Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Who do you think you are?

This is the text of the article which I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph (13 November).

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 For too long the cultural establishment has been dominated by those who hold to an outdated analysis of two cultural identities in Northern Ireland – simply British and Irish.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.


  1. That's a viewpoint a ascribe to myself. It is just so complex in Northern Ireland. "The World" seems to consider us all to be Irish, whether they think of us as being British too I find hard to fathom.

    Many, if not most, people living on the Mainland seem to think of us as "Irish". How do we counteract that without appearing pedantic or "difficult"?

    Abroad, so many English-speaking people appear to assume I am Irish. Do I politely correct them in a light-hearted way, and provide them with a monologue of a history lesson about us?

    Many staunch Unionists believe themselves to be British and Irish. Personally I am uncomfortable with this, though I'd resentfully acquiesce.

    I once corrected an English chap on holiday, when he joked about letting "the Irish" join them (meaning me) - I said I was British, and the man dismissed that with a wave of his hand and said he had no time for all that and that he was Irish.

    I still see him at the same bar when I'm there on holiday and totally ignore him, because I was deeply offended.

    So, for me, it is difficult.


  2. Tim, you're offended because you take it too seriously. Many Northern Irish Protestants who have lived in London, for example, do describe themselves as Irish because it distinguishes them from many of the characteristics of the English and others which we find culturally difficult. It is not uncommon (and why should it be) to find that we have more in common with Nationalists from down the street in Belfast or NI than we do with an English man living in London. An Englishman describes you as Irish because you live on the island of Ireland not because he thinks you're a citizen of the ROI. I always find it helpful to be reminded of how insignificant NI's problems and identity issues are to those outside of it - we can take ourselves too seriously at times.

    Nelson - your 'Irish, English, Scotch' street story is apposite but may need some revision for the 21st century. The UK is more multi-cultural than it has ever been and there are certainly more than three cultures in NI now. Contemporary reference should also include Italians, Poles, Portuguese, Filipinos and, of course, Chinese and South Asians. It always makes me giggle to read about the 'great cultural diversity' of Northern Ireland when in fact we mean two groups of white, fairly fundamentalist Christians differentiated by minor differences in Christian belief. It certainly isn't cultural diversity on any kind of global or even continental scale - hardly even on a national scale.

  3. Columban - You are right that there are other ethnic communities with their own cultural traditions but I was referring to the three main indigenous cultural traditions which have shaped modern Ulster over a long period. That 3-traditions model certainly helps to explain the complexities of our history, which are incomprehensible on the basis of a flawed 2-traditions model.
    Moreover in the 2001 census the population of Northern Ireland was recorded as 99.15% white with the remainder being made up of many different communities, including Chinese at 0.25% and Irish Travellers at 0.1%. Since then we have seen the expansion of the European Union and the arrival of folk from many countries in Eastern Europe. We will have to await the 2011 census for an accurate update but the population will still be overwhelmingly 'indigenous' with ethnic communities forming only a small part of the total population.


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