An acceptance of the fact that we in Northern Ireland have shared an experience…

I have discovered that I share something in common with Eamonn McCann, Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and local writer Glenn Patterson. That something is a Northern Irish identity.

While writing this article I have come to realise how differently people from this part of Ireland (the North, NI, as you wish) view their identity. You often hear people saying “Look you’re Irish. You live on the island of Ireland.” I do not deny my Irishness but this view is simplistic. For many people Irishness is not their primary identity.

That fine Ulster poet John Hewitt saw his own identity in the following terms: “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born on the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I’m British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European.” Not so simple!

Many years ago whilst in an unfulfilling job I decided to write a letter to the Belfast Telegraph, which is what you did in the days before political blogs like Slugger O’Toole. In it I promoted the idea of an Independent Northern Ireland and it caused a wee bit of a stir with letters to and fro. I don’t think I ever really believed in independence but in the bleak atmosphere of those times even independence seemed like something worth considering. I still have the newspaper cutting. It’s only purpose now is to remind me that this feeling of Northern Irishness is something I’ve harboured for a long time.

So where do I get my own identity from? Well I grew up in a mixed, but predominantly protestant area and attended a protestant grammar school. I attended the local Church of Ireland and was in the Scouts so I was familiar with marching on Remembrance Day and other occasions. Quite a few of my contemporaries at school (the hard working ones) went on to become successful in business, law and academia across the water. (One of them wrote the official history of MI6). Is it at all surprising that I should feel a sense of Britishness coming from this sort of background and having known people like this who, in essence, became part of the British Establishment?

Regardless of my Northern Irish identity I have a real affection for the South. I have holidayed, worked and taken part in sport there. But back in the day, as a youngster, I was aware of things like Irish road signs, the different accents, the wee grocer shops that sold beers and spirits, people referring to the “six counties”, and this all reinforced the feeling that it was different to up North. I well remember back in the 70’s the warden of a youth hostel in Dublin saying to a group of us that the IRA were true Irish Patriots. I suppose it was naivety on my part but this shocked and angered me. In the early days of the Troubles this was a very insensitive remark and it left me wondering how many people in the South have similar views? Again it got me thinking that things are a bit different down here.

A couple of years ago I was attending the City Hospital and on my way out I stumbled across a funeral waiting for police permission to continue down the Donegall Road. This was a loyalist funeral, unrelated to paramilitary activity, but with some paramilitary trappings. As I stood looking at the assembled mourners I had a strange feeling of recognition. I thought to myself “I know these people.” Yes I knew them from family connections to that area. I knew them from the terraces of Windsor Park. I knew them from family funerals. I knew the humour and bearing of these people. I have described them as loyalists, but to me they are just honest working class people from a Protestant area of Belfast. My own roots, on my father’s side, lie here. I feel an affinity with these people, how could I not?

At the start of this article I referenced Eamonn McCann. A lifelong socialist who I greatly admire. Surprisingly he considers himself to be Northern Irish. He explains “It is not an admission of some degree of Britishness – it’s an acceptance of Northern Irishness. It’s an acceptance of the fact that I think that we in Northern Ireland have shared an experience. We shared an experience which we’re well aware people in the South did not share with us and don’t understand.” Eamonn articulates something I had never really thought about before but I now understand and agree with completely.

So, I wonder, in a United Ireland how will we accommodate the “Northern Irish”? A conversation for another day I think.

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