The News Letter’s Union 2021: Is a New Northern Irish Identity Possible?

image The Belfast News Letter’s ‘Union 2021’ series has canvassed a range of unionist and other commentators to assess the state of the union, as it were, and put forward some ideas about making Northern Ireland a better place.

Yesterday’s contribution from Stephen Goss, who describes himself as a ‘pro-union Catholic’ from West Belfast, floated the proposition of creating a more robust ‘Northern Ireland’ identity.

The sub-headline of Goss’ article is bold:

Unionists should be radical and ambitious – creating a Northern Ireland flag, anthem and identity which both Catholics and Protestants can subscribe to

The idea of a Northern Ireland identity is not new, indeed it is something that has been floated in the past by the Alliance Party – and subsequently scorned as unrealistic.

But surveys show that there are increasing numbers of people within Northern Ireland, especially among younger age cohorts, that when given the choice are willing to select ‘Northern Ireland’ rather than ‘Irish’ or ‘British’ as their identity.

This raises the possibility that Northern Ireland may be approaching a time in its history when some sort of uniting, over-arching identity is indeed possible.

I would hasten to add that I don’t think an over-arching Northern Ireland identity could replace nationalist or unionist identities altogether, but that it just might be possible for it to exist alongside those other identities in ways that are positive and constructive.

That said, it seems a more difficult identity to construct or manufacture than, for example, an Ulster-Scots identity – which can draw on deeper historical roots and resonances.

But I’m a bit put off by the tone of the News Letter’s sub-headline: Unionists should be radical and ambitious …

Surely any sort of shared Northern Ireland identity can’t be left solely to the unionists to construct, or else it misses the point entirely. I also was disappointed that Goss’ column didn’t go far enough, in offering any vision of how unionists and nationalists could get to work on building a shared, over-arching identity.

Reading today’s column in the ‘Union 2021’ series, however, one could be forgiven for thinking Goss’ ideas could never get off the ground. Dr James Dingley asserts that unionists and nationalists are more divided than ever:

For all the bombast, nothing has changed: ‘shared future’ – whatever that means, and ‘parity of esteem’ (murderers with law-abiding citizens?) are empty rhetoric covering over the fact that nothing has actually changed and everyone has been shoved back into the boxes from whence they came in 1969.

Dingley’s column is titled ‘Unionism has a desperate dearth of ideas.’ He laments the demise of the cross community Northern Ireland Labour Party and is dismayed that the best that unionists have been able to come up with over the years is a strategy of ‘Ulster Says No.’

Unfortunately, Dingley undermines his own argument and makes sure that he will never be able to constructively communicate with nationalists by continually referring to ‘unrepentant terrorists’ and adding:

Finally it [unionism] needs to be able to stand up and say quite clearly why Ulster is not Irish and why everyone is far better off in the UK.

This, to me, is nonsensical – it is like saying Wales is not Welsh or Scotland is not Scottish.

Fortunately, there is room for ‘Irishness’ in the Northern Irish identity that Goss proposes. He says that a Northern Irish identity and the symbols that might go with it need not ‘be at the expense of our national affiliations.’

While I have my doubts that a Northern Irish identity will genuinely ‘work’ in the ways that Goss hopes, I think it is far more realistic than convincing nationalists that ‘Ulster is not Irish.’

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