Identity and the Northern Ireland Conflict: An Overview

6 June 2004

The Community Dialogue Critical Issues Series: Volume One

Compiled by David Holloway

March 2004

The Community Dialogue Critical Issues Series

This series is a new initiative undertaken by Community Dialogue, which aims to provide fresh thinking, new ideas and accessible overviews of issues that are important to the future of Northern Ireland. The booklets are designed to provoke discussion, critical thinking and informed understanding. They are largely based on our own dialogues and are not intended as definitive statements of fact; neither are they all-inclusive summaries of the wide-ranging perspectives on those issues.

Table Of Contents

1. Identity And The Northern Ireland Conflict: An Introduction

2. What Is Identity?

2.1 Political Identity

2.2 Inherited Identity

2.3 Being ‘Boxed In’

2.4 An Interlocking Web Of Relationships

2.5 Identity And Context

2.6 Identity Change Through Time

2.7 Identity And Threat

2.8 The Symbolism Of Identity

2.9 The Economic Foundations Of Identity

3. The Double Minority Problem

4.Solutions To The Double Minority Problem

4.1 Political Violence

4.2 Redrawing The Map

4.3 Population Transfer

4.4 Living Together But Living Apart

4.5 Independence

4.6 Joint Sovereignty

4.7 Irish Unification

4.8 Other Initiatives

5. The Belfast Agreement

6. Building An Agreed Shared Future: Some Options

6.1 Our Shared Wider Identity
6.2 Education
6.3 Creating A Shared Political Identity
6.4 Creating Political Partnership
6.5 Designation
6.6 State Imposed Identity Change
6.7 State Managed Identity Change
6.8 Successful State Managed Identity Change
6.9 Creating A Sense Of Common Purpose

7. Some Questions To Consider

7.1 Questions About Your Identity
7.2 Questions About The Future

8. Conclusion

1. Identity And The Northern Ireland Conflict: An Introduction

Throughout the world people expect to be accepted for who and what they are but their inability to accept each other often generates fear, suspicion, resentment and conflict. We in Northern Ireland are no different in this regard and our identities lie at the root of the Northern Ireland conflict.

One of the key recurring themes in dialogues run by Community Dialogue is the role that our identity as Nationalist or Unionist plays in the Northern Ireland conflict and how to reach an accommodation between our opposing identities.

Of course identity and conflict in Northern Ireland is much more complicated than this. Our society is composed of more than Nationalists and Unionists; we are a multi ethnic society incorporating significant Traveller, Chinese, Indian and other ethnic groups. We also incorporate identity groups that transcend or cut across traditional tribal boundaries; these include the gay and lesbian communities, special needs and disability groups. It is not, however, the purpose of the booklet to consider the wider implications of identity and conflict that inclusion of these groups would imply. That is for a future publication.

This booklet concentrates on key aspects of the role that Nationalist and Unionist identities play in the Northern Ireland conflict. We begin by exploring in general terms some of the different aspects of identity and how it works. Then we summarise some of the ways of resolving the Northern Ireland conflict, which have been attempted or proposed over the last few decades. Next we consider the role of the Belfast Agreement in attempting to build an agreed shared future between opposing identities. Finally we consider further options for progressing the development of an agreed shared future.

2. What is Identity?

Put in its simplest form identity is how you see yourself and how others see you. As such identity is fundamentally important to individuals, groups, wider society and the nation state. It is something most people will fight to protect with passion and conviction if they feel that it is threatened.

Identity is extremely complex and multifaceted, adaptable and constantly changing. It is comprised of many different aspects including gender, age, health, intelligence, language, faith, politics, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, awareness, perception, understanding, experience and so on. These different aspects can be grouped under specific subcategories of identity like political, cultural and social identify. All of these aspects constantly overlap and interact with each other in ways that change and develop through time and according to context. Because of this and because identity is experienced by most people at one moment in deeply personal and emotive ways and at another moment in quite unconscious ways it is a difficult thing to define and understand in depth.

