Brits in: reclaiming British-Irish identity

Contemporary Irish nationalism needs to think about how it can expand to facilitate Ulster protestant identity should a united Ireland come about

Illustration by Lucie Rondeau

When Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysess, is asked by an abusive Nationalist to define the word “nation”, he calls it “the same people living in the same place … or in different places”.

Bloom’s definition is strikingly vague; and, like many other definitions, it raises more questions than it answers. For one thing, Bloom is the son of Hungarian Jews, born in Ireland but separated from its Gaelic majority by ethnicity. Despite claiming to be Irish, he is not in fact of “the same people”. The Irish nation which Bloom defines fits many more conventional measures of nationhood in Ireland today than it did when Joyce wrote those words 100 years ago.

The republic now has a parliament, a broadcaster, a president and a prime minister of its own. As the Irish government no longer claims Northern Ireland, it can also claim to govern the whole of its territory. Yet amongst Irish Nationalists there persists a belief that the work of Parnell, Collins, and Pearse will never be complete until the Irish Republic extends from Kerry to Antrim – and rules those in the North who do not see themselves as of “the same people”.

Irish Nationalists sometimes find themselves sounding like Bloom’s bullies, snarling at those who do not fit a narrow definition of Irishness which solely values ethnic heritage and Republicanism. You don’t have to journey far out of Dublin’s tourist zone to see graffiti with the familiar slogan “Brits Out No Border”, as if Ireland’s national destiny is to airlift the million or so British with whom the island is shared onto the mainland of the United Kingdom.

Despite these hopes, however, the Ulster Protestants are not going away. They may be shrinking as a proportion of the population in Northern Ireland, but they are still a majority there and, if absorbed into the population of the Republic, would form a minority of about 10-15%.

If the six counties join the Republic, then the most urgent question facing the Irish government is how they should incorporate this minority – many of whom burn its flag – into the population.

The first is to make the Ulster Protestants indistinguishable from any other Irish people. This is an appealing option because it does not require any self-questioning on the part of Nationalists. Padraig Pearse, whose work stresses the ethnic struggle between “Saxon” and “Gael” (even though his father was an English Protestant), may still be venerated across the land.

Irish people may still feel proud of their grandparents, even if they fought against the Anglo-Irish treaty which gave the Ulster Protestants their own state. IRA songs may still be sung after a few drinks. Little thought, in short, need be given to those aspects of Irish Nationalism with which Unionists take issue.

An absorption of this kind has happened before. When the borders of the Free State were drawn, Protestants in the south made up about 10% of the population – a similar proportion to what they would make up in a united Ireland. With the British government gone, these Protestants were absorbed into the new Irish state with little bloodshed. During the War of Independence and after, there was sectarian violence against Protestants, but not on a large scale.

Even an institution like Trinity, which elected the Unionist hero Edward Carson as its MP in 1918, managed to accommodate itself to the new state of affairs – the only legacy of its 300 years at the heart of the Protestant Ascendancy today is a mild association with the “West Brit”. Protestants make up about 2% of the population in the Republic now, and very few would say they are less Irish because of their heritage.

There are many reasons to be sceptical that a similarly painless absorption of the Ulster Protestants could take place, however. From the very beginning, the Troubles hardened the British identity of Protestants. In 1968, the year before the Troubles began, 20% of Protestants described themselves as Irish. Twenty years later, only 3% did so. This trend has not been reversed, although the growth of those identifying as “Northern Irish” in censuses has become, for some, a way of expressing disgust at sectarianism.

Another factor that prevents absorption is the distribution of the Ulster Protestants, who – unlike the Free State Protestants of 1922 – mostly live in homogenous areas, which prevents intermarriage and integration.

Aside from its practical problems, Nationalists must also look to the moral questions which a policy of absorption raises. The decline of British identity south of the border might be taken as proof that Protestant and Catholic can live happily together in an Irish Republic.

