CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: With all due respect - pluralism and parity of esteem (Report No. 7)

CAIN Web Service

With all due respect

Pluralism and parity of esteem

British? Irish? Or what?

In Northern Ireland, one of the more common perceptions is that the Protestant community's predominantly unionist identity is confused and incoherent, based upon an outmoded loyalty to the Protestant crown of the United Kingdom.

David Adams (UDP) does see the dominant strain within unionism as being the Protestant religious identity, which he identifies with the DUP and especially its leader, Ian Paisley Snr. But he believes the way forward for unionism is to develop a secular ideology, arguing that "the very basis of Protestantism in my mind is the freedom to choose whatever political philosophy or belief you want".

From a different perspective, Ian Paisley Jnr (DUP) argues that his unionism is indeed more than evangelical Protestantism, describing his identity as "very eclectic" and including "things which I choose which are British and things which are Irish and things which I choose which are unique to Northern Ireland". But as far as his 'Britishness' goes, he perceives it in terms of the "British way of life": "I don't look to see what is happening in the Irish exchequer. I am interested in what is happening in the British budget ... interested in English football teams, in television, such as British soap operas, all those things." While the "revolutionary settlement" and "our perceptions of the British constitution and how it operates and our contract with the British" continue to be foundation stones for him, Mr Paisley also accepts separation from Britain would be regarded by unionists as "harmful in socioeconomic terms, harmful in pluralist terms and indeed harmful in religious terms".

This goes beyond loyalty to crown, as George Patton of the Orange Order indicates. Mr Patton considers himself "a loyalist and a monarchist", but "if push came to shove and the situation arose, I can see where we could live without a monarchy ... [T]he monarchy is a big thing, there is no doubt about that and it would hurt, it would hurt but I think we would survive that ... [W]e are all very proud of the monarchy and we are very loyal to Queen and Country, but at the end of the day the presence or absence of a monarchy will not decide our sense of Britishness."

Mr Patton perceives the 'British Isles' as a natural geographical entity, which means for him that "ultimately we are all British". As regards northern Protestant culture specifically, "we are part English, large part Scottish and part Irish and there are other little mixes like Hugenots and all sorts of European influences and things. So in essence the Ulsterman is multi-cultural because he is drawn from these various backgrounds and he can relate to the aspects of what might be considered British culture, English culture and very much Scottish culture." Although Mr Patton finds British culture hard to define, he argues this is so because of its very diversity.

The unionist sense of Britishness is also one of a shared historical experience, a sense of communion with the population of Britain, especially of wartime adversity. The reverse of that coin is that during the current 'troubles' there has been, as Mr Patton again describes it, "within my community ... a sense of betrayal that in our hour of need we weren't having that [loyalty] reciprocated, that many people on the mainland didn't feel that we were actually part of the family".

Bob McCartney (UKUP) defines the identity of any individual as "composed first of all of how he sees himself in terms of the territory where he lives, and I see the territory where I live as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so I am a British citizen by definition of territory". And he gives a particularly worked up version of what, to him, that citizenship connotes:

I see myself as British because my whole cultural heritage is British. I was educated on the basis ... as any other citizen on the mainland would be. I was taught British constitutional history which I identify with. Now as a schoolboy my, if you like, military heroes were people like Nelson, Wellington, [Admiral] Beattie and so forth. Part of that was because all the members in my family for five generations had served in the ranks of the British armed forces-none of them I may say in the officer corps ... So my background in terms of my allegiances and my experiences and my knowledge was very, very much British. But even culturally in terms of... literature: I mean I believed that while Shakespeare belonged to the world, he was primarily part of my culture, he was my nation's first before he was given to the world just as Tolstoy is a Russian ... So my whole development, both culturally, historically and socially, gives me a very, very positive identification as being British.
Billy Hutchinson (PUP) similarly contends that his Britishness was shaped by a positive identification with British cultural and political life, albeit in more popular forms. Supporting an English soccer team, such as Leeds United, helped create an affinity with Englishness, even to this extent: "I would have gone to watch Northern Ireland but, I mean, basically England would be the team I would support in the World Cup or in the European Championships, and to this very day I would be an ardent fan of England." There were other influences , such as the belief in British justice and the Westminster model of government, and for Mr Hutchinson unionists are "very, very closely connected to England in a political sense". Added to this is his sense of class solidarity with fellow UK citizens, and he defines his culture and identity as anyone would in any working-class city in the United Kingdom. I am British working-class ..."

