We are all mongrels, to a greater or lesser degree. British-Irish-Northern Irish crossbreeds. Not to mention the fact that if we did ancestry DNA tests we’d probably be 20% African. We live in a divided society and in a contested state.
So to hear Foster and O’Neill playing Punch and Judy at the Tory party conference this week was frustrating. ‘Northern Ireland is British’, ‘Oh no it’s not’. etc. etc.
I was studying and teaching Northern Irish politics in University College Dublin when the 1998 Agreement was negotiated and ratified. An academic industrial complex soon emerged around it. There were the consociationalist writers who said (I paraphrase) ‘hooray for power-sharing, it’s the only way to get from a to b’. And the sceptics who said ‘hang on a minute, this just institutionalises sectarianism’.
They were both right.
And nearly 20 years on, we’re still living with this duality. Staggering political progress. And a groundhog day of stagnation and polarisation.
But what our politicians seem to have forgotten is that the rest of us live with our mongrel identities every day. And that most of us have worked out pretty good ways of negotiating the British, Irish and Northern Irish bits of our lives, and the Catholic, Protestant and secular dimensions of our relationships.
Take me – unionist family tree, Irish passport, ex-Protestant evangelical, agnostic, kids in Catholic school. Today I feel 50% Irish, 40% Northern Irish, 10% British. But these ratios change on a regular basis. Despite feeling only a little bit British, I spend a ridiculous amount of time pondering British politics and am utterly invested in its outcomes. More than this, I’m a left, green feminist. I’m a ma, and nail-biting member of the gig economy. I’m a muddle of complicated identities. And I’m utterly at ease with this.
But maybe the binary fits for everyone else?
Well, not really. Identity for a lot of people isn’t clean cut. Have a look at this, from the 2016 Northern Life and Times Survey. Only 53% of Catholics say they feel Irish with no sense of Britishness and 41% of Protestants feel British with no Irishness. Combined with the no religions who are even less willing to categorise themselves as exclusively one or the other, that’s the majority of people in Northern Ireland having some kind of hybrid national identity.
And consider that this question simply asks about Irishness and Britishness, without even getting into Northern Irishness, which overlaps with both, and complicates things further (and which about a quarter of people actually choose as their top national identity when it’s included in the question).
Also consider that this question doesn’t ask people to explain what kind of way they feel Irish if they struggle to articulate the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Or to ask how does it feel to British if you suspect that your love for the mainland is unrequited. I think most people here have a keen sense of their northern strangeness. And that the simple words ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ mask a wealth of complexity and contradictions for us all.
And I see this glorious melding every day in the town where I live. I see a generosity between traditions at the school gate (yes, at Catholic school). I see it in my friends’ relationships and marriages, many of which are mixed. I see it in the way our kids dip in and out of different traditions, Brownies at the Church of Ireland on Tuesdays, every third Wednesday at mass with school. I see it in some older unionist family members who love Gaelic history and place-names. I see it in nationalists who sit under the Union Jack at their Protestant neighbour’s church funeral. I see it in workmates who take care how they speak to one another. Or better still, who have learned the art of cross-community banter in the pub (an advanced skill). Most of us don’t talk to each other as if we’re on the Nolan show. And this civility does not make us feel humiliated. Or backed into cultural corners. It makes us feel human.
I know this is not everybody’s experience of Northern Ireland. I don’t live in the shadow of a peace wall. I haven’t been threatened out of a shared housing project. I know that there is still much resistance to integration. And I’m not saying that this melding is easy, or without anxiety at times.
But look at it another way. Here is a question from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2001 (the last time it was asked). People were given a load of identity options, including Irish and British, but also other categories such as woman/man, working/middle class, mother/father, wife/husband. And using this wider frame of reference, so many more people chose gender (19%), family relationships (28%) and social class (22%) to define themselves than chose a national (9%) or religious identity (8%). We are so much more than British and Irish.
None of this will be news to you. Because this is how most of us, even the most passionately British and most passionately Irish, live our lives. We quietly negotiate the complexity and move, sometimes fluidly, sometimes awkwardly, through Catholic, Protestant and neutral, Irish, British and Northern Irish spaces.
But when it comes to politics, we’ve begun to lose sight of these nuances. We’ve started to believe that we need to vote in big ethnic blocs to keep the other side in line. In one sense this is the logical conclusion of power-sharing. It reduced violence and brought the extremes together. But we have institutionalised and incentivised being orange and green. Austerity and the resource competition of late capitalism more generally have left us fighting over crumbs from the table, closely monitoring how much themmuns are getting, without questioning why there is not more to go around. Polarisation also feeds on the stagnant, uncreative leadership of the big parties. At some point we seem to have stopped trying to imagine something better.
Our politics doesn’t have to be like this though. We have a huge playbook to draw upon.
The long tradition of Protestant Dissent, not to mention the unionists and loyalists, from Ian Paisley to David Ervine, who have appreciated the Irish parts of their identity. Brian John Spencer has some interesting pieces on this site about this. Linda Ervine and the Protestant Irish language speakers keep this fire aflame. And there is a long tradition of Irish nationalists acknowledging how they are shaped with and by Britishness. From the Irish soldiers who fought for Britain in the wars, to the creative nationalism of John Hume. Never-mind that niggling affection for the NHS.
But current political arrangements have squeezed the space in which these conversations can happen. And we desperately need to start having them again. Is it time to replace mandatory power-sharing with voluntary coalition in Stormont? Probably. But there are pros and cons. Domination via the back door, in the form of the Petition of Concern, certainly needs to be revised. Because I do know that no good can come from this gaping political vacuum. Or this hardening of the culture war. It is a false binary upon which fear and hostility feed. And it doesn’t reflect the messy tumble of identities that make up most of our lives and relationships. Nor does it reflect our national identities, which are way more nuanced than our politics.
Any future for Northern Ireland, in the context of the UK or Irish unity, will need to make space for both Irish and British identities. But maybe we can learn from the consequences of institutionalised sectarianism, and can perhaps now begin to find ways to amplify our hybridity. For us to learn to live well in this more open and interesting space, we must be able to talk about it. We must go out of our way to mix and meld. Swipe right on people you wouldn’t usually. Take your kid to a youth club in a church you don’t go to. Switch to RTE or BBC news for the day. Tune in to Radio Fáilte even if you don’t have a word of Irish. Go and see the Red Arrows even if it makes you feel weird. Pick an event in the West Belfast Féile if you live in the East. Check out the Newtownards Road if you live in the West. Maybe write a different kind of comment on a blog. All of this will involve putting our foot in it and sometimes feeling uncomfortable. But that’s ok. It’s surely better than what we have now.
Oh, and one last thing. We need to stop voting like eejits. Because it’s the big parties which benefit from polarisation who have the least incentive to change the record.