This is a privileged view unlikely to be shared by British people in the North, who do not see the death of their tradition, culture, and religion so happily. In the conflict between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the status of the Irish language, we have already seen that many Protestants are reluctant to embrace a Gaelic heritage to which they feel little attachment. They are entitled to feel this way.

Those who learn the Irish language, after all, very rarely do so for practical reasons; rather, those who learn it wish to preserve the Gaelic culture which was almost destroyed after the Famine. If one does not feel attached to this culture, there is no more reason to learn Irish than there is to learn Latin or Greek.

A policy of absorption, then, is problematic for moral as well as practical reasons. What options does this leave for an all-Ireland government? Ulster Protestants might be left alone. In a United Ireland, it is likely that many powers would be devolved to Stormont, where Protestants would continue to have the right to block legislation on the grounds of discrimination.

Devolution, however, creates as many problems as it solves. If Ireland were united, Sinn Féin would probably be the largest party in Stormont. From a Unionist perspective, rule by Sinn Féin is probably even worse than rule from Dublin. The inescapable conclusion is that Unionists cannot simply be left alone to their Orange Parades and Union Jacks. In a united Ireland, the Irish government and the Irish people must work hard to make the Ulster Protestants feel comfortable being Irish.  

This is much easier said than done. As we have seen, the Troubles have pushed Protestant Irish identity to near-extinction. But there are several reasons to be optimistic that Protestants might become active citizens of a 32-county Republic.

The first is the UK’s exit from the European Union, which necessitates the creation of new links between the British and Irish economies. In this case, northerners whose Unionism is driven by the importance of economic ties to Britain would be much happier living in the Irish Republic – especially since they would also presumably enjoy the benefits of EU membership (Northern Ireland voted “remain” in 2016’s referendum, albeit tentatively).

The second is the disintegration of British identity on the mainland of the United Kingdom. Scotland is the nation to which many Ulster Protestants feel closest, a fact evident in the Saltires which are often flown amongst Union Jacks and Ulster Banners.  If Scotland is to leave the United Kingdom, Unionists will have to ask themselves serious questions about what nation they belong to. An independent Scotland would also need to be socially integrated with Ireland as well as the rump of the UK.

Whatever institution arose to provide this integration would be a perfect combination of what DUP politician Nelson McCausland called the “confluence” of Ulster Protestant identity, “a Scottish, an English, and an Irish”, and one to which Protestants could attach themselves without denying their British heritage.

The third reason to be optimistic, and I think the most important, is that British Irish identity does not have to be created from scratch. It merely needs to be resurrected. The destruction of British Irish identity only really began in Easter 1916.  Before 1916, the dominant strain of Irish Nationalism did not define itself as incompatible with all things British. The great Nationalist leader John Redmond supported Irish involvement in the First World War so that loyalty to the Empire (and therefore entitlement to Home Rule) could be proved. Even after partition, C.S. Lewis, who was a Belfast Protestant, embraced his Irish identity while embracing his Britishness too.

Indeed, it is easy to forget that the Union Jack – the symbol to which Irish Nationalism is most vehemently opposed – contains the cross of St. Patrick. When it was flown by Edward Carson, it was an expression of Irish as well as British identity. Since the Troubles, few have attempted to reconcile these two identities, or indeed to recognise that they can exist side by side. Yet the growth of the “Northern Irish” response in censuses suggests that there might be an appetite for a political movement which suggests that Irish Protestants and Irish Roman Catholics are, although of two different traditions, the same people.

As Bloom discovered, there has always been an ugly strain of Nationalism which defines Irishness solely with reference to blood, soil, and language. If the north is to be incorporated into the Irish state, it cannot be this strain of Nationalism which dominates.

That means Nationalists – and indeed all Irish people – must ask uncomfortable questions about why, with a united Ireland apparently near, Protestants are embracing hardline Unionism more, not less. Until this is seriously considered, for most of Ireland’s British, Nationalism will mean little more than that squalid, racist slogan: Brits Out.