2.1 Political Identity
When we refer to political identity within Northern Ireland this relates to the political affiliations and aspirations of Irish Nationalism and British Unionism and the associated baggage of beliefs, experience, perceptions and understandings that go with them. While this booklet largely, although not entirely, concentrates on these political aspects of identity, they represent only a small part of our wider identities.

2.2 Inherited Identity
To a large extent we are what we are born. Who our parents were, what they taught us, where we lived, where we went to school and with whom we played all influenced our identity. This means that a simple accident of birth defines key aspects of who we are, what we believe and to what we belong.

2.3 Being ‘Boxed In’
While many people in Northern Ireland describe their identity in terms of Nationalism or Unionism, others reject these in favour of other categories such as gender, secular Protestantism, being a poet or a European and so on. But irrespective of our identity as we see it, society draws its own conclusions. These may not always agree with our own view of ourselves leaving us feeling ‘boxed in’ or restricted.

An Example Of Being ‘Boxed In 

A man born and educated as a Protestant is filling in his census form. He no longer identifies himself as a Protestant because he is neither religious nor Unionist. But as he tries to fill the census form in he discovers that the format ensures that, unless he lies, he will be ‘boxed in’ as a Protestant.

2.4 An Interlocking Web Of Relationships
Identity is not held in isolation. We have our family identity, our work identity, our gender and age group identities. We also have church, political, sporting and other identifies. Our overall identity is composed of a complex web of such relationships and belongings, most of which interlock and overlap with each other.

It sometimes helps to view such webs of relationship as concentric circles or as the layers of an onion. The central and most important webs of relationship, like that of the family, lie at the centre or the core while less important ones like sporting affiliations are closer to the surface.

2.5 Identity And Context
The importance of each aspect of our identity can change with context. This means that where we are and with whom we are affects how we feel and how we identify at that time. 

Examples Of Identity Changing With Context
  1. When a football fan is at a football match that aspect of their identity is likely to be more important than their identity as a father, a daughter, a socialist or a Christian.
  2. Members of the Ancient Order Of Hibernians or the Orange Order are likely to feel more conscious of their identities as working and family people on a day-to-day basis. But on the 17th of March and the 12th of July respectively they are more likely to define themselves in terms of being a Hibernian or an Orangeman.
  3. Nationalist and Unionist people often feel that they have little in common with each other. Yet on holidays they tend to identify more strongly with each other than they do, for example, with English people or with people from the Republic of Ireland. When they are abroad and freed from the context of conflict those aspects of shared identity that are not normally recognised in Northern Ireland become more prominent when confronted by people and places that are new

2.5 Identity changes through time and experience.
Identity changes through time and experience. As we live and learn we change but while we are in the middle of these changes we do not see them all. In recent years two events impacted on Unionist and Nationalist identity respectively:
  1. Many Nationalists in Northern Ireland identified themselves in contrast to Unionists as part of a disempowered people who were second-class citizens. The Republican prisoner’s hunger strike in 1981 played an important part in changing this by prompting Sinn Fein to politicise. Many Nationalists gradually became more confident and optimistic as a consequence of the increased political engagement and associated credibility that arose from this. Today growing confidence aligned with socio-political change mean that fewer Nationalists identify themselves in this way.
  2. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 combined with the British government’s 1990 rejection of selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland left many Unionists feeling betrayed and less secure. They felt that the government, which was supposed to protect their British identity, seemed to threaten it. As a consequence a redefinition of British identity began for many Unionists incorporating, for example, a stronger focus on a more narrowly defined Ulster Scottish aspect of British identity.

2.7 Identity And Threat
 When identity is threatened it becomes more important to us. If, for example, Nationalist or Unionist children are stoned on their way to or from their school they will become more aware of, and more sensitive to, their identity. In reaction to the physical threat they have experienced they are likely to reinforce and more narrowly define themselves as Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist and become more intensely opposed to the ‘other side’.

