A question of identity stalls attempts to find compromise

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what passes for politics here: trying to explain to local, national and ‘southern’ audiences what the political parties are attempting to do and why, so often, they fail to achieve it.

My view has long been that we can only manage stalemate rather than genuine compromise because we don’t agree on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland and, perhaps more importantly, we don’t even agree on a name for the place.

So it seemed appropriate that Mark Carruthers’s new book – Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity – landed on my desk in the middle of the ‘Haass process’. It’s a collection of interviews with writers, academics, poets, politicians and artists, focusing on what we mean by identity and how they understand their own. And it’s a very important book because it goes to the very core of our problems and comes closer to explaining why we have so much difficulty in solving them than almost anything else I have read. Put bluntly, we don’t have a common identity: and if we don’t have a common identity – something that binds all of us together – then I’m not sure how we deliver a solution that the vast majority of us can gather around.

Here are some examples from the book: “I don’t have any hang-ups at all about Ulster. I have a greater hang-up about Northern Ireland; it’s still a term that doesn’t resonate with me all these years later” (Gerry Adams); “I would say I’m an Ulsterman. When I came into the world, the term Ulster was what you were. You were part of the original Queen Elizabeth settlement” (Ian Paisley); “Ulster means nothing to me. I would prefer to call this place Northern Ireland and I think when you say Ulster you’re immediately putting people into a box” (Baroness May Blood); “I would like to think of myself as a pan-Irishman with an Ulster accent” (Michael Longley); “I’d say I’m Northern Irish. That’s what I am. I’m Ulster-Irish, which means you’re Irish as well. Northern Irish and Irish. I don’t feel British at all” (Eamonn McCann); “I have absolutely no difficulty calling myself an Ulsterman, none at all. I’m a Derryman, I’m an Ulsterman and I’m an Irishman” (Martin McGuinness); “In identity issues I have no difficulty in calling myself an Ulsterman, someone from Northern Ireland, Northern Irish; none of those would make me feel in any way uncomfortable” (Peter Robinson).

That’s just a small selection, yet you can see already the myriad of nuances at play. Personally, I never use ‘Ulster’ to describe myself, even though I belonged to the Ulster Unionist Party for 30 years. I have no sense of being Irish, even though I come from Northern Ireland. I have no problem with people choosing to learn either Irish or Ulster-Scots, but I do oppose the idea of either Irish or Ulster-Scots language acts. I describe myself as a ‘pan-UK unionist’ because my sense of unionism has always been much broader than local, parish-pump unionism. Yet I also have difficulty describing myself as British, because I feel no particular sense of kin with the English, Scots or Welsh.

William Crawley has a nicely smorgasbord identity: “I feel Northern Irish, I feel Irish, I feel British, I feel European and I feel internationalist, and I think growing up in a place which has a contested political identity has emphasised for me the liminality of our place.”

William seems at peace with who he is and I almost envy him that sense of belonging. But he belongs to a very small minority. Very few people in this book and, I suspect, most of the rest of us, don’t have that broad-brush approach. Many of the interviewees have no sense whatsoever of Britishness: neither viewing it as part of their identity, nor wanting it as part of their identity. Likewise for those of us – more than you think – who have no sense of Irishness as part of their identity.

I quite liked the advice Professor George Bains was offered when he asked someone about how you “refer to this place without insulting people – because if you use the North of Ireland, if you use Ulster, if you use Northern Ireland, you’ll upset somebody”. The person he asked told him, “I usually refer to this great country of ours.”

And maybe that’s the best we can hope for? The SDLP and Sinn Fein cannot even bring themselves to say the words Northern Ireland: it’s almost as if they believe that the words have some sort of magical power which, if uttered by nationalists/republicans, will kill off the prospect of Irish unity. So they use terms like the north, the six counties, the north-east of Ireland or the occupied counties. Meanwhile, unionists use Ulster, Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Province or the British family. Each term slightly different and each one signifying differences in how we view ourselves and view others.

The most upbeat comment in the book came from Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody: “I say Northern Irish. Sometimes I say Irish. I think we as a people need to start being ok with being Northern Irish. How about a united Northern Ireland? That would be a lovely thing.”

Yep, it would be a lovely thing, but it’s not going to happen and it’s not going to happen because too many people wouldn’t be comfortable using Northern Ireland as part of the description.

I hope someone will send Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan a copy of this book, because it tells them all they need to know about the identity crisis which bedevils – and will continue to bedevil – any attempt to build genuine, credible compromises here. It should also be required reading for every politician, student of politics and general observer.

Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity. By Mark Carruthers. Published by Liberties Press