Alex Kane reviews BBC’s Imagining Ulster series

William Crawley, presenter of BBC Northern Ireland's three-part series 'Imagining Ulster' pictured in front of the Luke Mural at City Hall, Belfast
William Crawley, presenter of BBC Northern Ireland's three-part series 'Imagining Ulster' pictured in front of the Luke Mural at City Hall, Belfast

William Crawley has the ability to make difficult issues attractive for a broad audience.

In Imagining Ulster — a three-part series beginning on Sunday — he explores the cultural, social and political influences that have shaped our identity. As he says, “Ulster has always been more than a place: Ulster is also an idea, with many meanings.”

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

This is about who we are. And who we are is a complicated, conflicting business, with elements of English, Irish, Scottish, British, Ulster-Scots and the newer ‘Northern Irish’ identity all interconnecting and weaving slightly different patterns along the way.

This is a story that begins with the iconic Red Hand: cut off and tossed onto the shore — a claim of land through blood sacrifice and self-mutilation.

It’s also the story of the ebb and flow of people from Scotland to Ulster, the rise of Presbyterianism and Ulster-Scots here and the reality that who we are and what we are has been shaped by a number of different, often competing cultural influences.

Of course, the question of who we really are has yet to be settled. You can take the terms Irish, British, Anglo-Irish, Northern, Northern Irish, Ulsterman, Ulster-Scot, Unionist, Republican and play around with them as much as you like (and, as Crawley notes, many writers and poets have been doing that for centuries) and you still won’t come up with an identity that suits everyone. Because who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be are not the same things.

At the heart of our collective identity crisis, though, is the need to write and promote a version of history, a running narrative if you like, which justifies our claim to be who we are. Before partition it was mostly about the British and Irish versions, but after 1921 (indeed from the late 19th century Home Rule Crisis onwards) it became more nuanced, because then it became about two parts of Ireland and the ongoing battle to either end or sustain that partition.

As Crawley points out, “the Home Rule Crisis challenged and changed unionism. It reconstructed in response to Irish nationalism. Irish unionism began to acquire a clear northern identity”.

That crisis also marked the beginning of the inherent fear of betrayal and insecurity that still haunts the unionist psyche. It marked the beginning of the quasi-military dimension to unionism. It established the tactic of brinkmanship and mass protest that was to be a key part of unionism until the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. More important, the creation of Northern Ireland set in stone something that came to be known as ‘Ulster Unionism’ — along with an identity which, while clearly not Irish, wasn’t quite British, either.

Although Northern Ireland was the legal name of the new country, unionists preferred to continue with Ulster and the Red Hand became one of the most potent symbols of the new state. A warning, perhaps, to internal and external opponents of the price they were prepared to pay to ‘hold what we have.’

But this new Northern Ireland, along with an almost reinvented Ulster, raised again the question of competing identities.

It was a question that a new generation of writers, poets and academics — John Hewitt, Louis MacNeice, WF Marshall, WR Rodgers, Estyn Evans and Sam Thompson — tried to address. Ironically, it was a question that the Unionist government did almost everything to avoid asking, let alone answering! Perhaps if they had addressed it they could have avoided the problems that brought down their parliament fifty years later.

As Imagining Ulster demonstrates the “who are we” question — in terms of the Ulster dimension — has been part of our history since that bloody hand landed on the beach a few hundred years ago. Almost twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement the question remains unanswered: indeed, the Agreement actually encourages us to choose the identity that suits us most. And maybe that’s what it will always come down to when we imagine or even reimagine Ulster: as long as we don’t have to be what someone else tells us to be then, somehow, we’ll continue to muddle along.

Imagining Ulster is a fascinating and valuable exploration of identity.

It challenges and provokes. I came away having learned something about myself and those who — willingly or unwillingly — share this space with me. And knowledge is always a powerful friend when faced with difficult questions.

• Imagining Ulster begins on BBC 2 on Sunday March 1st at 9.50pm