A commonly used phrase in Northern Ireland refers to ‘getting back into our trenches’. It means that when tension escalates we withdraw back into our own communities and become more hostile to the ‘other side’. This is a natural protective mechanism. So while our identities underpin the conflict, the conflict itself plays a strong role in reinforcing our identities; in a way this is like a vicious circle.

In Northern Ireland we also talk about ‘climbing out of the trenches’. We do this when tension eases. An example is the way in which people from Republican and Loyalist interface communities felt able to increase engagement with each other on issues of shared concern after the paramilitary ceasefires were announced. The absence of threat, therefore, enables more openness to the ‘other side’.

Examples Of Identity Free Of Threat
  1.  Many middle class people in Northern Ireland claim that they have not felt threatened by the political conflict and as a consequence often feel less strongly about being either British or Irish, Nationalist or Unionist.
  2.  While Irish identity is very important to many Northern Ireland Nationalists, a sense of being European is becoming increasingly important to citizens of the Republic of Ireland who no longer feel that their Irish identity is contested.
  3.  While a sense of Britishness is important to Northern Ireland’s Unionist population English people, whose identity is often taken for granted, generally feel more English than they do British. Scottish people similarly tend to feel more Scottish than British.

2.8 The Symbolism Of Identity

Many people frame their identity in symbolism that tells others what they are and what they are not. We can see the physical expression of this in street murals and graffiti, in flags and badges, scarves and sports shirts. Sometimes this display is celebratory, sometimes it is a display of opposition and sometimes it is a complex blend of both.

An Example Of Identity Display
The traditional and passionate rivalry of Celtic and Rangers football fans is a potent example of the power inherent in symbolic display. For many fans this is a cultural celebration of belonging and a healthy sporting rivalry. For some it seamlessly blends sporting allegiance with cultural, ethnic and political affiliation. For others it is inextricably linked with the oppositional display of ethnic, cultural and political superiority and hostility, that is, sectarianism.

2.9 The Economic Foundations Of Identity
Money (often linked to class and education) can free people from traditional cultural, religious and political identities and from the conflicts that they can engender. This is because money often provides people with the freedom to make choices that they might otherwise not have had.

It has often been claimed in Northern Ireland that many people who ‘better’ themselves desert their communities and their traditional affiliations to become part of a middle class where Nationalist and Unionist identity is less important. It is also commonly understood that the greatest tensions and most ardent displays of traditional communal and political identities are often found in areas subject to the greatest deprivation. At the same time, however, sectarianism can be rife among better-off people, but it can also be harder to confront because it is often subtle and hidden behind walls of politeness.

3. The Double Minority Problem

The role of political identity in Northern Ireland is often described as ‘the double-minority problem’. Here is a summary of that problem.

Irish Nationalists live as a minority within Northern Ireland while British Unionists remain a minority on the island of Ireland. While Nationalists had suffered marginalisation within Northern Ireland Unionists fear that they would suffer marginalisation within a united Ireland. Nationalists have found it difficult to achieve a lasting accommodation that recognises their Irish identity while Unionists have found it difficult to achieve a lasting accommodation securing their British identity.

At different stages, and more than once, in the history of Northern Ireland various ways of resolving the double minority problem have been proposed and / or attempted. We will summarise the main ones in the next section.

4. Solutions To The Double Minority Problem

4.1 Political Violence
Violence has been used on and off since the formation of Northern Ireland as a key tool in the conflict of identities. It has been greatly reduced since the IRA cessation and the Loyalist ceasefire but people are still killed every year by paramilitaries and breaches of human rights are carried out by their punishment squads. Despite the commitment of many groups to violence and the awful legacy of that violence, there now seems to be a general consensus that it was failing to bring about conditions preferred by any side. In fact many argue that it led to a stalemate, which is nothing more than a period between progress towards agreement and a slide into further conflict. Some would argue, however, that violent conflict was a necessary stage in creating the conditions in which their own community could move forward and a negotiated settlement could be reached.

