‘Us and them’ issues at the heart of our identity crisis

Alex Kane
Alex Kane
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Every time I hear someone (and it’s usually someone from a pro-Union background, by the way) quote John Hewitt – “I am an Ulsterman, I am British, I am Irish and I am European. Anyone who demeans any one part of me demeans me as a person” – my thoughts irresistibly run towards multiple personality disorder. Indeed, I usually start humming the theme tune from CSI (the TV show, not the shared future strategy), “who are you, who, who, who, who?”

Who am I? I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. I was born in Belfast in 1955, to parents who were both citizens of the United Kingdom. I was adopted, later, by parents who were both citizens of the United Kingdom. My passport is a UK passport. I pay my taxes to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. In political terms I define myself as a pan-UK unionist, living in a multi-national, multi-cultural United Kingdom.

I have withstood the efforts of those who have tried to bomb me out of the United Kingdom. I have never voted for any party or candidate whom I regard as either anti-UK or ambiguous/agnostic on the Union and constitutional integrity of the UK. I know who I am. I am content to be who I am.

Yet according to the latest truckload of statistics from the 2011 Census an awful lot of people in Northern Ireland seem not to share my sense of identity. Actually, an awful lot of us don’t even use the same description of the place – with Northern Ireland, the North, Ulster, the Six Counties, Province and occupied territory – being part of our daily language. One group, the largest, ticked the box which said ‘British Only’; the next largest – although the gap continues to narrow –ticked ‘Irish Only’; galloping up on the inside track in third place were those who ticked ‘Northern Irish Only’; and then ‘British/Northern Irish Only.’

The ‘British Only’ I can understand. The ‘Irish Only’ box is more aspirational than actual, but still sends a very clear message. But what do people mean when they tick a box and identity themselves as ‘Northern Irish Only’? Northern Ireland is not an independent country and could never survive as an independent country. So describing yourself as ‘Northern Irish Only’ doesn’t make any sense at all. No one can be ‘Northern Irish Only’. Well, clearly some people think they can, but it strikes me as amounting to nothing more than plonking yourself in some sort of constitutional limbo and pretending that it makes you a better, nicer, non-sectarian person. They seem to think that if you could just ‘park’ the constitutional issue then all would be well.

With the exception of Steven Agnew from the Green Party and Alliance every other MLA (all 99 of them) and 17 of the 18 MPs define themselves and identify themselves in terms of the constitutional question. In other words, they are either British Only or Irish Only. Alliance is officially ‘agnostic’ (although increasing numbers of unionists probably view them as anti-Union) and I’m not entirely sure where Steven stands on the issue.

The point I’m making, though, is that there is no electoral evidence whatsoever of the Northern Irish Only voice in either the Assembly or Westminster. So what do those people (and they seem to be the one genuine growth industry in NI) do at the next election? If they see themselves as ‘Northern Irish Only’ they’re not going to be spoiled for choice at the next few elections – because, so far, there is no party which stands on a ‘Northern Irish Only’ manifesto.

Of course, this raises another question: what, precisely, would a ‘Northern Irish Only’ party promote? The Assembly requires designation as ‘unionist,’ ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’ and that cannot change without support from the DUP and Sinn Fein. That, in my opinion, is not going to happen: primarily because it would fundamentally alter both the nature and purpose of the Assembly and of the Belfast/St Andrews agreements. And, as I have noted in other columns, it is not in the political/electoral interests of the DUP and SF to make life easier for potential rivals.

Also, what do those who define themselves as ‘Northern Irish Only’ think of the rest of us; those of us who identity ourselves as ‘British Only’ (although I would have much preferred a ‘United Kingdom Only’ box) or ‘Irish Only’? Where do we fit into their worldview? Or, better still, why do they think we should dilute and diminish our identities to suit theirs?

It will be interesting to see how John McCallister and Basil McCrea address this group, because I suspect that it’s primarily from among them (along with the 86,761 Catholics who define themselves as ‘British Only’) that they will be trawling for votes.

They have already said that their new party will be a pro-UK party, but not a pro-Union or unionist party. I think I know what they mean by that – heavily nuanced though the definition seems to be – but I wonder if it can be easily sold to others?

I presume it depends if those who identify themselves as ‘Northern Irish Only’ are, broadly speaking, happy enough for Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom.

I know who I am, yet I also know that my sense of identity is not the same as hundreds of thousands of others – even those who share my belief that Northern Ireland should remain within the United Kingdom.

It’s no longer just about an ‘us and them’ divide on the border: it’s also about a whole series of ‘us and them’ divisions about how we define and identify ourselves. Who are we? Maybe it’s about time that we had that conversation.

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