Nationalists are not, in the main, willing to take these notions at face value. Michael Lavery, chair of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, acknowledges that unionists regard themselves as being "primarily British and would have an aversion for the southern Irish". But for him unionists' Britishness "is just a label: I don't think they are British in any way in the sense of the term that the other British are regarded as British". For Mr Lavery, the difference between the British in Northern Ireland and the British in Great Britain - and in this he is indubitably correct-is that "the other British regard them [unionists] as being an Irish tribe, [and] they regard the Catholics as being another Irish tribe".

Mr Lavery describes his own identity as "primarily Irish, influenced obviously by Europe and the fact that I live in the British Isles and speak English ... I think it is a sense of pride in being Irish and being pleased when Ireland gets international recognition, in its football matches, [when General] de Gaulle came on his holidays here, [when] an Irish man becomes a leader in Europe, when Mary Robinson and Ireland are seen to have influence in international affairs". He sees his Catholicism as secondary, although he recognises that "Catholicism is obviously a part of the Irish culture and there is a long history of inter-reaction between the Irish people and the Catholic Church, not all of it affectionate."

Archbishop Sean Brady defines his Irishness as made up of various cultural and territorial ingredients:

I am an Irish man from rural Ireland. My name is Brady. I belong to one of the old Gaelic clans associated with the Castletara area in Co Cavan, province of Ulster. I was born in the country but I have lived most of my life in the city. I am a Roman Catholic, layman for 20 years, priest for another 30, and now archbishop. I owe allegiance to my native parish but also to my native county. I am interested in the Gaelic Athletic Association; I support my club and county in competitions. In religion I follow Jesus Christ, the way the truth and the life.
Jonathan Stephenson , a "British-born English Protestant", identifies two strands of thinking in the SDLP. There are those "who would want to see a united Ireland in the morning in which Protestants would play a part and have full expression of their civil and religious liberties and everything else, but it would be a unitary state". But there are also those, the much larger group in his estimation, "who would want to see themselves able to realise being Irish [and] they would want to see that reflected in the institutions of the area in which they live, but they wouldn't want to ... see the attainment of a unitary Irish state."

Jim Gibney (SF), defines his identity "as Irish ... It has a linguistic aspect, it has a literary aspect, it has a music aspect to it, it has the culture of dance, it has all of these elements which when they are taken together then make up what we regard as the Irish nationalist tradition, the Irish nationalist culture." For Mr Gibney, this culture is reflected right across the island and so is not alien to the way of life of unionists: he discounts the proposition that nationalist culture is in some way hostile or offensive to the Protestant community: "[I]t is not an exclusive culture ... it is embracing.

He accepts, however - and this makes his views worth exploring at greater length - that nationalists and unionists need to get to know each other better: "I do think that the Irish nationalists have got to try to develop a deeper understanding of the Britishness of the unionist people. [And] I think the unionist people have got to try and explain their case much better than they have when they talk about being British." Mr Gibney has been one of the key republicans involved in private dialogue with members of the Protestant community.

It is perhaps in this context that he highlights the many Irish people who have made a contribution to British society - literary, musical, architectural - and that he does not see the 'two traditions' in classically separatist terms: "Irish republicans, we have got to recognise the British in us and the unionists have got to recognise the Irishness in them and I think that that type of notion is quite revolutionary if you come at it from a straightforward republican point of view, but nonetheless I feel that the proximity of the two islands, the interplay at a human level, the shared history of the two islands-all of this mix indicates clearly that there is a Britishness to the Irish people, whether nationalists or unionists, and that I think is where I believe you can map out for the future a plan for negotiation, a plan for sharing different institutions etcetera within the island."