4.2 Redrawing The Map
Northern Ireland was originally created by dividing Ireland into areas of Nationalist and Unionist majorities. This prepared the ground for the most recent phase of our conflict, the Troubles, because the Nationalist minority in Northern Ireland were denied fulfilment of their constitutional aspiration for inclusion within a united Ireland.

Subsequent increases in the Nationalist population west of the river Bann relative to the Unionist population there gave rise to Unionist fears of a ‘greening’ of the west. This was viewed as a potential threat to the viability of a Unionist Northern Ireland and some, therefore, considered redrawing the map to secure a Unionist majority east of the Bann. Most people, however, regarded this as an unattractive option that was politically, socially and economically unviable. It is a scenario that is likely only as an outcome of a full-blown civil war and would almost certainly entail forced population movement.

4.3 Population Transfer
During the Troubles there were examples of forced population movement where minorities were pushed out of communities by elements within the majority tradition. This process involving intimidation and violence has left a bitter legacy throughout Northern Ireland. Population transfer on a larger scale, for example, of most Nationalists leaving Northern Ireland and moving to the Republic of Ireland or of most Unionists leaving Northern Ireland and moving to Great Britain is not a popular option and is likely only as an outcome of full-blown civil war.

4.4 Living Together But Living Apart
It is often said in Northern Ireland that ‘good walls make good neighbours’. This reflects a real concern for personal security that is based on the bitter experience of the past.

Building a future within Northern Ireland that provides separate space for opposed identities to follow their own paths, however, is likely to be a process strewn with conflict and uncertainty. In this scenario the population would continue to inhabit the territory of Northern Ireland, but in separate segregated communities and / or regions. These segregated areas would have control over their own services and functions such as education and health care, devolved from an agreed power sharing administration.

At the moment over 50% of the people of Northern Ireland live in areas with less than 10% of the other tradition and over 90% live in areas with less than 30% of the other tradition. Many Nationalists regard the Unionist Shankill Road as a ‘no go area’ and similarly many Unionists regard the Nationalist Falls Road as a ‘no go area’.

So to a large extent people are already segregated in housing, work, church, sport and education. But in interface areas there is also often effective segregation in basic services like health care provision, post offices and supermarkets, especially during times of increased tension. People in these communities often travel beyond their nearest doctor, post office or supermarket to one where they feel more secure.

If segregation continues to develop into the future, especially if it is planned segregation, it may give rise to the possibility of semi autonomous ghettoes existing in a permanent state of mutual hostility. If segregation were used as a solution to identity conflict it would be more likely to generate ongoing conflict between the two traditions and further uncertainty about the overall constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

4.5 Independence
Northern Ireland becomes a sovereign state, independent both of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, but free to develop cooperative relationships with both. In effect this proposal aims to resolve the issue of identity conflict by denying the constitutional aspirations of both traditions. For this reason and because of concerns about the economic viability of such a small state this idea never gained significant support. Nevertheless, it was based on one profound underlying assumption, that despite their mutual antipathy Northern Ireland’s two traditions shared more in common with each other than they did with Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland.

4.6 Joint Sovereignty
The government of Northern Ireland would be held jointly by Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. This arrangement would serve to afford equal status to the constitutional aspirations of both Unionists and Nationalists. Some argue that in a context where both communities are divided by their constitutional aspirations this is the most just and equitable solution. It is not clear, however, how decisions would be made in instances where the two Governments disagreed with each other. Drumcree, and the suspension of the Executive are recent examples of where the two governments have failed to agree. Furthermore Unionists and Nationalists are both likely to perceive joint sovereignty as a diminishment of the Union and as a stepping-stone towards Irish unification. This is a scenario likely to foster greater tension.

