Northern Ireland identity

On the Good Friday Agreement, Identity and the Future

By Emma De Souza

Emma De Souza

The signing of The Good Friday Agreement ushered into place a peace accord based on the principles of parity of esteem, mutual respect, and equality. More than twenty years on, many of these principles remain poorly implemented – if at all – into policy and practice in Northern Ireland. Yet despite their elected officials’ inaction, the tenacity of the people of the North has seen its citizens embed for themselves the concept of meaningful reconciliation.

My experiences have taught me that beyond superficial discrepancies we are one and the same, holding the same fears, hopes, and aspirations for the future. That was perhaps the greatest gift of the Good Friday Agreement – it provided citizens with the space needed to blur hardened identity lines and to soften the barriers between one another.

Evidence of shifts in identity and the emergence of a new generation in Northern Ireland has been demonstrated in several recent polls. According to the latest Northern Irish Life and Times Survey, 42% of people in Northern Ireland define themselves as neither Unionist nor Nationalist. This once-perceived “alternative” grouping has been steadily growing in numbers over the past two decades, in tandem with an increase of individuals who identify as Northern Irish. The growth of both is indicative of a significant change in the beliefs and identity of people in the North.

The new survey shows that a total of 36 per cent of respondents describe themselves as Northern Irish – an increase from 27 per cent in 2019, with a marked decrease of ten points in those describing themselves as British, at 29 per cent, and an Irish-choice remaining unchanged at 25 per cent. When it comes to younger demographics, only 14 per cent of 18–24-year-olds described themselves as British, while Irish was 34 per cent and Northern Irish 36 per cent.

The surge of this unique Northern identity has not gone unnoticed by Unionist representatives. UUP leader Doug Beattie, has said that the ‘growing demographic of people who see themselves as Northern Irish … they’re happy with the status quo as long as Northern Ireland is succeeding.’ With the constitutional question firmly embedded into mainstream discourse throughout the island, it can be of little surprise that Unionism would attempt to label and define a Northern Irish identity as a Unionist identity. However, such a statement is based on a logical fallacy; a Northern Irish identity does not equate to a view on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

The emergence of such an identity is a natural formation in the same way that Highlanders have a separate cultural identity in Scotland, or the Northerners in the north of England. When attending a football match, you will find both conservative and liberal fans cheering on their home team with equal fervour because a connection with one’s home or community is not contingent on any particular political or social viewpoint, it is about the dirt beneath one’s feet and the experiences grown from it. Attempts to portray such broad demographics as a single homogenous hive-mind are ludicrously misplaced at best. These sorts of broad-based assumptions are not unique to Unionism. There are also those within Nationalism who all too often conflate the Northern Irish identity with the Unionist identity, failing to recognise the former’s cultural legitimacy and falling into the trap of believing they may not be open to Irish unity.

The many diverse and varied birds of the Galapagos developed unique traits and characteristics resulting from the innumerable influences of their environment over many generations. Similarly, the North runneth over with a wide variety of unique cultural assets and symbols; from beloved sports icons, to awe-inspiring natural wonders like the Giant’s Causeway, to the Ulster Fry – arguably the best regional fry-up in the North Atlantic. With 83% of those surveyed expressing a sense of belonging to Northern Ireland, the rise in a Northern Irish identity is more a reflection of an attachment to one’s home place, than a political statement.

In tandem with this evolution has been the shift in discussions on constitutional change. What was once perhaps a romantic dream is emerging as the dominant political debate across this island; to deny that tides have begun to turn is to deny reality. Brexit, which unceremoniously removed Northern Ireland from the European Union has sped up a process that was envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement – the right to self-determination. The pace of this change has unearthed a disconnect North and South, with the perpetuation of outdated perceptions of Northern Ireland still circulating in the Republic. The “not-yet, not-now” argument and those pushing against even talking about constitutional change risk being left behind and left out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Because when the people of this island set their minds to change, they get it.

Having spent half-a-decade in court fighting against British government inaction in delivering on the human rights commitments of the Good Friday Agreement, I know only too well the results of political failure and apathy. Labelled the first human rights case of the Good Friday Agreement the legal challenge mounted by my husband and me affected the question of identity and citizenship of the entire population of Northern Ireland – in particular, those who identified as Irish citizens. Not to mention the scores of people throughout the island of Ireland, mainland UK, Irish America, and beyond, who had their birth rights restored once the change we ushered in took effect – enabling them to finally reunite their families in the place they called home.

The work of the Good Friday Agreement is not complete. All of us carry the responsibility to protect the gains of the peace process and to carry them forward into the next chapter of reconciliation. Now is not the time to be cautious but the moment to be ambitious in setting out what kind of future we want for ourselves and for our children.

Constitutional change has the potential to break the mould in Northern politics and is the logical next step in the peace process. Meaningful reconciliation is not just about the people of Northern Ireland, it’s about the people of the island as a whole. Only when we begin seeing each other as people first and foremost – not defined by religion or politics or an arbitrary line on a map – will true reconciliation begin. When we can’t have faith in our leaders, we must continue to have faith in each other, and with that faith will come the democratic change everyone on this island deserves. 

Emma De Souza is a political commentator, writer and journalist from Magherafelt Co Derry who took the British Home Office to court over the right to be accepted as ‘Irish’ and not ‘British’ as she was entitled to under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The case resulted in significant changes to domestic UK immigration rules. Our thanks to the Australian Irish Heritage Association in Perth, Western Australia, for permission to reproduce Emma De Souza’s article below that first appeared in The Journal in December 2021.