Nevertheless, recognising the Britishness of unionists does not, even for a liberal republican like Mr Gibney, extend to allowing unionists to remain within the UK. In a mirror image of Bob McCartney's still-majoritarian liberal unionism Mr Gibney regards unionists as a national, or ethnic, minority within the Irish nation. The island of Ireland remains for him an unproblematic unit of 'self-determination':

Ireland and the people of this island, whatever their allegiances, are entitled to the exercise of a democracy in exactly the same way as other people in western Europe and indeed in Britain. The exercise of democracy is not conditional, it is universal. And we are entitled to it, the people of this island are entitled to it, the people that live in the Cove of Cork, the people that live in the Ring of Kerry, the people that live in ... Donegal are as entitled to a view and expression about this part of Ireland as they are about their own part of Ireland ... I have struggled my entire life for the reunification of Ireland, for the removal of the British government's involvement in Ireland, so I start from that premise.
The republic's government, an official explains, would want to stress that nationalist definitions of Irishness have become more pluralist and inclusive in recent years. For example, in 1994 the taoiseach, John Bruton, organised a remembrance day ceremony in Island-bridge, a deliberate show of sensitivity to the British military tradition in Ireland. The government argues that there has been evolution over the last ten years in southern attitudes towards unionists, with a very clear sense emerging that nothing can be achieved without the agreement of the latter. Unionists are perceived as representing a tradition which is very coherent and clear in its objectives, and Dublin cannot conceive of a future in Northern Ireland which does not reflect their values.

But unionists remain as wedded as republicans to a right to 'self-determination', while contesting of course what the unit of self-determination should be-in their case, Northern Ireland. Within one of the focus groups for this research, a republican sympathiser asked what objections unionists would have to a united Ireland, if their religious rights and economic position were guaranteed. To this, Billy Hutchinson replies: "I'm British and Irish ... I'm British … irrespective of economic rights or civil or religious liberties ... [T]he reality is that we live in the United Kingdom ... and I would say to them [republicans] that there is not a border in the world that isn't artificial."

David Adams argues that Northern Ireland has a right to self-determination on the grounds that it has been in existence for over 75 years, and he rejects the notion of a 'natural' geographic unit. Mr Adams criticises republicans for wanting "to go back to 1916 or 1920 ... [to] wipe the slate clean ... In the real world that doesn't happen, what you do is you start where you are..."

For Jonathan Stephenson, the SDLP offers the best vehicle towards achieving a political settlement in Northern Ireland as it recognises the very clear divisions of national identity within Northern Ireland. These divisions can not be ignored, Mr Stephenson argues, as he feels unionists and republicans would like to ignore them, with one side saying 'Dublin has no say in the affairs of the north; Dublin is the capital of a foreign country' and the other saying 'if the British would only leave and take their troops with them, we Irish can settle it ourselves'. He supports the SDLP's view, which "is essentially to arrive at arrangements to share these counties".

His criticism is also aimed at those unionists, such as Ian Paisley Jnr, who do not accept that northern nationalists form a constituent part of an Irish nation extending beyond the borders of the republic into Northern Ireland. Mr Paisley considers "the idea of the Irish diaspora as a joke" and argues that the southern Irish have rejected northern nationalists.

He says to nationalists that the flags and symbols of the UK "belong to everyone and there should be a claiming of those flags and symbols by the nationalist community ... the Union Jack is part of this. First of all it is the national symbol and it is not exclusively mine as a unionist: it is everyone's, and maybe the reason why the Union Jack is used so much by unionists is because there is a failure by nationalists to claim it as their own.

Mr Paisley insists upon the "Britishness of the minority community'. By this, he means

whether the nationalist community like to accept it or not they are British and they are British as much as in those things which make me British. in other words our way of life. Lets face it. the political things that happen here happen because of a British direction ... whether it is socioeconomic policy or whether it is political policy …
In a similar vein to Mr Stephenson, Terry Carlin, Northern Ireland officer of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, reacts against the violence of the Provisionals: "I'm bitterly anti-Provo, and when I go abroad and you have to fill in your nationality ... I ... usually put 'Northern Ireland'. I don't say Northern Irish, I don't say British. I don't say Irish. I just say Northern Ireland." He does this "because this is the place where I was born and reared, and lived in. and I am anxious to try and promote relationships hetween the peoples of this place and the republic and ... Britain."