4.7 Irish Unification
The prospect of Irish unification remains a hope for many Nationalists and a fear for many Unionists. Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement unification remains a possibility but will not be progressed until a referendum shows that a majority in favour of it exists within Northern Ireland. It remains unclear if and when such a majority might emerge but it seems safe to say that there will be no majority in favour of this for the foreseeable future. The security, social, political and economic implications of unification remain unclear and it is also questionable whether a majority of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland would vote in favour of unification when those implications were considered. What does seem clear within the foreseeable future, however, is that moves towards Irish unification would lead to a time of considerable tension, upheaval and uncertainty, not least because of the concerns of Unionist people.

4.8 Other Initiatives
There has been a range of other political initiatives, often sponsored by the British government, to resolve the double minority problem or at least to set up a process to consider resolution. These initiatives included:

  • A Constitutional Convention (1975-76)

  • Attempts to set up devolved institutions (1977-78 and 1980)

  • Rolling Devolution (1982-84)

  • The Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)

  • The Brooke-Mahew Phased Talks (1991-92)

5. The Belfast Agreement

The focus of most political parties in Northern Ireland and of the British and Irish governments is on the building of an agreed shared future between the opposing identities within Northern Ireland. The road map for this process is the Belfast Agreement.

The Belfast Agreement seeks to protect both Nationalists and Unionists from political domination by each other. It seeks to do this through the establishment of power-sharing arrangements within Northern Ireland. These arrangements aim to avoid the traditional politics of majority rule, which is unacceptable to the Nationalist minority. At the same time, by securing the principle of consent regarding any future change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, they aim to reassure Unionists that a united Ireland will not be forced on an unwilling majority. The Belfast Agreement also provides recognition of the Irish identity of Nationalists through the North-South Ministerial Council, and the British identity of Unionists through the British-Irish Council. Both Nationalists and Unionists are protected from discrimination and both cultural traditions are promised equal respect no matter which of them find themselves in the minority at any point in the future.

While the Belfast Agreement has succeeded in greatly reducing political violence within Northern Ireland, argument continues over its interpretation and implementation to the point that progress continually stalls. Under its terms Nationalists have had to accept less than full unification. Many Unionists feel that the constitutional issue is not copper fastened because the consent principle allows for a united Ireland should those in favour become the majority. Unfulfilled aspirations, inherent tensions and uncertainty still remain. Northern Ireland continues to be a society with a divided political identity and opposing aspirations.

What can we do to address continuing tensions, uncertainties and conflict? The next section will explore some, but by no means all, of the options.

6. Building An Agreed Shared Future: Some Options

Building an agreed shared future demands the creation of a sense of belonging together, of being in the same boat together, of working towards a common purpose. In a Northern Ireland context this is very problematic because it entails potential changes to political identity and involves relationships with people who may be regarded as enemies. Some people will regard this as positive and some as negative.

6.1 Our Shared Wider Identity
In some ways Northern Ireland already has its own identity, but this is largely ignored possibly because there are so few symbols or recognised structures to support it. We can easily put down all the things that separate us because they are visible, but we cannot easily articulate the structures and language that express our commonality. Nevertheless the Belfast Agreement could not have been delivered without this commonality framed in the unique shared pain of our experience of the Troubles.

Among the numerous things that we share are:

  • A common language

  • Our political administration

  • Similar faiths within a Christian tradition

  • Working-class problems

  • Our school curriculum

  • The same television programmes

  • The same food

  • Holidays to the same destinations

  • The same dark sense of humour

  • The same fears for our children’s futures

  • The same struggle with debts

This list could go on and on.

Even that which separates us is dependent upon the ‘other’. Our sense of Britishness would not exist without the key aspects of Irishness found within it. Our sense of Irishness would not exist without the key aspects of Britishness found within it. Arguably the only meaningful differences between us are those between the well off and the poor, men and women, young and old and those over constitutional preference.

