Nationality is a contentious subject in Northern Ireland, a place where (and I’ll probably get crucified for saying this) half the side of the fence are too Irish for the Republic and the other side are more British than the English. Personally, I’ve been living in England on-and-off so long I should consider myself British, however I am enormously defensive about my Irishness and Irish heritage, a demeanour as much borne out of guilt (perhaps Catholic Guilt) as it is out of a desire to set the record straight about Northern Ireland with the blissfully-unaware English.
I was raised as a Roman Catholic in, like many, a West Belfast ghetto. I had the usual issues of a small, skinny kid- bullying at school, for example. However, it’s amazing what armoured vehicles tearing around and army patrolmen calling you a ‘fucking Irish’ at age seven can do to affect your perception of your own people and culture. It was, regardless, my Irish teacher herself that killed any interest I might have had in learning Gaelic: the demeanour of one’s teachers, I feel, is inversely proportionate to the interest one shows in any given subject. She was a hardass. As a result, I began to find irish history itself boring. In the end, as I grew a little older and (what I thought) more politically savvy, I began to consider myself in theory an Irish Unionist someone who is culturally Irish, but believes in, for economic prudence, the logic of Union with Britain. In practice, however, I was vehemently apolitical, refusing to take sides in debates between Republican and Unionist friends.
It wasn’t until I was at university researching for my Masters dissertation that I became horrified with the apathy that I had shown for my own history and culture. I’d specialised during my Bachelors in Western propaganda and part of my research took me through portrayals of the Irish throughout history and up to modern times. I was… appalled, both at my own lack of knowledge, and at the treatment of the Irish at the hands of invaders over the last eight hundred years or so, even up to the Ballymurphy Massacre, Bloody Sunday and the Troubles in general.
The inception of the Troubles as we know it today was a particularly difficult time for my family, particularly during ‘internment’, which resulted in 2,000 individuals over two years being jailed without charge. My uncle was shot dead, murdered, by British soldiers and the evidence overwhelmingly points to a military cover up. My father was lifted on the same night by the army, beaten, tortured and humiliated and incarcerated for six months without any crime having been committed on his part. Of course, no one was ever charged for his mistreatment. It is a shame to say, but these tribulations are typical of the oppression that Catholics were suffering at that time.
Since then, things have improved considerably. On the other hand I, like so many others, am distinctly unimpressed with these new hooligans calling themselves the ‘IRA’. They are presumably a bunch of impressionable thugs led by one or two embittered old hard-liners. I also get the feeling they have never lost someone, or really suffered due to the Troubles at all. If this were so, there is no way they would want to continue violence when public opinion is so overwhelmingly against them. Traditionally, the IRA enjoyed a fair degree of support from the community, as they were to a large extent seen as protectors. Today, this is blatantly not the case and there have been reports of intimidation and murder threats within the communities the IRA are supposed to be protecting. I have a feeling they won’t last long.
To get back to the original point I was making about nationality being a contentious subject in Northern Ireland, is that nationality is a state of mind. Protestant ‘British’ and Catholic ‘Irish’ have had enough blood mixed down the ages that, really, it’s a futile exercise. For example, I am descended from Irish land owners who converted to Protestantism and helped beach Armada ships during the English-Spanish war in the 1500s. On the other hand, my great-grandfather converted to Catholicism to marry my great-grandmother. While the ‘Troubles’ as we know them today had a historical precedent in the oppression of Irish Catholics, in reality any civil war of this nature is as much a battle for identity as anything else. Loyalists are afraid to lose their ‘Britishness’, Nationalists are out to prove their ‘Irishness’, but everyone has a right to a heritage.