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Identity Issues in Northern Ireland


Identity Issues in Northern Ireland           Gerry O’Shea

 I recall reading a report about the strength of the different tribal identities in Northern Ireland. It was written by an English sociologist and was published at the height of the Troubles in the 1980s. In one part of her study she spoke to hundreds of people waiting at bus stops. Her question to them centered on how conscious they were about the ethnic identity of the other people in the bus line.

The interviewees were almost unanimous in conceding that they were indeed cognizant of the background of other bus users, and they had their own ways of deciphering which of the two communities they belonged to. I found this very surprising because they all shared the same color and physical features. When I mentioned the findings to people from Northern Ireland living in New York, their responses strongly affirmed the sociologist’s findings.

I thought of that research when I read the results recently of the Northern Irish Times and Life Survey, which found that 42% of respondents in Northern Ireland don’t define themselves as unionist or nationalist. This number has been increasing gradually over the past twenty years, in tandem with the significant growth of people calling themselves Northern Irish.

This new survey shows that 36% of residents in the North define themselves as from Northern Ireland, up from 27% in 2019. Those identifying as British dropped significantly to 29%, a decline of ten points, while people calling themselves Irish remained stable at 25%.

Interestingly, among the age group 18 to 24, the numbers favoring a Northern Ireland designation remained approximately the same as for their elders, but only 14% of the young people want to be known as British, and Irish identity is favored by 34%.

The largest Unionist political grouping, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has failed dismally to come to terms with these changes that are happening in the community. They resented the Good Friday Agreement because they fussed about the principle of equality between the two communities. Should people who do not identify as British be considered equal to those who do? Many are still hanging on to the colonialist idea that their Protestant and English culture is somehow superior to the nationalist and Irish one.

That superiority mind frame resonated with many Loyalists as well as with the Tories who pushed through the divisive Brexit plebiscite in 2016. They found it untenable and humiliating being dominated by the European Union (EU) where the Germans, who they defeated in two  world wars, now carry all the prestige of the top economic power.

A clear majority of Unionists voted strongly to end all formal ties with the EU, but, significantly, 54% of Northerners favored continuing in the alliance. A recent poll reveals that about two thirds of residents in the North now believe that leaving the EU was a big mistake for their community.

 Initially, the DUP supported the post-referendum Brexit deal, negotiated between the British and European leaders. They went along with the Protocol, but later they declared stern opposition to it. Avoiding a hard border in Ireland means that the North ended up with a foot in both jurisdictions, running directly counter to traditional loyalism which is grounded in unalloyed allegiance to the British crown.

 Loyalists are dismayed that they are no longer marked with the same Britishness as the Scots and the Welsh. They nurse a strong grievance against Brussels and Dublin for stripping them of their traditional sense of identity but, even more, they resent Prime Minister Johnson and the Tory Party for selling them down the river.

 They are in such dire straits that they have withdrawn their First Minister from the local government in Stormont, greatly diminishing the effectiveness of that body. Their leadership is in disarray and their poll numbers have dropped as they try to find a plausible agenda.

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 mandates that the two communities must share power in Stormont. The next Assembly elections take place in May and all the polls suggest that Sinn Fein, the despised bete noire of the DUP, will win the most seats and may take over the First Minister’s job in a new parliament. It is very difficult to see the core unionist voters in the DUP accepting such an outcome.

But who do they turn to? Outside the European fold, the Westminster government is looking for trade deals with other countries, especially the United States. They have been told publicly by President Biden and Speaker Pelosi that if they renege on the Good Friday Agreement in any serious way, America will not do business with them.

The constitutional issue of island unification still looms large, especially at a time of chaos among unionists. Their basic identity, their raison d’aitre as British subjects, has been diminished and, understandably, they are scared of the inevitable slippery slope. Edward Carson their honored leader in achieving partition a century ago, boasted that the new statelet would guarantee loyalist power “in perpetuity.” How hollow those words ring now!

Two years ago the polling group run by Lord Ashcroft found that 51% of the people favored unity with the South. A few months ago, his latest results reveal that the figure now rests at 46%. It is noteworthy that young participants in the study (18 to 25) favor ending the tie to Westminster by 70%.

The South has changed dramatically in the last thirty years.  By comparison with their counterparts in the North of the island, it has a lower poverty rate, longevity is better by 1.5 years and the overall standard of living is somewhat higher.

Dublin hugged a Catholic identity for the seventy years after independence, leading to an unholy alliance between church and state where many Protestant citizens felt culturally adrift. That has changed. In 1995, despite strong church opposition, divorce was legalized after a close plebiscite.

 In May, 2015, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage in a referendum. Three years later the people continued their move to a more open society by permitting abortion in limited circumstances in Irish hospitals.

Ironically, the dogmatic Catholic positions that prevailed in the past are  in line with many northern Protestants’ current beliefs. The DUP is strongly anti-abortion and rejects all talk of allowing gay marriage. Arlene Foster was fired from her leadership job in the middle of last year because she abstained in a vote that rejected conversion therapy for homosexuals.

Her successor, Edwin Poots, who adheres to a biblical belief that the world is just 4000 years old, only lasted a few weeks before Jeffrey Donaldson took over.

I wonder what would a sociologist find today if people were interviewed at a bus stop about their tribal feelings. Would the results be the same as forty years ago or have all the cultural changes and the prevailing communal peace altered people’s perceptions about those around them?

Gerry O’Shea blogs at


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