6.2 Education
It is very important for many parents that their children develop a sense of who and what they are in terms of their traditional Nationalist or Unionist inherited identities. Segregated education in state and Catholic maintained schools has an important part to play in this. These schools also attempt to promote greater understanding of, and respect for, other cultures and beliefs through Education for Mutual Understanding Programmes. Some parents, however, believe that the creation of a wider and more inclusive Northern Ireland identity for their children is more important. The numbers of parents who chose to rear their children with a more inclusive identity, while in a very small minority, continues to grow. As a consequence increasing financial support has been made available to foster and encourage integrated education across Northern Ireland. Over time and with developing political stability the numbers of those who do not identify themselves primarily in terms of traditional Nationalism and Unionism are likely to increase. This may contribute to the gradual growth of a single overarching Northern Ireland identity and could impact on traditional voting patterns and the political system. For some people this is a positive step towards building a pluralist vision of the future. For others, however, it represents the danger of a declining sense of traditional identity and a threat to constitutional aspirations.

6.3 Creating A Shared Political Identity
In theory people could be encouraged to develop common loyalty towards reformed and inclusive institutions of state if these were designed to be politically neutral. This form of arrangement is known as civic nationalism and would mean that the traditional identities of Nationalism and Unionism would not be reflected by the state. Some people would welcome this as a step towards developing a truly pluralistic society in which diverse identities can belong and thrive. Others view pluralistic societies with disapproval, believing that the traditions, values and beliefs of the majority should be reflected by the state.

The emotional identification of people with civic nationalism is also likely to be less compared to that with traditional Nationalism and Unionism. Furthermore Unionists are likely to perceive it as an erosion of the Britishness of Northern Ireland and both Unionists and Nationalists are likely to perceive it as a step towards Irish unification.

6.4 Creating Political Partnership
Political leadership based on a shared future that sees the other tradition as part of that future is largely missing in Northern Ireland. Traditional party political interests are oppositional. This is exaggerated in Northern Ireland because parties oppose each other not only on ordinary issues but also on constitutional questions and on issues like dealing with the past. If parties worked as partners with each other instead of in opposition then a shared commitment to Northern Ireland might be possible.

Understanding, trust and common purpose are vital for the creation of a partnership that aims to build an agreed shared future. This means that both Unionists and Nationalists would need to know that the other tradition is not going to attack or undermine them. What really matters in the political / peace process is both the feeling and the reality of security. Without this, parties and their supporters react negatively. Protestants, for example, would view the Belfast Agreement more favourably if the issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons were resolved and Nationalists would feel less suspicious of Unionist willingness to share power if they were to agree to stable institutions and refrain from collapsing them.

These underpinning ingredients of successful partnership, trust, understanding and common purpose, are born of dialogue. They cannot be created without it.

A crude framework for exploring how to build an agreed shared future then would read like this:

  1. Dialogue leads to understanding.
  2. Understanding can lead to trust and common purpose.
  3. Trust and common purpose can enable partnership.
  4. Partnership can lead towards an agreed shared future.

6.5 Designation
Most people in Northern Ireland vote politically within the tradition of their birth. Nationalists are unlikely to vote Unionist and Unionists are unlikely to vote Nationalist. This is copper-fastened by the process whereby Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA’s) have to designate themselves as ‘Unionist’, ‘Nationalist’ or ‘other’. For many people this ensures the ongoing viability of their community and their constitutional aspirations. Nevertheless many people are also concerned that these traditional voting patterns maintain parties, which concentrate on constitutional issues and sectarian politics at the expense of shared ‘bread and butter’ issues. Most people, however, do not break with this tradition for fear that they will weaken their communities and their constitutional stance within the existing system of oppositional politics.

Only two parties so far have used the designation ‘other’ (the Alliance Party and the Women’s Coalition). In the event of the political / peace process delivering a stable future, it remains unclear whether parties who choose this designation would grow in strength. The growth of a middle-ground of ‘others’ could encourage voters to break with tradition and begin the process of moving Northern Ireland away from constitutionally oriented parties to ones whose primary concerns are the ‘bread and butter’ issues. Few people, however, view this as a likely scenario within the foreseeable future.

