When we say we belong to a particular ethnicity or nationality, we are implicitly saying that we share traits in common with the other members of this group. Or are we saying that the other members of this group share traits in common with us? There is a subtle but important distinction.
In the popular imagination, the formation of an ethnic or national identity is an objective process whereby the members of the group find commonalities amongst themselves and thereby come to regard each other as kinsmen. But people are rarely objective. Our views of ourselves do not necessarily match those others have of us, and our views of them will not always match their self-image.
This is particularly problematic when disparate groups come (or are forced) together to form a larger grouping. Group A may see themselves as kinsmen of group B, but the feeling may not be reciprocated. This is because even though A’s self-image may correspond to their image of B, B’s self-image may not correspond to their image of A. This error can come about in two ways – either one does not fully understand one’s own identity and fills in the blanks from an outside source (so-called “false consciousness”), or one does not fully understand the identity of others and projects one’s own identity onto them. This can be illustrated by considering the relationships between the English, the Scots, and Irish unionists and nationalists (being aware of course that these terms are woefully inadequate).
Many people consider the English and the Scots as kinsmen in a British nation. But if you ask a sample of Englishmen and a sample of Scotsmen to define “Britishness” you will get a wide range of answers. John Major’s famous response to this question – long shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer – would strike most outside observers as a description of Englishness rather than Britishness. In this case an Englishman has projected an English identity onto Britain as a whole. The Scots and the Welsh are less likely to make this error, having a heightened awareness of their relative size and status.
Unionists are often accused of a similar offence, although this time as a minority projecting their own identity onto a much larger group. It has been remarked that the Ulster-Unionist vision of Britishness is not the same one that the English or Scots see, Orangeism being one notable divergence. In addition, many unionists self-identify solely as “British”, without even any regional qualification. This has led to accusations of false consciousness, of adopting another’s identity to replace their own.
But this is a misunderstanding – one only has to watch an international football match to understand that unionists are viscerally aware of the distinction between their own identity and that of the English, Scots and Welsh. The adoption of “British” as a self-identifier is not due to the lack of an identity, but partly at least to the lack of a better name. Euphemisms exist, but none of them are accurate. Bluntly descriptive names exist, but none of them are considered polite.
And yet there is still confusion over symbolism – Union flags and GSTQ are used as local identifiers by Englishmen and unionists alike (in contrast to the Scots and Welsh), suggesting that there is still something partially-formed about both identities. This confusion is infectious – in the Republic, it is my experience that many people think that Unionists believe themselves to be English. But then, people in the Republic have an understanding of the term “British” that no unionist would recognise.
Similarly, nationalists have often been accused of projecting their own identity onto all Irishmen, unionists included. Indeed, the fear of homogenization was one factor behind the creation of a distinct Unionist identity out of previously separate (monarchist) Protestant and (republican) Dissenter factions. Accusing all Nationalists of operating a cultural steamroller is preposterous, not to mention insulting. But the unionist fear of it is very real, and this also drives the adoption of the larger, more powerful, British identity in preference to any local equivalent.
The challenge to both political Unionism and political Nationalism alike is how to build a common identity that can transcend both Ulster Britishness and northern Irishness, when both those local identities define themselves in opposition to the other’s chosen collective identity. “Ulster is British!” and “the Six Counties are Irish!” are both statements of a larger political conflict, where rival states clash over territory. But they are also simultaneously about a smaller identity conflict, where each group refuses on principle to conform to the other’s expectations.