Féile Discussion: British or Irish or both? Unionism, Protestantism and the national question …

The Virtual Féile is well underway, with events continuing through Sunday.

Monday, I took part in a lunchtime discussion on unionism around the theme of ‘British, or Irish or both: unionism, Protestantism and the national question’. It was chaired by Prof Jennifer Todd and my conversation partner was Prof Christine Bell.

The conversation was framed in this way:

Until the late 19thcentury, it was commonplace for unionists and Protestants of all varieties to see no problem in identifying as Irish. The rise of Ulster unionism and partition, changed this. As discussions about the future political arrangements on this island develop, what affinity is there nowadays between unionism and Irish identity? What sorts of (post-) unionist politics can, while affirming British links and identities, also affirm Irishness?

You can watch our conversation here:

YouTube video

During the conversation, we at times struggled to articulate the contents of unionist identity. This may in part be due to the diversity within unionism. Alex Kane wrote instructively on this in Saturday’s Irish Times, in the context of a possible border poll.

I’ve reproduced my opening remarks below:

In my initial contribution, I will make three points: the first is about why it is so difficult for some unionists to identify as Irish; the second is about the changing role of religion and its impact on identity; and the third is about those who identify as Northern Irish or as ‘neither unionist nor nationalist’.

My first point is that while partition contributed to a decline in the tendency of unionists and Protestants to identify as Irish, it was the violence of the Troubles that copper-fastened this trend.

Richard Rose’s often-cited, pre-Troubles 1968 survey gave us these statistics: Among Protestants, 39% identified as British, 32% as Ulster, and 20% as Irish. But in 1989, a survey by Edward Moxon-Browne gave us these figures: 68% identified as British, 14% as Ulster, and just 3% as Irish. I tend to agree with Moxon-Browne’s reasoning for the stark change: [he said] ‘after having borne the brunt of the IRA campaign, Protestants have swung more definitely towards adopting the label “British”’.In other words, violence not only reflected the polarization of society, it increased it.

The legacy of the IRA’s violent campaign makes it very difficult for some Protestants to even contemplate identifying as Irish. In my research, some Protestants and Unionists told me that republicans are engaging in a campaign to ‘rewrite history’, with Sinn Féin presenting themselves as righteous civil rights campaigners and claiming that the ‘armed struggle’ was morally justified.

They see no place for themselves or their story in this version of history. From their perspective, their husbands, sons, wives, and daughters were murdered either innocently going about their daily business; or, in the case of those who joined the RUC, trying to protect society from terrorism. Murder and terrorism is the language they would use. For them, to identify as Irish would be to identify with perpetrators who they believe are not even sorry for those deaths.

Today’s discussion is not about dealing with the past. But our failure to have a comprehensive, joined-up process which gives people from all perspectives a chance to tell their story or find out what really happened during the Troubles means that legacy issues continue to haunt all discussions about future political arrangements on this island. There is unlikely to be any growth in affinity between unionism and Irish identity as long as a substantial number of unionists remain convinced that in their view, the IRA has literally gotten away with murder.

My second point is that the close link between the Catholic Church, the Irish state, and Irish identity, especially in the decades immediately after partition, has been a major reason why unionists have had problems identifying as Irish. Unionists believed that the Republic was a ‘Catholic’ state – and with seemingly good cause: Catholic social teaching on matters like contraception, divorce and abortion was for many years reflected in the laws of the Irish state; and the State seemed to give the Church free reign to run entire sectors like health and education.

Unionists also feared that in a Catholic state, their freedom to practice their religion would be compromised. Fear is not too strong a word here: for centuries, across Europe, it was all too common for Catholics and Protestants to violently persecute each other, especially when the other was a minority.

If you doubt the potency of this fear it is worth refreshing your memory by revisiting the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Rev Ian Paisley, and remembering that the congregation he built for himself is called ‘Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church’. The martyrs Paisley was referring to stretch back across centuries of Irish, British and European history – and his church building remains a stark, physical reminder of it. Protestant martyrs also are prominently displayed on the banners of the Orange Order, featuring in their annual parades.

