt to label and define a Northern Irish identity as a unionist identity. However, such a statement is based on a logical fallacy; a Northern Irish identity does not automatically equate with a view on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

The misrepresentation of Northern Ireland as a region comprised merely of two communities is in no way reflective of the society that exists today

The North runneth over with a wide variety of unique cultural assets and symbols, from beloved sports figures, to awe-inspiring natural wonders like the Giant’s Causeway, to the Ulster fry – arguably the best regional fry-up in the north Atlantic. With 83 per cent of those surveyed expressing a sense of belonging to Northern Ireland, the rise in a Northern Irish identity is more a reflection of an attachment to one’s homeplace than a political statement.

The emergence of the Northern Irish identity is a natural development in the same way that Highlanders have a separate cultural identity in Scotland, or the northerners in north England. Attempts to portray such broad demographics as a single homogenous hivemind are ludicrously misplaced at best.

Nationalist assumptions

These sorts of broad-based assumptions are not unique to unionism. There are also those within nationalism who all too often conflate the Northern Irish identity with the unionist identity, failing to recognise the former’s cultural legitimacy and falling into the trap of believing they may not be open to Irish unity.

The broad demographic who don’t adhere to traditional identities is more commonly referred to as the “others” – itself a rather shadowy term for such a large and growing section of the populace, yet somewhat apt considering how little is truly understood about this section of the community.

They have yet to be fully reflected in electoral politics, with roughly 20 per cent – not the 40 per cent that the survey might suggest – of voters opting for non-aligned parties at the last Assembly election.

But if the trends are any indication of what to expect when the public next hits the polls, then the status of the members of the Assembly from parties representing “others” – whose votes are currently excluded from cross-community votes, for example – may well need to be re-examined.

The Assembly may now very well make it to 2022, with the next election due to take place next May. But whenever it falls, this next election could very well be a game-changer – in more ways than one.

The misrepresentation of Northern Ireland as a region comprised merely of two communities is in no way reflective of the society that exists today and attempts to square the circle on shifting demographics are futile.

We are all products of our environment, born to our respective plots of earth, with our beliefs, morals and choices in turn born of the million tiny slices of life we slip through as we grow old. Such complexity cannot be described by one word or blanketed beneath one banner – not anymore.

Emma de Souza is a writer and citizens’ rights activist

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