Simplistic labels ignore our multi-layered identities
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Ed Curran referred to the importance of culture, heritage and identity in Northern Ireland. He said, ‘In reality politics today is about our heritage, and principally about our British/Protestant and Irish/Catholic traditions.’
That is a very simplistic approach to identity and one that ignores the complexity of identity in the modern world. The fact is that identity is multi-layered and each of us has more than one identity.
Sometimes I have been told by Irish nationalists that unionists have an identity crisis and that we are not sure what we are. ‘Are you British or are you an Ulsterman? Are you a Protestant or are you a unionist? What are you? Can you not make up your mind?’
The truth is that I am all of these and more, because all of these are aspects or layers of my identity.
My national identity is British because I am a citizen of the United Kingdom.
However I also have a regional identity in that I live in Northern Ireland and describe myself as an Ulsterman. I am therefore both British and an Ulsterman, in the same way as someone can be British and a Scotsman, a Welshman or an Englishman.
But there is more to it than that. I also have a cultural or ethnic identity and my cultural identity is that of an Ulster-Scot. Others may have a different cultural identity in that they may be Irish or Anglo-Irish or whatever.
Most of us will also have a religious identity, which in my case is that of an evangelical Protestant. However that does not mean that all Protestants are Ulster-Scots. Someone else may be a Protestant and have an Irish cultural identity.
Moreover I have a political identity and I am a unionist. However that does not mean that all Protestants are unionists or that all Roman Catholics are nationalists. There are some Protestants who are nationalists just as there are many Roman Catholics who wish Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Such is the complexity of identity.
But one layer of identity in particular has come to the fore and that is cultural identity. For too long the cultural establishment has been dominated by those who hold to an outdated analysis of two cultural identities in Northern Ireland – simply British and Irish. That is actually a flawed analysis and one that fails to grasp the cultural reality and the cultural diversity in Ulster.
At the bottom of the hill in Downpatrick, below the Church of Ireland Cathedral, there are three streets that meet at the traffic lights – they are English Street, Irish Street and Scotch Street, and that is a reflection of the three traditions that have helped to shape modern Ulster. However the Scottish influence in Ulster has often been ignored.
Twenty years ago the BBC published a book entitled The People of Ireland, which contained a chapter on the Scots by Professor Finlay Holmes. In it he said that, ‘History and geography have combined to make Ulster as much a Scottish as an Irish province.’ It was true then and it is still true today.
Only when we appreciate this diversity can we understand the complexity of Ulster history. Why is it that in 1798 many Presbyterians in Antrim joined the United Irishmen, while in Armagh they joined the Orange Order? Why is it that within a few years of 1798 most of the United Irishmen had become unionists? Why is it that a century later the vast majority of Presbyterian Liberals joined with Conservatives to become Ulster Unionists?
These complexities and seeming contradictions can only be understood when we appreciate our cultural diversity.
Ed Curran is right to highlight the importance of identity and I believe that the cultural establishment in Ulster – our schools, our universities, our academics and our museums – have a responsibility to help us understand both our complexity and our diversity.