Jim Gibney, however, is as reluctant to concede a durable sense of Britishness to unionists as Mr Paisley is to recognise a wider sense of Irishness. For him, unionists, primarily, are part of the Irish nation, and the "Irish national identity … is ... close ... to everyone on this island, irrespective of their allegiance". Mr Gibney believes that it is "really only since 1920 you get this we are British' from the unionists".

It was this sense of British 'national' consciousness among unionists which clearly separated unionists from nationalists in our interviews. Among those Catholics and nationalists interviewed and amongst participants in the focus groups, it was evident that Britishness was almost exclusively a unionist concept, in terms of a positive association. Irishness, on the other hand, was an identity common to both unionists and nationalists. But this is deceptive: in Northern Ireland, Irishness is a highly contested identity, with fundamentally different perceptions between nationalists and unionists which have profound implications for definitions of allegiance and group membership.

Unionists describe themselves as primarily British and, although this does not exclude a supplementary Irish identity, the latter is firmly subordinate to a sense of belonging to a British 'national' community. For unionists, their 'imagined community', or nation, extending beyond the confines of Northern Ireland, is Britain, regardless of whether other elements of Britishness - such as the Scots-accept this in preference to a primary Scots nation. For Irish nationalists, their imagined community, extending beyond Northern Ireland, is that of the Irish nation as a distinct political community. For many unionists, Irishness is more akin to a regional patriotism.

Ulster unionist identity is thus diverse and multi-layered, particularly perhaps for those church leaders presiding over all-Ireland institutions. This is illustrated by Dr Henry Allen:

I'm British with Protestant and the dissenter background ... I am an Ulsterman and ... I would have an affinity with being Irish because I am born in the island of Ireland, in the Ulster part of it ... I have a great love for this island of Ireland, a great love for its people and in my position, I am a member of a church which is a church, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, not the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which means that we have outreaches and we have congregations right throughout the length and breadth of this land and I am very proud of that …
Archbishop Eames was unusual among interviewees from among the majority community, in that he went so far as to place a greater emphasis upon his Irishness than Britishness, while still describing himself as British-Irish: "I see myself as Irish, I see myself as living in that part of Ireland which for historical reasons is still part of the United Kingdom ... [I]n purely religious terms I am Catholic and reformed. In purely political terms I live in a part of the United Kingdom but in cultural terms I see myself very much as being identified with a part of the island of Ireland."

Lord Eames thus sees himself as being a citizen of the UK, with the allegiance that that involves, but also as being part of the island of Ireland. He is convinced that people in Northern Ireland have to stop returning to the 'us and them' syndrome, and he believes the 'new Europe' is gradually eroding the idea of national identity. For him, Britishness is a positive identification in a political sense with being part of the UK:

I see a greater affinity with Scotland and Wales obviously in that sense than I would with England, but I also feel that you have got to separate the purely political aspiration of that from the cultural. Politically I would see myself in United Kingdom terms, culturally I am very conscious of the Celtic tradition ... I would see myself in cultural terms very easily identified with what a Welshman and a Scotsman would see as terms of their culture because of my Celtic link. I call Wales, Scotland the Celtic fringe. I can see that much more clearly than I can with the identity of south of the Watford gap .. I am not living on the mainland of England, I am living on the island of Ireland, I am living among a people, and minister and work and try to lead a people who are unsure of their own identity because they have this dilemma of' British-Irish.
Bob McCartney, on the other hand, representing North Down in Parliament, has a far greater psychological attachment to a British state patriotism than a cultural sense of Irishness: "I don't see myself as Irish in that sense at all. Indeed, when one talks about what makes you Irish, certainly historically you were not Irish in a classical sense unless you are both Gaelic and Catholic." For him, Irishness is a territorial or geographical identity, similar to a Yorkshireman's regional identity, while his Britishness is bound up with the sense of belonging to a British 'national' community. And, like Mr Paisley, he doesn't see preference coming into it:
If ... simply the geographical accident of your birth is to determine the nature of your political identity then one can say if you are born in Ireland you are Irish- whether it be northern Irish or southern Irish is neither here nor there. But if you apply the litmus paper of which state has real and actual sovereignty over the area in which you live, then you are very clearly British.
In terms of his British-Irish identity, Jeffrey Donaldson (UUP) similarly insists that "I would see myself first of all as belonging to the British nation". And he would perceive his British nationalism in a positive way:
I see the British nation as being a very diverse nation ... [W]ithin that nation you've got the Scots, the Welsh, the English and the Irish, some people prefer to say the Ulster people, but ... if you look at the symbols of the British state, look at the Union Flag, it includes the cross of St Patrick ... I do not believe there is a contradiction between having a regional identity in that sense, because the British nation is the United Kingdom and therefore that recognises that in fact there were … originally [separate] kingdoms ... which made up what became known as the United Kingdom.
Mr Donaldson thus sees his Irishness in a regional, rather than a national, context and he recognises that it is here the gulf with nationalists lies:
Irish nationalists argue that the Irish nation ought to be united as one political entity on the island of Ireland, and that is where I differ. I believe that it is possible to be Irish and British, or Ulster and British, and that in fact they [nationalists] were once part of the British nation they opted out of. But they cannot, on the other hand, impose the idea of the Irish nation upon those of us who see ourselves as part of the wider British nation. So, politically I think that is where the fundamental difference lies and I accept that Irish nationalists aspire towards the integrity of the Irish nation, apart from and separate from the British nation, whereas I believe that I can be part of the British nation and still have my own regional identity.
Billy Hutchinson (PUP) agrees with Mr Donaldson's contention that Irishness as defined by nationalists is the key factor making it difficult for unionists positively to express their sense of Irishness. But he nevertheless takes a somewhat more relaxed view: "I feel that we shouldn't exclude things that are Irish because they are Irish, and I think that is what we tend to do."

