The Blog

Northern Irish Is the New Irish

Should people in Northern Ireland start to see themselves less as strictly British or Irish and more pragmatically as Northern Irish?

Northern Ireland politics is difficult with a capital D. Just look at the rioting over the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag. It's pedigree stasis state politicking. Two mutually opposing blocs at community and government level cancel one another out as they cling to mutually opposite symbols, identities and aspirations.

Or is this really the case?

Yes if you go by the traditional narrative. It goes as follows: on one side of the province-wide debate is the Catholic bloc who see themselves as exclusively "Irish" and who will a United Ireland; and then on the other side of the debates lie the Protestant bloc who see themselves as exclusively "British" and who will the continuance of the Union with Britain.

No if you go by the emerging new narrative for Northern Ireland. Hard data which reflects the realities on the ground and away from the faceless institutions and hardline communities has recently suggested that the traditional 2-bloc narrative is changing.

According to the latest census there's a new identity: people are increasingly seeing themselves as Northern Irish. Figures from the census paint an interesting picture of changing identities. 21% of the citizens of Northern Ireland regard themselves as Northern Irish only, while 6.2% think themselves British and Northern Irish only.

This stands against 25% of the population who see themselves as Irish only and 40% who see themselves as British only.

The new Northern Ireland question is an encouraging development for a society long riddled by division and sectarian conflict. A Northern Irish identity has the possibility to cut a route between the 2-bloc stalemate that continues to hold Northern Ireland aspirations for peace and prosperity to ransom.

But what exactly is Northern Irish? What demographic does this represent?

In a recent Radio 4 broadcast called, Northern Ireland: who are we now?, William Crawley explored the emerging Northern Irish identity in more detail. Speaking with an academic we heard that those who regard themselves as Northern Irish are typically young and politically speaking, hold the centre ground.

Although this isn't a hard and fast rule. William Crawley also spoke with a woman from a hardline background Protestant background who now sees herself as Northern Irish. She explained that she saw herself as Northern Irish and British just as men and women in Scotland and Wales see themselves as Scottish and Welsh as well as British.

For Sheila McWade, a writer from Northern Ireland speaking on Twitter the census news is the sign of a newly evolving identity. This was echoed by political commentator Alex Kane who said that people in Northern Ireland need to embrace the changing reality of identity.

These interpretations are balanced, pragmatic and speak sense. Identities, cultures and nationalities are not fixed, they are fluid. Changing identities at an individual, societal an national level are part of the organic human process of change and evolution. To deny this is to fight against the long arc of history.

So should people in Northern Ireland start to see themselves less as strictly British or Irish and more pragmatically as Northern Irish?

No doubt this is a no go area for many people in Northern Ireland. Such revulsion is often the sign of identity insecurity. But there shouldn't be such a fear. By embracing the new identity people in Northern Ireland could begin to formulate an inclusive identity that reflects its unique history and make up and allows its people to move forward together.

"There were no aborigines in Ireland" was a famous quip made by the former editor of the Irish Times Douglas Cageby. This encapsulates the reality that Ireland is an island shaped by centuries of in and out migration and a plurality of identities. No one single person or community can really claim Ireland as there own.

Looking forward, embracing a Northern Ireland identity should not be seen as a weakness or as the lessening of an ideological position or about making a concession. It's about a people coming together and moving past the old grievances and creating a new and inclusive future.

Protestants and Catholics need each other. They are tied together in an inescapable network of mutuality. The future needs to be dictated by mutual concern and interest and not mutual detestation and hatred.

The young, ambitious and outward looking Catholics and Protestants who call themselves Northern Irish and who look beyond the mindlessly partisan politics have shown how it can be done. They see the bigger picture: a world of opportunity beyond our borders and it is they who have chartered the route that the rest of Northern Ireland should take.

If more people continue to embrace the changing identity and regard themselves as Northern Irish and less of the politically volatile British or Irish my outlook on Northern Ireland would pick up a great deal and become more bullish. Should people in Northern Ireland ease off and retreat back into the opposing camps things will start to look a whole lot bleaker.