Since the mid-1990s, increasing secularization, coupled with the fall-out from the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, has meant that the link between the Catholic Church, the Irish state, and Irish identity has been dramatically weakened, if not severed completely. And this has removed a major reason why Unionists might have problems identifying as Irish.

On the one hand, this might seem so obvious as to hardly merit mentioning. But it is worth mentioning, not least because there is a possibility, at the present juncture of this island’s history, that churches might play a unifying rather than divisive role in contributing to future societal arrangements. This, as far as I can see, is historically very unusual, if not unique, notwithstanding the contributions some churches and clergy made to peacemaking during the Troubles. But despite their divisive past, the churches are, after all, among the island’s few longstanding all-island institutions: Protestants belong to Irish churches, not British churches.

In recent years, there have been unprecedented levels of collaboration at the denominational, church leaders-level on issues like preparing for Brexit and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Conservative Catholics and Protestants have made common cause on opposing abortion legislation in both jurisdictions (I have even heard Catholic priests encouraging parishioners to vote DUP because of its stance on abortion.)

At the same time, there is scant evidence of an ecumenical, overarching ‘Irish Christian’ identity, encompassing the Catholic and Protestant traditions, developing at the grassroots level in Northern Ireland and in that way, encouraging Protestants to embrace Irishness as an aspect of their identity.

But with the historical fear of the Catholic Church now so comprehensively removed from Unionist consciousness, I do not think the development of an Irish Christian identity is entirely out of the question, even in Northern Ireland.

One recent display of this potential unity is the ‘Irish blessing’ video, a thoroughly cross-border, ecumenical and multiracial project in which Irish Christians from a range of traditions sang ‘Be Thou My Vision’ as a tribute to those keeping society together during the Covid-19 pandemic  – both Irish dancers and Lambeg drumming feature in it. It was released on YouTube on Pentecost Sunday (31 May) this year and is approaching one million views (since the discussion was recorded, it has surpassed one million views).

YouTube video


The churches have an opportunity to witness to the fact that the pandemic has taught us that as an island, we are all in this together and we need to work together across borders and across national and religious identities. But having said that, the churches’ effectiveness in doing this is as yet relatively untested. And the secularization that has helped remove some Unionists’ fear of the Catholic Church also hinders all churches’ ability to have significant societal impact.

My third point is about ‘Northern Irish’ identity, which on the surface seems like an inclusive identity that has room for both Irishness and Britishness. Over the last few years, depending on the poll, 20-25% of people identify as Northern Irish. Young Protestants and people of ‘no religion’ or ‘other religions’ are more likely to choose Northern Irish identity than any other groups. And those who identify as ‘no religion’ are more likely to come from Protestant than Catholic backgrounds.

Are such trends signs that younger Protestants and non-religious people from Protestant backgrounds are more open to some sort of Irishness? This may very well be the case. But as always, survey data should be interpreted cautiously because surveys – by their very nature – do not give people a chance to explain what they mean by ‘Northern Irish’.

At the same time, the 2018 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 50% of the population now describe themselves as ‘neither unionist nor nationalist’. This is a historic high, rising from 33% in 1998. Women, people under 45, and people of ‘no religion’ were most likely to identify as ‘neither’. Although the ‘neither’ group fell to 39% in the 2019 Life and Times, it still remains a larger group than Unionists (33%) or Nationalists (23%).

For me, this raises questions about how well-represented a large ‘non-aligned’ group may feel in a Northern Ireland where – because of how the Assembly is structured – the only identifications that really count are ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’. We should be asking quite fundamental questions about whether those structures are still ‘fit for purpose’ and what it means if a growing swathe of Northern Ireland’s population is unrepresented and therefore alienated and apathetic.

We have a situation now where young people, who are more likely to identify as ‘neither’, lack political representation, are suffering the effects of intergenerational trauma due to previous generations’ failures in dealing with the legacy of the past, and are disproportionately disadvantaged educationally and economically by the pandemic. We need to find ways for those young people to have a say in what their future looks like, beyond the national question.


Imagine festival 202

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