In a similar fashion, David Adams (UDP) argues: "I think we have to recognise that we are Irish, we are also British and at the present time the majority of the people in Northern Ireland wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, but there is a large, substantial minority who wish to have close relationships with the republic."

Not all unionists, however, accept that they have any Irish identity. In a poignant indication of how the gulf has widened during the 'troubles', George Patton of the Orange Order describes himself as Ulster-British:

Eighty-five, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, I think was a defining point and a turning point in who we are because at that stage I personally, and a lot of people that I would know and associate with, would have stopped using the term Irish altogether. I would no longer consider myself even to be Northern Irish: I'm an Ulsterman and I am British ... We can never turn the clock back, but back in the 60s it probably would have been easier to eventually convince my community that our future was in a 32- county Ireland. In the foreseeable future that is not going to happen because of the emotional aspects of the terrorist campaign ... [I]t is a sense of we cannot betray what has happened to a lot ot our people.

The discussions in the focus groups on identity closely reflected many of the points raised by the interviewees, indicating that the latter were representative of wider community feelings. It was also apparent that concepts of identity, particularly national identity, cut across age, class and gender lines.

Within the Protestant focus groups, and among the Protestants in the youth focus group, there were both definitions of Britishness in terms of an ethnic Protestant identity, closely related to the crown being Protestant, and a sense of being part of a British 'nation. But it was also argued that Protestantism was not an essential component of unionism. nor unionism a necessary part of the Protestant community. Some Protestants completely rejected any sense of Irishness, preferring to define themselves as members of an Ulster nation', although most accepted some form of Irish identity, usually 'Northern Irish'.

All the Protestant participants exhibited some sense of community with the people of Great Britain. They defined their Britishness in a similar vein to that expressed in the interviews - directly related to an historical communion forged through experience of great shared historical events, such as the two world wars. For many of the older members of the focus groups, the second world war remained a vivid memory.

Against this were counterpointed the Easter rising - when Ulstermen died at the Somme the same year - and the neutralitv of the then Free State during the second world war. Confusion was felt at the apparent lack of reciprocal empathy shown by Britain in protecting 'fellow Britons' in Northern Ireland from attacks from within and without. This, it was felt, produced a sense of siege and abandonment among Ulster Protestants, and prevented many of them feeling confident in reaching out across the sectarian divide. Yet this recognition of apparent rejection by the population of Great Britain did not appear to dilute Protestants' attachment to the UK. They rejected Irishness as defined by the political ethos of the republic, perceived as Catholic, Gaelic and republican.

