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The Frustrating Effects of our National Identity


Ah, Northern Ireland. How frustrating you are!

Why don’t you vote for parties that focus on social issues rather than what flag they wave or what national anthem they sing at the counting hall on election night?

Identity in Northern Ireland is a complex thing- as we all know. Recently at the Tory Conference, we had Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster ‘jokingly’ argue if Northern Ireland was Irish or British. Following this line of logic, if you’re raised on the Falls Road in West Belfast, you’re Irish. If you’re raised on the Shankill Road in West Belfast, you’re British. The same area (whether they like it or not!) divided by a wall and covered in different flags as a true, cultural identity marker.

This summer I was (un)lucky enough to explore some aspects of identity in Northern Ireland. My Master’s Thesis was focused on young educated Catholics in West Belfast and their political beliefs and identity markers. What drew me to studying identity within these young people is that I believed that ‘hard-line’ beliefs in national identity and what the North/Northern Ireland is and isn’t, would be differing amongst young people. Does a young person from the Falls Road really have to feel Irish simply because the mural and flags at the bottom of their street identify as such? Or are young people now willing to embrace multiple, cultural and national identities? We hear the term ‘shared identity’ quite a lot in Northern Ireland – so why are parties that have extreme views regarding national identity getting record number of votes in the last two elections?

My research during the summer would seem to suggest that hard-line identity markers are more prominent in older generations and there is deep attachment to those who grew up during ‘the Troubles.’ A majority of the younger generation of not only West Belfast but Northern Ireland, do not have the emotional connection that those who experienced ‘the Troubles,’ do to issues surrounding identity – and this is perhaps why the younger generation are more open to expressing different forms of identity. Respondents to my research openly identified as Northern Irish, Irish, British and European.

It was the idea of identifying as European that really interested me, especially as we move towards the great disaster that is Brexit in 2019. Young people really felt a connection to their European identity and were far more willing to discuss being European than British/Irish/Northern Irish. They felt that a part of their identity was being stripped away from them against their will; especially as they were deemed ‘too young’ to vote in the Referendum in 2016. And while yes, Brexit doesn’t mean the United Kingdom is leaving the continent of Europe, much to the surprise of Daily Mail readers, but the European Union has allowed for the younger generation to feel part of something bigger in terms of identity. Northern Ireland has always suffered from an identity crisis and younger people could latch on to the term ‘European’ as an escape route. A common shared identity that does not reinforce your position on weather Northern Ireland is Irish or British. Luckily, we’ve got Michelle and Arlene to figure that one out for us in the meantime.

I never realised how I felt European until 23 June 2016. I have always identified as being Irish but identifying as Irish or British typically comes with its stereotypical sectarian concepts half the time and that really frustrates me. I never truly realised the benefits of being European in the sense of being a member of the European Union until we were told we would no longer be. Yes, the Irish passport is a great thing to have and technically once the UK leave, we can still have the choice of being European; but you still can’t help but feel something is being taken away. Younger people no longer feel that their identity is confined to Northern Ireland the identity markers that appear on lampposts all year round.

Northern Ireland’s problem however seems to lie within it’s more traditional, local, political identities as national identity within Northern Ireland is assumed as either Irish nationalist or British unionist – with no room for manoeuvre. The continuation of the assumption that if you deem yourself as Irish, you’re a nationalist and if you’re British, you’re a unionist has frustrated younger people who are willing to incorporate multiple identities to form their own; whatever that may be. The term Northern Irish was discussed within my research and more people (not just Alliance voters!) are identifying with it. It’s a term that young people felt incorporates identity markers from both sides of the wall and takes the politics out of identity.

We have a severe problem in Northern Ireland. We love telling people what their identity means to them without actually knowing ourselves. We take to social media to berate people about how they identify as in Northern Ireland and as soon as someone does it to us, we cannot believe that someone would do such a thing. If we’re ever going to have this ‘shared future’ and ‘shared identity’ that we’re told will one day magically appear then we need to learn respect for others; regardless how they identify. Having an argument over the great unanswerable question that has loomed over us since 1921, is Northern Ireland British or Irish, doesn’t bring this shared identity any closer – it only pushes it further away for younger people who are, quite frankly, sick of it.

National identity isn’t a high priority for young people – but it’s made to be by the powers that be. Next time you assume someone’s identity because of their name or where they’re originally from, take a step back and let them tell you if they so wish. Don’t just assume anymore. It’s got us nowhere.


Aine is a 23 year old graduate who recently completed her masters in Conflict Transformation at Queen’s University.

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