The Northern Irish identity can be difficult to explain, and for good reason. How do you articulate the national identity of a country which has no unique land mass, language, currency, passport nor anthem?
I am currently working as an English assistant in a secondary school in northern France. During my first few weeks, I gave an introductory lesson to around 15 different classes, explaining who I am and where I come from. Having gone into the experience with bubbling determination, I began to feel increasingly deflated. This was not only due to the sheer repetition of the lesson. I also had a growing awareness that many of the pupils did not understand my country, and subsequent sense of identity, no matter how clearly I explained it. In attempt to appease my pupils, I regrettably started to gloss over many fundamental details.
In terms of identity, France and Northern Ireland are worlds apart. France is a country with a powerful sense of national unity. The French famously and historically preach liberté, égalité, fraternité – three words not often associated with Northern Ireland. On close inspection, and often in practice, French solidarity conceals many flaws. Nevertheless, it is an identity that is universally understood and validated – this marks the first major difference.
The second concerns France’s secular approach to public life, wherein state and church always remain separate. The Northern Irish system, where religion and politics are inextricably intertwined, is simply unimaginable in France. Here, it is most effective to explain the Northern Irish identity as one hovering between Great Britain and Ireland. This accurately reflects my own sense of who I am, but a national identity caught in a state of limbo does not paint a particularly persuasive picture for others.
In Northern Ireland’s sectarian society, there has always and inevitably been pressure to pick a side. Usually, I have no trouble in confronting this pressure head-on. My parents moved from England to Belfast in the early 90s. As such, I have no Northern Irish family nor heritage. However, I was born, and have lived my entire life, in Belfast. My lack of inherited Northern Irish experiences has not taken away from my sense of belonging. It has, however, allowed me to adopt an entirely neutral position within the country’s sectarian conflict – a position that is not so common.
In France, due largely to a lack of knowledge as well as significant cultural differences, it seems much simpler to succumb to the pressure to choose. In the aftermath of Brexit, I am also increasingly tempted to emphasise my sense of Irishness. As a student of modern languages, and a staunch Remainer, it seems only natural to want to secure my remaining European ties.
In truth, however, my affinity to Britain is not something I want to abandon. I have had many beautiful experiences across the UK, visiting friends and family alike. Similarly, I feel deeply connected to Ireland. I am extremely grateful to be able to hold the passports of both nations.
My experience in France has pushed me to dig deeper into the importance of identity on a personal level. I was surprised to feel a little lost once surrounded by people unable to understand mine. I do believe, however, that the strength of a neutral Northern Irish identity lies in its complexities. They should not lead to limitation, but rather point to a certain plenitude. It is an identity which encompasses an array of experiences and emotions, and, in the face of ever-prominent polarisation and identity politics, one that is becoming increasingly relevant.
While I have had to smooth out my sense of identity for many of the pupils, who still see me as either Irish or British, at least one of my French colleagues in the school understood the assignment, addressing me light-heartedly as “Miss Northern Ireland”.