6.6 State Imposed Identity Change
States have often used force to dilute or change the identities of communities in order to forge a wider common identity that suits its purposes. Attempts to impose identity change are experienced as oppression and this actually has the opposite effect in reinforcing traditional identity. Our own history is full of examples of how imposed identity change does not work as intended.

6.7 State Managed Identity Change
State managed identity change is more about policies of encouragement than it is about imposed change. It is possible, but difficult, to deliberately ‘manage’ identity change. In theory all it requires is the generation of a different sense of how we share political space with others. But in Northern Ireland elements of both communities are deeply suspicious of efforts to alter their identity through government-approved programmes. They fear a form of cynical identity change designed to make a fractious people more manageable by the state. Community Relations programmes for example, have been perceived by Nationalists as a state attempt to convince them that the real problem is not the state but their inability to get on with their Unionist neighbours and thereby wean activists and their supporters away from armed struggle. Many Unionists have tended to view Community Relations programmes as an effort by the state to ‘green’ Northern Ireland and create one homogenous identity as a stepping-stone to Irish unification.

6.8 Successful State Managed Identity Change
There are some examples where the actions of the state have made a successful impact on identity change. Here are two:

Examples Of State Managed Identity Change

  1. By wearing a South African rugby jumper during an international match Nelson Mandela symbolically embraced aspects of white South African culture. For many South African people this was received as a powerfully inclusive attitude-changing action, which served to foster an increased sense of national unity and helped whites to believe that they had a future in the new South Africa.

 

  1. The Australian state traditionally ignored the role of native (Aboriginal) Australians in the life of the nation. Their 200th anniversary celebrations for example, had no native Australian input. But the subsequent Olympic Games did. This raised consciousness throughout Australian society of the role of native Australians in the life of the nation.

6.9 Creating A Sense Of Common Purpose
The very act of discussing a common identity can be burdened with fears and suspicions; such are the implications of perceived identity loss. It may be more productive in terms of building an agreed shared future to discuss creating a common sense of purpose rather than to try to create a common identity.

A common sense of purpose needs unifying symbols and we have already noted the power of a single gesture such as that of Nelson Mandela. Creating unifying symbols may not be as difficult as it seems. In Northern Ireland we already have an agreed Police Service of Northern Ireland badge and the Assembly adopted the flax leaf as their logo. Both of these were achieved at times of great political division.

When Alex Maskey was Lord Mayor of Belfast he widened the sense of ownership of Belfast to include his Republican constituency and Nationalist people in general. But he also made efforts to engage with Unionists through symbolic unifying gestures. In one example he participated in a Remembrance Day Ceremony, albeit in advance of the official one. This was previously unthinkable, coming as it did from a Republican Lord Mayor. While it aroused mixed reactions from both sides of the community it is an example of what is possible where the political will is present.

