On identity in Northern Ireland…

A slight variation from languages – BBC NI’s William Crawley asked for comments on “identity” towards his piece “Who are we now” for BBC Radio 4. Out of interest, here is my response:

I remember, on my first trip to the United States in mid-2001, I backed into a parking space in my hire car. When I returned to my car, I noted it was the only one backed in, rather than just driven in forward. “Spot the European”, I thought to myself – the first time I had ever self-identified as such!

In other words, identity changes depending on place and circumstance – to the extent, even, that identities we would outright deny having in some cases actually come to the fore in others. 

For all that, I take the view that one identity (denied or otherwise) is clearly coming to the fore in contemporary Northern Ireland – “Northern Irish”. [This email was written pre-census results.]

It used to be said, at least until the 1998 Agreement, that there was a place called “Northern Ireland” but no “Northern Irish” – I seem to recall even reading that in a tourist guide. Not so now! A common experience of the “peace process”, widespread recognition of Northern Ireland (broadly positively) since, and, latterly, obviously “Northern Irish” role models (Rory most prominently, but he’s not unique) have combined to create the idea of a positive “Northern Irishness” that doesn’t, to younger people at least, lead to outsiders instinctively thinking of bombs and bullets but rather perhaps of singers and [golf!] swingers.


4 thoughts on “On identity in Northern Ireland…

  1. The Listener says:

    I think it is unhealthy to dwell on this! It is better to consider oneself as a citiizen of the world, and if this be the case, born in Northern Ireland. Apart from language barriers, and perhaps physical problems, hearing seeing, speaking, it is relatively easy to build up a relationship with a fellow human being, whether social or for business purposes.

    If you were asked the way in Belfast by someone from Asia, or the Indian sub-continent. the healthy approach is to see that other human, simply as someone who is asking the way.

    Once division is hard wired then conflict can easily develop. Constitutionally I am a citizen of the United Kingdom, but that is not my predominant feeling of identity. My predominant feeling is that I am from planet Earth, and I should treat all human beings as my equals. To stretch out my hand unless they be hostile, when I may, of course defend myself and others.

    If I played competitive sport, then I would play for my team, but that would be for the purposes of sport not human conflict.

  2. James Campbell says:


    You want to get out a bit more. The term Northern Irish has been in use for rather longer than you suggest. I have used it myself more or less since I came to England (where the term Six Counties was unknown and the term Ulster was misunderstood) some fifty-odd years ago; and it was a commonplace through my various careers in the RAF and local government. For most people it was simply descriptive (distinguishing me from a Southern Irishman); for some it meant “not a priest-ridden superstitious peasant labourer”; for some it was a label of oddness – particularly when I remarked that some Northern Irish were more Southern than Northern Irish from Southern Ireland. One bloke once told me I couldn’t be Northern Irish because I didn’t pronounce “eight” as “eeyut”. So I told him the Antrim joke : “Howl these 2 kiys till a coont thim”

    • harryaswell says:

      How do you tell someone is a Roman Catholic? Listen to their speech. If they pronounce Vehicle as “Vey-hic-al” then they are indeed RC. It’s the way you tell them!

    • Bit harsh! 🙂

      Wasn’t quite my point – of course the *term* “Northern Irish” has been around since 1920.

      However, as recently as 1998 we did a deal focused entirely on “British” and “Irish”. It referred to “people of Northern Ireland”, but never to “Northern Irish people”.

      It would now, I suspect. And that’s my point.

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