Wednesday, January 25, 2006


'What If'? Wednesday - New Irishness

There has been alot of talk about the British identity in recent weeks. As some of you may know there is a poll on United Irelander's sidebar asking whether Britishness is in decline. As I write this, 80% of you so far say yes while 20% say no. Go and vote in the poll if you haven't yet. There does seem to be a concern about Britishness right now amongst politicians in the UK. Gordon Brown has called for a national day of celebration for Britishness which has received a mixed reaction at best. While a decline in Britishness largely affects the people of Britain, it would also affect the north of Ireland too and thus would have ramifications for the people of Ireland as a whole. With that being said, I feel the question needs to be asked...

What if there is a decline in Britishness in NI? Will we see a new sense of Irishness amongst those who currently renounce it?

I think it's an interesting thought. The north of Ireland is a peculiar place when it comes to discussing national identity. Prior to the Easter Rising, Irish people in Ireland felt both British and Irish. As is the case now with the people of Scotland, Wales, and to a lesser extent England, people did not have to choose between the British aspect of their character and the Irish aspect. Indeed, at the outbreak of World War I, Irishmen queued up in their droves to join the fight for the British Army and recruitment matched levels of those in Britain. Of course, the 1916 Rising changed everything. Suddenly a separatist desire had been reawakened in Irish people and thanks to alot of British incompetence, such as the desire to introduce conscription in Ireland, the Irish people suddenly found themselves having to do something that they had not had to do prior to 1916 - choose between their Britishness and Irishness. As we know, most people in Ireland chose Irishness and renounced their Britishness. In the Free State and subsequently Eire, Britishness gradually withered away.

Ireland's north was different. While some renounced their Britishness, most people retained their sense of Britishness as well as their sense of Irishness, albeit an Irishness quite different to the one perceived of down in the south. However the North had issues of its own to face which would force the people to choose between their Britishness and their Irishness - The Troubles. The Provisional IRA campaign in the North led to many people who regarded themselves as 'Irish unionists' renouncing their Irishness totally in favour of Britishness or else 'Northern Irishness', which was little more than a retaliatory identity anyway.

In the North today, the two main unionist parties try to outdo one another on which one is more British. The same is true of the nationalist parties in relation to Irishness. None of the main parties seem to acknowledge the groups who refer to themselves as British and Irish or British and 'Northern Irish' or who simply refer to themselves as neither. Everything is left in black and white terms. Or green and orange terms to be more precise!

What happens though if Britishness declines in Britain? Where does that leave the people in the North who curently define themselves as British? Would they consider the idea of once again calling themselves Irish?

I know it can be hard to assess the relevance of surveys, however one 'Northern Ireland Life and Times' survey conducted in 2004 attempted to determine the political attitudes of people. The results were:

Unionist - 39%
Nationalist - 23%
Neither - 37%
Other (specify) - 1%
(Don't know) - 1%

When one assesses the 18-25 age bracket, things get even more interesting:

Unionist - 27%
Nationalist - 27%
Neither - 45%
Other ( specify) - 1%
(Don't know) - 0%

Now people can draw many different conclusions from these types of surveys but what I think is abundantly clear is that there is a significant portion of people in the North who are sick of being herded into one of the two tribes, unionism or nationalism. As I highlighted above, unionist parties are too busy preaching about their Britishness while nationalists are too busy preaching about their Irishness.

The situation facing the two national identities is complex. I personally believe there is a decline in Britishness but that this decline is more of a decline in the perception of what it means to be British.

I think the same is becoming true of the Irish identity. We can see small glimpses of this happening. How people define their Irishness in 2016 will be vastly different to how people would have defined it 50 years previously in 1966. It won't be based on Catholicism, it won't be based on anti-Britishness, it won't be based on conservative values. In 2016 we will see a more secular Ireland, we will see an Ireland that has embraced Europe (hopefully not too much) and we will see a more liberal type of Ireland I reckon.

The point I'm trying to make here is that Irishness is evolving. Soon we will have to reshape Irishness altogether as it was reshaped in 1916. We will have Polish-Irish, Chinese-Irish, Nigerian-Irish etc. If Ireland can successfully integrate these people into Irish society, as a true republic should be able to, then it will greatly enhance the chances of a United Ireland in my opinion.

If Britain does not handle the evolution of its national identity as well as Ireland, and with its strong conservative elements and cautious approach to the outside world it's quite possible, then the people of NI, particularly the younger generation, might find it in their best interests to be part of in a society with many definitions of what it means to be Irish.

After all, if we can have Polish-Irish, Chinese-Irish and Nigerian-Irish, what's stopping us from having British-Irish as well?

Irishness in 1916 witnessed a revolution in its identity. Irishness in 2016 will have hopefully witnessed an evolution in its identity.

We've spent long enough focusing on the 'dead generations'. Let us all now focus on the future generations.


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