Further Examples Of Initiatives To Foster A Common Sense Of Purpose

  • A Day of Remembrance has been suggested where everyone takes part on his or her own terms. This could foster a shared ownership of the past but there are problems with it. How, for example, could the victims of violence and the perpetrators of violence take part in a single ceremony? Is this even appropriate?
  • A joint statement from the 1st and Deputy 1st Ministers (if or when we have them again) could stress their commitment to partnership in government for all of the people and similar statements could come from our faith and sporting traditions.
  • When Armagh celebrated winning the Sam Maguire Cup many local Unionists felt that the celebrations excluded, threatened or were irrelevant to them. It would only require a modest change of attitude from both traditions to enable such victories to be viewed as a cause for inclusive celebration of regional sporting supremacy.
  • Many Nationalists have noted that the British government’s attitude has changed, for example, with the rejection of selfish strategic or economic interest, with the creation of policies to establish social and economic balance between Nationalists and Unionists, with Hugh Orde’s appointment as Chief Constable, with the publication of the Steven’s Inquiry and so on. Over time this may lead to greater acceptance of Northern Ireland within the Union.
  • Region’ is a non-threatening and neutral term that can be flexibly applied, meaning different things at different times according to our best interests. As such, recognising different meanings of a ‘Region of Ulster’ could help. Northern Ireland could, for example, be sold as a region of the European Union on a six or a nine county basis depending on the particular benefits of the moment. If we made the statement that ‘we in Northern Ireland will remain a region of the European Union for the future and in that context we will look out for each other,’ then that would be an important step towards furthering our common interests without excluding our aspirations.
  • Re-colonising aspects of culture lost to one or other tradition could help to develop a wider common identity without diluting traditional Unionist and Nationalist identity. Nationalists can, for example, embrace Cuchulainn and Unionists can incorporate Patrick (in fact progress on both counts has already been made). These are valid parts of either tradition.
  • In East Belfast Loyalist communities are redefining identity away from traditional Loyalist militarist murals to ones celebrating local pride by depicting Alex Higgins, Van Morrison and the Titanic. This is a creative way of fulfilling two important functions. On the one hand it serves to include those within the community who do not identify with the paraphernalia of Loyalism and paramilitarism. On the other hand it presents a less threatening, more welcoming and celebratory face to outsiders.

7. Some Questions To Consider

7.1 Questions About Your Identity

  • What are the key aspects that make up your identity and how were they formed?

  • What have been the key changes in your identity over time?

  • In what ways does being ‘boxed in’ restrict you?

  • Do you identify yourself in opposition to others in terms of what you are and what you are not?

  • Does this affect the relationships you have with people who are different from you in a positive or in a negative way?

2. Questions About The Future

  • Do we need a single overarching political identity in Northern Ireland?

  • Do you think it is possible to create a common political identity in Northern Ireland?

  • Do we need to foster a sense of ‘being in the same boat together’ and ‘looking out for each other’?

  • Is it likely that we can create a situation in which everybody feels that they belong and that they are secure, while we continue to live separately and maintain our differences?

8. Conclusion

Traditionally antagonistic identities and competing constitutional aspirations have underpinned the conflict in Northern Ireland and remain obstacles to an agreed future. Initial support for the Belfast Agreement was perhaps motivated primarily by a desire to end the violence. It may also have indicated that an increasing number of people in Northern Ireland wanted to achieve an accommodation of their national differences. But while some Nationalists and Unionists may have been willing to accept less than their first preferences on constitutional matters others believed their politicians when they reassured them that the Belfast Agreement was ultimately a stepping-stone to their respective first preferences in return for short-term sacrifices.

The Belfast Agreement has given Northern Ireland a legal framework that is designed to achieve political accommodation between mutually antagonistic communities by treating both identities impartially and by affording them both a parity of esteem.

Many people, however, do not experience it in this way, and their concerns are mirrored in ongoing political conflict. As the implications of the Belfast Agreement have sunk in, dissatisfaction with it (particularly among Unionists) has grown. Neither community fully recognises the other community’s perceived loss and as a consequence feel that they are the ones bearing the brunt of concessions. The Unionist community in particular perceives the Belfast Agreement as actively eroding its British identity and hence its sense of security. Furthermore, the constitutional issue remains one that will continue to generate tension. How can an agreed shared future be built when the possibility of constitutional change remains a fear for some and a hope for others? It remains unclear how, if or when this political framework will deliver an agreed shared future that truly accommodates opposing political identities.

Endnote:

Simplified summaries of some of the issues raised in this booklet can be found in:

Identity: What Is It?: 
The Community Dialogue Worksheet Series: Volume One

            And:

The Double Minority Problem: Identity And The Northern Ireland Conflict
The Community Dialogue Worksheet Series: Volume Two