Expression was given to the lack of self-confidence which persists about Protestants' sense of identity. The main problem centred on the relationship between notions of Britishness, Irishness and Ulsterness. This dilemma did not appear to be one generated by the members of the groups - who appeared confident and certain of what their cultural identity was; rather, it was a lack of self-confidence in defending their cultural identity, when compared with other definitions presented by actors external- to the Protestant community.

This was particularly the case with the notion of being British and Irish, for although many Protestants felt British and Irish it was difficult to express this in terms of a geographical entity Other actors focused on the territorial unity of the island of Ireland, whereas to describe oneself as British and Irish entailed a map image of Great Britain and an amputated segment of the island of Ireland.

Ironically, while some Protestants complained that nationalists denied unionists the right to be British, it was a feature of the focus groups that other Protestants denied that nationalists had a different national identity. Catholics living in Northern Ireland were perceived by such participants as British citizens who should give allegiance to the state; as one person expressed it, "Catholics are British whether they like it or not."

Catholic members of the focus groups clearly identified themselves as Irish. The central element in this definition was that they were born on the island of Ireland, which was also defined as what constituted the Irish nation. Since the nation extended to the whole of the island, nearly all Catholics, including those who did not classify themselves as supporters of SF, expressed difficulty in understanding unionist descriptions of Britishness.

Unionists were described as a 'national minority'; partition by the British government had enabled an 'artificial' majority to be elevated to a position of dominance. There was a general belief among Catholic participants, including those who acknowledged the Britishness of unionists, that unionists primarily sought to create and perpetuate a Protestant ascendancy. A theme of these focus groups was the belief that unionists were unwanted by the population of Britain, and this made them less British than the inhabitants of the neighbouring island.

This sense of Catholic Irishness was, however, not limited to the geographical definition. Others within the focus groups defined Irishness in terms of the unique culture of Ireland's past, particularly its language and traditional music. None described their national identity as 'Ulster'. To Catholics, the term Ulster refers to the nine-county province, a provincial consciousness reinforced by crossborder contacts in numerous arenas, such as Gaelic football, where the nine-county unit is recognised. The unionist notion that the Northern Ireland problem was a territorial conflict between states was rejected by Catholics in the focus groups, on the basis that the border was an arbitrary division which did not recognise that most Catholics belonged to the Irish nation.

In this context the demand for parity of esteem, whether cultural or institutional, was made on the basis that Catholics in Northern Ireland should enjoy equality in all respects: it was suggested that a group constituting more than 40 per cent of the region's population could not be considered a 'minority'. Greater recognition of Irishness was no more than the right of nationalists to have their culture treated equally and to see this expressed in all the institutions of the state. While remaining nationalists and wishing to see a united Ireland, this was a long-term aim; what was important for the present generation was to see that their cultural identity had sufficient expression.

Strong north-south bodies were perceived as required in order to give rightful expression to this identity. Those Catholics who recognised the British-Irish identity of unionists also put particular emphasis on what they saw as the long-term potential to wean unionists away from a primary allegiance to Britain and replace it with a primary allegiance to Ireland. This was to be an evolutionary process, without coercion and utilising self-interest, accomplished via co-operation in north-south bodies.

This chapter has explored, particularly with the party-political interviewees and focus group members, what notions of Britishness and Irishness, allegiance and identity mean to unionists and nationalists. And there are modestly encouraging pointers, such as Jonathan Stephenson's attempt to steer a middle course and the relative moderation of the loyalist 'fringe' parties.

But, overall, the conclusion has to be a dispiriting one. What this closer scrutiny shows is that general favour of the notion of parity of esteem in the round comes close to disintegrating when one explores the particular senses of self which seek recognition. For not only is a gulf of mutual understanding evident: amongst the more 'extreme' interviewees and focus group participants there is in reality not even an acceptance of the right to espouse a contrary allegiance or identity. The most determined protagonists still operate with a concept of pluralism so narrow as in fact to delegitimise their adversaries' conceptions of their social worlds.

The next chapter takes this scrutiny to an even more concrete - and demanding - stage. How, in the views of our respondents, should parity of esteem be materially expressed? What institutional form(s) should it take?

[Report Contents] [List of Reports]

Democratic Dialogue {external_link}
53 University Street, Belfast, BT7 1FY Northern Ireland
Phone: -44-28-9022-0050 Fax: -44-28-9022-0051

Back to the top of this page