For someone from the British mainland, it’s an uncertain time; a government in turmoil, imminent threats of terrorist attacks, the world seeing the worst of you. For someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, it’s just another normal day.
The latest general election has roughly thrust Northern Irish politics into the national limelight and most people don’t like what they see. Who can blame them? It’s not exactly pretty. However, the national outrage over the backwards and damaging policies of the DUP seems, to me and many others, hollow and quite frankly a bit late. Where was your outrage when the DUP blocked gay marriage for the umpteenth time? Where were your online petitions when Arlene Foster vowed never to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland? Where was your distain when senior party members claimed global climate change didn’t exist?
You only care about Northern Ireland when it affects you.
It’s a funny thing being Northern Irish. We are as much a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as England, Scotland and Wales, yet why is it that when I went to university in Wales, I had to explain to a shockingly large amount of people that Northern Ireland wasn’t the same country as Ireland?
We seem to get forgotten about a lot.
In a rather self-centred way, since the Manchester Bombing I have found myself wondering what The Troubles would have been like if the internet had existed back then. Would we have had click-bait articles entitled “Here’s What They’re Not Telling You About the UVF!”, would Buzzed have put together pieces like “15 Tweets That Will Make You Laugh If Your Best Friend is Catholic (and you’re a Protestant)”, would there have been donations from all over the world if there had been a gofundme page for the families of the victims of the Omagh bomb?
That’s not to say I don’t care about the victims of the most recent series of terrorist attacks in England. Obviously I am saddened by them, and my heart goes out to those who lost loved ones, but at the same time I understand that life has to go on. A lesson I learnt growing up in a troubled country where armed police were considered a normal part of life.
Nevertheless, that troubled country gave me my identity. I often think I don’t have a dual-nationality, I have a triple-nationality. First and foremost I am Northern Irish. That is where I was born and raised, where I grew up. After that I am British. That is what my passport says, the team I cheer for in the Olympics, the other part of the union. Then I am Irish. That is where I spent (and still spend) many happy summer holidays and probably where my love of the sea appeared from.
All three of these identities exist in me side-by-side. They do not cancel one another out, or increase or decrease in cycles like the swelling tide. They are me, together, all at once.
This can be difficult for others to understand. Even within Northern Ireland people have difficultly understanding how I can see myself as both Irish and British, but for me it is as natural as leaves falling in autumn. How could I deny the history and heritage of Ireland as a whole? I would have to give up the myths and legends, the songs and the storytelling. Those things formed me as much as anything else in my life.
It is not easy being Northern Irish in the wider world. The little that people know of us is often negative, although I have slowly seen that begin to change. But some hurts go deep and are hard to heal.
I remember a friend telling me about planning his wedding, and wanting to have it in July, but then realising that probably wasn’t the best idea. His now wife is Irish.
I think about the amount of people who tell me that they’ve never been to Belfast, but they’d love to go one day.
I remember another friend getting lost in Belfast and warning her English boyfriend not to open his mouth, because they were in the wrong part of town.
I think about the friends I have had asking me for recommendations of things to do in Northern Ireland because they are planning a trip there and want to know what the unmissable attractions are.
I remember two friends from uni asking me if I could get them guns. I’m still not sure if they were joking or not.
I remember kneecap jokes, terrorism jokes, people acting as if I came from a war-torn third world country. People would ask me about The Troubles and I would struggle for the words, partly because I never fully understood it myself and partly because it was something that I assumed others would know about. Things I see as art others see as Sectarian murals, things I consider belonging to the history books others consider an important part of our heritage. To be Northern Irish is to understand that both these views are equally valid and perhaps there is no correct one.
We have a fragile peace in Northern Ireland. It was hard fought for, the DUP (and others) trying their best to make sure no peace agreement was ever made. It’s often said in Northern Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement is “Sunningdale for slow learners”. The DUP were founded because they feared the UUP were becoming to lenient on their “anti-Catholic” stance which give you a pretty good indication on their tolerance level of other cultures and religions. Our peace hinges on a fine balance between Unionists and Republicans, with Britain remaining neutral. A coalition, or even informal agreement with the Tory government, will create a serious unbalance in that relationship, driving up republican support. It seems highly ironic to me that the party staunchly against a united Ireland is the one most likely to end up causing it. I don’t want a united Ireland, I like being Northern Irish, but I do not want to go back to the past. Where shootings were normal news, where being a policeman was such a risk that you just referred to them as a “civil servant”. I have had enough of protests over ‘flegs’ and riots outside city hall. And I never even experienced the worst of it.
Despite of all of this, of our tribal politics and tumultuous history, I am proud to be Northern Irish. I am proud to share the same nationality as Seamus Heaney, as Gary Lightbody, as CS Lewis, and as that one guy in Les Mis who shouted “thrown down your mattresses!”. Northern Irish people gave you the portable defibrillator and the first four-wheel drive Formula One car. Northern Ireland forms the backdrop of Game of Thrones episodes, and Rhianna was once famously told off by a farmer while trying to film a music video there.
I love Northern Ireland. It is a beautiful county filled with laughter and storytelling, framed by mountains and sea, soaked in culture and history. My heart will always be there in the wee country so many like myself call home. But it breaks if I think about her politics too much, and maybe now, the rest of you will understand a bit better why.