As a preface/health warning, I should point out that these are just my thoughts and a lot of it is based on gut instinct. I make no claim to special knowledge and I am by no means an expert. You might well think I’m talking nonsense. I might very well be.
This is a question which I periodically wrestle with and it’s come back to the surface once again. I think that’s partly due to the fact that I’m coming up on 12 years in Scotland next month. It’s also down to a closer friendship with a girl almost exactly my age and from a town just up the road from where I grew up. We’ve got so many shared and similar experiences, that it’s brought a lot of the Northern Ireland in me back to the fore.
When you’re from Northern Ireland it’s all about identity. Which tribe are you a member of? Are you Irish or British? A Nationalist or Unionist? A taig or a hun? It’s all very black and white, but typically, I think I fall into the little tiny bit of grey. On paper, I’m a classic, middle class Prod. However, I also have a brother called Sean (yes, that was enough to mark me out as a Catholic) and the many experiences I had at Corrymeela, means I sometimes feel I better understand the other tribe. When I was at school, there was a big deal among many of my friends as they turned 14 and were confirmed – this means they could take Communion at Church of Ireland churches. It’s not as big a deal as First Communion in the Catholic church, but there’s still a bit of fuss. I hadn’t the first idea what it was all about, to this day I’ve gaily taken Communion in a whole range of churches, having never been confirmed and God is yet to strike me down, so I reckon I’m probably alright (on that score, He’s probably quite annoyed at me for other things, not least taking his son’s name in vain on a regular basis)
Recently a good friend (Catholic) of mine got married to a guy who is nominally a Prod. It was in her church, but an ecumenical service – i.e the edited highlights of a Catholic wedding, which can be a bit of a production. What struck me about a lot of it was how familiar it was, in particular with the call and response at the end of readings. I was pleasantly surprised, as my previous trip to Mass hadn’t been that enjoyable – mass is said so often that the congregation and the priest bash through it and I got completely lost.
I’ve wandered off the point there a bit, but what I suppose I’m trying to illustrate is that I don’t feel that I clearly belong to either tribe. I don’t see myself as British, for all I hold a British passport. I don’t really think there is such a thing as a British identity – mostly it’s just shorthand for English. I’m happy to be called Irish, indeed, under the Good Friday Agreement I qualify for an Irish passport too, but it’s a very particular kind of Irish-ness. For all it’s one island, it’s very definitely another country. Different money, different accent, different laws. Cultural reference points are very different. I don’t know if it still happens, but I remember RTE radio playing the bells for the Angelus 3 times a day during family holidays in Donegal. I’ve probably got more in common with someone my age who grew up in Paisley, than someone my age who grew up in Dublin , particularly in terms of shared history and cultural reference points. I suppose what I would like, is that one day Northern Ireland has the confidence to be itself and no longer feels the need to be either Irish or British. I’m not about to claim that I grew up in the badlands of West Belfast and saw rioting on my doorstep. I did grow up in the 80s and 90s though. I remember Enniskillen, Omagh, Warrington , Canary Wharf . I remember soldiers on the streets, army landrovers with their back doors open and armed men looking out on the traffic. I remember bomb alerts in Belfast and the continuity announcer on UTV asking for all keyholders from a particular area to return to their premises, because there had been a coded warning. It all leaves a mark. Luckily for me it’s not a negative mark, perhaps that’s why I hold the opinions I do, I haven’t been radicalised by experiences of one side or the other.
Northern Ireland has been back in the headlines again recently and as usual it’s for all the wrong reasons. I hope and pray what we’re experiencing now are the deaths throes of the dissidents, not a return to the Troubles. I still wish we all had more confidence in ourselves, that we were able to accept the many, many things we share, instead of constantly focusing on all the things that are different. I keep up with things at home as best I can and I fear the push towards separate but equal in the two communities. I am scared and angry about the dramatic cuts to be introduced to the community relations budget. Yes, ‘peace’ has become a very lucrative business for some, but good work is being done there and we can only properly move forward if we talk to one another and find that common ground. Separating the two communities will bring peace of a sort, but where’s the reconciliation?
The more I think about it, the more I would categorise myself as Northern Irish. The accent (though it’s a lot softer than it was), the sense of humour, the ability to pack more words into one breath than anyone would ever think possible all mark me out as an Ulster girl. I’m very proud of where I come from, it’s a wonderful place. Behind the headlines people are loyal and funny and it’s easily one of the most beautiful places in the world. And yet I live in Scotland and have done for almost 12 years. Which brings me back to Who Am I?