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The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics

Thomas Paul Burgess
Palgrave Macmillan


A friend a few years back told me an amusing story drawn from his experience of promoting the Erasmus programme of international student exchange in Ireland. He had been talking to a young Protestant working class woman from Belfast who had attended an open day at Trinity College in Dublin as an aid to deciding whether she would plump for attending that university. She decided against. Asked why, she replied that as far as she could see the place was “full of Brits”. This throws up a number of interesting identity questions. Traditionally, Trinity was attended by many Northern Protestant students, but perhaps for the most part they were middle class, supporters of Instonians or Ballymena RFC, let us say, rather than of Linfield or Glentoran. And presumably any British patina that the college retained or retains was not unattractive to them, the old stone and cricket and rugby pitches perhaps still carrying a suggestion of Oxford or Cambridge, Edinburgh or Durham. It is interesting of course that a place being “full of Brits” did not constitute an attraction any more, a few years ago, to one working class Northern Protestant. But it is more interesting still that what emerged when she was asked to elaborate on her comment was that the “Brits” she was referring to were in fact Catholic middle class Dubliners with “DART” accents.

In a recollection (see http://www.drb.ie/essays/bunker-days) by senior Irish civil servants of their experience operating the Maryfield secretariat established after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the following exchange occurs on the subject of how these Southerners felt about the North ‑ to be fair perhaps influenced by the difficult and embattled circumstances in which they were carrying out their duties:

JT (Jennifer Todd): Was this an extension of home or somewhere different?
DOCN (Daire Ó Criodáin): It was totally different, alien. All kinds of dark psychotic. And people, I don’t know whether people round this table would say it, but every time the aircraft crossed the border on the way back … a release of breath.
DOCH (Daithi Ó Ceallaigh): I actually still feel that way, and I travel North a lot.

In the 1970s, when Catholic refugees from the North began to appear in various parts of the South they did not always find a welcome. One correspondent of taoiseach Liam Cosgrave suggested that Northerners were “a very argumentative race and very difficult to please”. The British ambassador wrote that minister for foreign affairs Paddy Hillery had told him that while the Irish were “very emotional” they were not for the most part given to violence and murder. “It was the men from the North who were cruel and violent ...” There were some distinctions to be made, however. Brian Hanley cites a young garda stationed in Buncrana, Co Donegal in 1976:

You can talk to a Derryman. If you can get a word in edgeways, that is. Keep talking and he’ll go away. You might have sore ears listening to him, but you won’t have a riot squad out on the street fighting with him. Now, a Belfast man ...

The hostility to Northerners believed to be on the harder end of the spectrum could even, on occasion, achieve the near impossible, making Northern Catholics wonder if they might have more in common with Northern Protestants than with Southerners. Belfast woman Bridget Cowan felt that her accent alone could put people’s backs up, provoking unkind jibes about “the back streets of Belfast”. “I think a Tartan [a working class loyalist youth] and myself would be on the same ground here. We’d both be laughing at their la-di-da accents [this was in Donegal, remember] and giggling and nudging one another.”

Just because you’ve got a chip on your shoulder doesn’t mean that people don’t like you. It would, however, I think also be the experience of many members of a different category of Northerners, those who left home not because they were in any danger but because they thought the air might be sweeter and life more congenial, more normal, in the South, to find themselves puzzled by some of the attitudes of their new friends, work colleagues and neighbours, particularly that rather numerous category who in forty years had never taken the trouble to drive up the road for two hours out of curiosity to see something of the place for themselves.

The central question about the future of Northern Ireland is of course the constitutional one. The question of whether it will remain a part of the United Kingdom or join with the South in some sort of new arrangement (or simply join the Republic) will depend on a number of factors including the overall religious/ethnic composition of Northern Ireland in the future, the attitude of Northern Protestants to a change in their status, the enthusiasm (or lack of it) among Northern Catholics for a united Ireland, the attitude of the current population of the Republic to the changes this might bring in their lives, the attitude of the British government to Northern “loyalism” and the attitude of the rest of the British or English population to it all (largely indifference one might guess).

On the first of these matters, John Coakley remarks:

In circumstances where representatives of the historically dominant community are still disposed to label this as the ‘majority’, with immediate implications for political privilege, the relentless progress of demographic trends is likely to produce a considerable shock for the leadership of what has hitherto been seen as the dominant community. It seems probable that, even if we make very conservative assumptions about the rate of natural increase of Catholics, effective parity in the size of the two communities will be recorded in the next census in 2021.

There are (at least) two things to say about this. The current Brexit crisis, with the DUP in alliance with the most “British nationalist” elements of the Tory party hoping to secure the hardest Brexit possible, is certainly a serious matter, but the unionist position is ultimately built on sand: there are eighteen Northern Ireland constituencies represented at Westminster and of these seven – in the first-past-the-post electoral system ‑ are held by (abstentionist) Sinn Féin and ten by the DUP. But while unionism in its most intransigent form is the only Northern Ireland voice currently being heard at Westminster (and the 56 per cent of the Northern electorate who voted to remain in the EU are being ignored) the political reality of Northern Ireland is that unionism is already a minority current, the cumulative votes of nationalists and centre parties (Alliance, Greens etc) recorded in the 2017 Assembly election, as Coakley shows, now hitting a percentage somewhere in the mid-fifties.

Where all this will lead no one knows and John Coakley sensibly does not make predictions, confining himself to observing that, on the basis of extensive opinion sampling, it is quite possible for Northern Catholics to simultaneously see themselves as Irish and nationalist and yet not very ardently (or not at all) look forward to living in a United Ireland at any time in the near future.

It should perhaps be said that not all of the contributions to this collection adhere very closely to the brief that would seem to be stipulated by its title, choosing instead to paddle their own ideological canoes. One might then say caveat emptor, but at the very steep published price the only emptors for a book like this are of course likely to be university libraries.