“We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland!” chant the Northern Ireland football fans, highlighting that in that context they are also distinct from Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. So, begs the question, who are we as a people that share our part of these islands called Northern Ireland?
A good place to start is found in the words of the Ulster poet, John Hewitt in a debate in the Irish Times on the 4th of July 1974, (The “Clash of Identities), when he wrote,
“I’m an Ulsterman of planter stock. I was born in 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 am British. The British archipelago are offshore to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation”.
His explanation in recognising that identity is complex can be easily adapted to reflect an inclusive concept that embraces our increasingly diverse society!
After all, as we live in Northern Ireland, we are Northern Irish, and it is six of the nine counties that make up the ancient Province of Ulster. Then as physically we all live on the island of Ireland, so we are also Irish. Add the fact that constitutionally we are in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so we are also British.
In addition, as we remain , despite Brexit, also one of the countries of Europe, so we are European. To suggest other than this surely is a denial of reality!
Our place in this world includes being a member of a Commonwealth of Nations of 2.4 billion people that spans the Globe as well as having strong historic links with the United States through both the Ulster-Scots and Gaelic-Irish, who helped shape that Country’s character.
Essentially, we have the ability to be as British as Finchley and as Irish as Cork and that’s okay!
As our population continues to grow in the United Kingdom, approaching nearly 68 million, and in Northern Ireland specifically over 1.9 million, it is becoming increasingly diverse, and so who we are as a people will evolve with the challenge being ensuring our identity is inclusive.
The vast majority of the population are stated as Christian in outlook, 1.3% another religion and 17.4% of no religion.
Over our more recent history a significant number of our people from various ethnic groups have chosen here as their home, all of whom are Northern Irish and adding to the cultural mix of Gaelic/Scots/Irish/British that predominates.
Established as a political/ethnic/cultural/
In 1998 the people of not only Northern Ireland but the whole island agreed that Northern Ireland would have a government that would share responsibility across all sections of its society, not just power. In addition we would work through a range of over 200 formal and informal bodies, many of which pre-dated the Agreement, to promote good social and economic relations between the people of the island, complimented by the existing business and social relations and family ties. The expression “separate but together” perhaps applies!
Then there was the endorsement of the vast range of links between the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. After all it is estimated that some 6 million people in England, Scotland and Wales are of Irish descent. We have links across Europe and beyond such as NATO, the Commonwealth and the United Nations.
Perhaps sport highlights best how we can be flexible in our identity and loyalties. We can support a local village/parish team, the province of Ulster, Northern Ireland, Ireland, the United Kingdom through such as the British and Irish Lions or teams and individuals competing in the Olympics for Team GB and Northern Ireland or Team Ireland and then in the Ryder Cup, our European Team!
The persistent challenge is to find ways of constructively embracing our multiple identities in the interdependent society that we live in. While everyone is different, we should constantly strive to find ways of working together so that our society as a whole prospers socially and economically.
Seamus Heaney said, “Two buckets are easier carried than one, I stand in between!” and perhaps that best describes Northern Ireland’s place in the world or are we not the cultural conduit so aptly described by Edna Longley between the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland!
It is where the Irish language is recognised as also being British and vice versa for Ulster Scots and Gaelic sports, cultural traditions such as the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernian together with so many more, such as those celebrating in the annual Mela Festival in Belfast can thrive.
When we reflect on who we are, pause and consider those who have achieved, such as in the arts/cultural world, sport , business, politics, peacebuilding, the armed forces or so many other aspects, on a world stage.
So, as we embrace our future together let us value those diverse influences shaping who we are, recognising that managing them constructively is a challenging marathon without end but the rewards of doing so constructively are great and none more so than a peaceful and prosperous society for all who see this place as their shared home on a shared island and islands.