Newton Emerson: I do not feel Irish in the slightest
For people my age Northern Ireland really was as British as Finchley
The Troubles generation was marked by an almost total collapse in the unionist sense of Irishness, which is usually explained as a reaction to republican violence. TREVOR MCBRIDE PICTURE©
The older I get, the more I realise how much of my British identity I owe to two unexpected sources: direct rule and television. This is a unique feature of the Troubles generation – I was born in 1969. My parents remembered the original Stormont, while anyone much younger than me knows only its modern incarnation. I reached well into adulthood, however, with no experience of Northern Ireland governing itself.
Devolution was suspended when I was two, and councils were stripped of their powers the following year, leaving them – it was commonly said – with nothing to do except empty the bins.
Stormont did not meet properly again until a month after my 30th birthday.
What this meant in practical political terms is that Northern Ireland really was as British as Finchley, to quote Margaret Thatcher. We still had our own legal system and civil service, through which we were “directly ruled”, but who notices such technicalities? What was apparent was that government happened at Westminster, while “Northern Ireland politics” took place on the streets or in council chambers downgraded to a joke.
So if you were a respectable person, as the “head-down” mentality of the Troubles encouraged most of us to be, you looked to the mainland for anything more important than collecting the bins.
You also said “mainland” without a hint of self-consciousness because that is quite clearly where everything was decided.
From the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, devolution was intended to make everyone feel less British and ultimately to ease us out of the United Kingdom altogether.
At first, unionists did not want “home rule” of any description, but they quickly grew fond of the feeling of having a little country of their own.
It is no surprise that an imposition of direct rule after half a century threw this mechanism into reverse. People my age grew up in an integral part of one of the most centralised states in the world, where the idea that there had once been a parliament in Belfast, or indeed anywhere else but in London, seemed Ruritanian and bizarre. Stormont meant absolutely nothing to me.
What Stormont had meant before was unionist rule. What it fosters now, inevitably, is the “Northern Ireland identity”. Many nationalists see this as a plot to normalise the union but surprisingly few unionists see it as a process of diluting Britishness. Perhaps you have to be my age to appreciate how direct rule concentrated Britishness.
The Troubles generation was marked by an almost total collapse in the unionist sense of Irishness, which is usually explained as a reaction to republican violence. However, I do not believe this alone can account for the extent to which I do not feel Irish in the slightest. I think it is because I grew up in Co Finchley.
The role that television might have played in this is so underexplored that it sounds eccentric to mention it. But consider the circumstances, again unique, of my generation. We were born as television became the ubiquitous mass medium, only for it to enter a 30-year plateau. There were only three (latterly four) channels, two from the BBC and the others state-licensed monopolies. All were forced by technology and economics, as much as by politics, to have a resolutely national focus. There was very little regional content, mainly news reports read out at the end of national bulletins. It would be trite to say this amounted to British nationalist propaganda – its effect was much subtler than that. The entire UK population shared a limited set of cultural references to an extent unimaginable before or since. This was true of most countries in the world, or course, but in Northern Ireland I think we clung to it a little more tightly
My family did not talk to me about Britain – none of them had lived there. My school did not teach me British history or geography until I was in my teens. So how much of my Britishness came from a box in the livingroom, which I stared at for three decades along with everyone else?
It should be noted that for most people in Northern Ireland, even the Troubles were mainly something they saw on TV, and I quite clearly recall the view that a bombing was not serious unless it made the national news.
I went to university in Yorkshire, aged 18. When I applied, when I got on the boat and in the three years I was there, I never felt I was anywhere else but in another part of my own country. It was as cosy and familiar as a Tuesday evening BBC sitcom. I doubt many young people today could feel this so completely. Northern Ireland has become its own little country again.