Identity is fluid not fixed, and so is Northern Ireland’s future

Brian M Walker in the Belfast Telegraph this morning provides useful historical context for the ever changing issue of politics and identity in Northern Ireland…

In 1968, just before the outbreak of the Troubles, Richard Rose conducted a survey in Northern Ireland about national identity.

Of the Protestants polled, 39% saw themselves as British and 32% as Ulster, but also 20% viewed themselves as Irish, 6% as sometimes British and sometimes Irish and 2% as Anglo-Irish.

We can assume that most of those who defined their identity as Irish were unionists.

He quoted the unionist MP and Stormont minister Robert Simpson, who described in 1970 his nationality as follows: “Certainly we are Irish. When your forefathers have lived in Ireland for hundreds of years this is obvious. But we are also British. We are United Kingdom citizens, paying United Kingdom taxes and electing representatives to the United Kingdom Parliament.”

The Rose survey revealed that, among Catholics, 76% saw themselves as Irish, but also that 15% viewed themselves as British, 5% Ulster, 3% sometimes British and sometimes Irish and 1% Anglo-Irish.

Subsequent decades, due to the impact of the Troubles, saw important changes in identity. Later surveys, conducted by Edward Moxon-Browne, revealed that “after having borne the brunt of the IRA campaign, Protestants have swung more definitely towards adopting the label ‘British'”.

By 1989 just 3% identified as Irish, compared with 14% for Ulster and 68% for British.

By the same date, having lost faith in “the possibility of reform within existing institutions”, Catholics choosing a British identity had fallen to 8% and an Ulster identity to 2%, while support for an Irish identity stood at 60%.

This 1989 survey also revealed that 16% of Protestants and 25% of Catholics opted for a Northern Irish identity.

Like it or not, identity is not fixed but is fluid and tractable as it meets life changing events and endlessly contended over. The Long Peace have enjoyed is having its own way with the certainty of conflict.

He continues…

For the first time, in 2011, the UK census recorded national identity.

It found that of the resident population of Northern Ireland, 40% described their national identity as British only, 25% as Irish only, 21% as Northern Irish only and 14% as other identities, including a combination of the above.

It also revealed that 94% of people with an Irish-only national identity were, or had been, brought up as Catholics, while 81% of those with a British-only national identity were, or had been, brought up as Protestants.

The Northern Irish identity deserves further comment. As Edward Moxon-Browne has commented: “As a badge of identity, it is clearly less divisive than many others. Its attractiveness rests on an inherent ambiguity.”

If we map that onto the settlement of the Belfast Agreement, the growth of ambiguity can be seen in the decline of the vote share for both Unionism’s and Nationalism’s vote share.

Photo by stevepb is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

Photo by stevepb is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA