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The most effective cure for Northern Irish unionism? Attitudes in England | Emma DeSouza

The polarisation and politicisation of identity in Northern Ireland, particularly within unionism today, is giving rise to the misperception that you can only be Irish or British – not both. Northern Ireland was constructed as a Protestant state for Protestant people, with an inbuilt Protestant majority to maintain its place in the UK. “Loyal Ulster”, as it became known, was proudly British. But many of the citizens who had spent considerable time on the so-called mainland would find their perception of British identity challenged, at odds with Britishness within the wider UK. As one woman who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland told me: “I moved to England, and everyone thought I was Irish.”

I recently interviewed a number of people about the question of shifting identities in Northern Ireland. Mark McKechnie, a 48-year-old IT specialist from Bangor, said he would have considered himself “very strongly Protestant, even loyalist” into his 20s. That changed when he moved to England. “I went and told English people that I was British, and I found a very different reaction,” he said. Today, he associates British identity with “the island [of] Britain”.

It is an experience shared by many. All of the people I interviewed were from Protestant backgrounds, with proud British traditions. Yet when they set foot on the mainland, they were met at times with jeering, derision and othering from the very people with whom they were raised to believe they had the most in common. The retired Royal Navy officer Tim McCullagh told me that he was often referred to as “Mick”, a derogatory slur for a person of Irish descent. Heather Peddle, another person I interviewed, referred to herself as “strongly British”, but was commonly referred to as “the Irish girl” while living in London; another woman told me that when she went to university in Newcastle, she experienced “aggressive” interactions with soldiers who held her “personally responsible” for their tours in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s state identity was artificially created in 1921, when six of Ireland’s 32 counties were cleaved into a newly forged geopolitical entity. The partitioning of the island of Ireland did not just divide the land but also the people, creating divergent, and often conflicting, concepts of identity. This has become hyperpolarised and is intrinsically linked to political ideology. There is a persistent idea that the people of Northern Ireland fit neatly into one of two boxes: Irish or British, Catholic or Protestant, unionist or nationalist. Yet empirical evidence shows that identities are not just plural but fluid.

McCullagh, the retired Navy officer, is from a “very Protestant background” as he puts it, but today he sees himself as Northern Irish and European. “I served in the British armed forces, but I felt more European because the more I worked with the European forces, the more I felt connected with them.” As social animals, we all – in some way – yearn for a sense of belonging and community. In Northern Ireland, historical and physical divisions, such as segregated education and so-called peace walls, were designed to keep communities apart. These make discovering your personal identity and a sense of belonging extremely difficult.

Billboard in support of a united Ireland on a roadside in Northern Ireland.
‘In a recent poll, 37% of all voters said the prospect of rejoining the EU would make them more likely to support Irish unity.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

McKechnie, the IT specialist from Bangor, has lived in England and in Dublin. But he felt “more at home and more akin to the people in the rest of Ireland than with people I met in Yorkshire and Sussex”. The traditions he had grown up with as an Ulster Protestant felt foreign compared to the culture as practised in Britain. Today he describes himself as Irish and would vote for a united Ireland.

At its core, unionist ideology is rooted in attachment to the union, but in reality, Northern Ireland has always been a place apart. It has never been – nor will it ever be – as “British as Finchley”, as one interviewee described it. The harsh truth is that people in England often seem not to care, and their understanding of identity – of being British – is very different to that held by the average person in Northern Ireland. This mainland indifference towards Northern Ireland was exemplified in a 2020 YouGov poll which showed that 54% of the British public would not be bothered either way by Northern Ireland leaving the UK.

This disconnection is partly the result of a lack of education and knowledge: pupils in England learn little to nothing about the Irish famine, the Irish war of independence, the creation of Northern Ireland, and the subsequent decades of violence. Ireland was the first nation that England colonised, and the continued existence of Northern Ireland serves as a reminder of Britain’s imperialist history. Perhaps this is why there is such a wilful effort to avoid talking about its history and politics. This knowledge gap leads to greater levels of ignorance from people in England, who know little, and care little, about the affairs of Northern Ireland.

More recently, Brexit has given people in Northern Ireland another reason to deviate from British identity, and has thrown unionism into political flux. When faced with the option of either remaining in a shrinking UK and being consumed from the inside by fervent English nationalism, or joining an increasingly progressive and influential Ireland with access to full European membership, it’s no wonder that support for a united Ireland seems to be growing. A 2022 poll for the Irish Times showed that 54% of people in Northern Ireland favour EU membership, and 37% of all voters said the prospect would make them more likely to support Irish unity. The 2021 Northern Ireland census highlighted an increase in the number of people who identified as Irish over the previous decade, as well as a 5.6 percentage-point drop in those who identified as British.

In Northern Ireland, we are often told from a very young age, either through the way we’re socialised or the institutions that govern us, which community or nation we are supposed to belong to. But identity is not a fixed line. It is an ever-moving state of constant change, as the people I spoke to would attest. The current Democratic Unionist party adheres to this binary concept of identity: it has blocked the formation of a power-sharing executive and assumed that the unionist, Protestant community is homogenous. Yet in 1991, its former leader Ian Paisley declared: “I would never repudiate the fact that I am an Irishman.” After all, we are all born on the island of Ireland – not the island of Britain. As McKechnie put it: “I came to realise that I’m Irish.”

  • Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner