“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to Fly by those nets.” 
James Joyce

A Tick In The Other Box

A Tick In The Other Box

Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.

There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!

To butcher a famous quote – “Some men are born with a nationality, some achieve a nationality, and some have nationality thrust upon them.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve not been allowed to have my own nationality. When I was too young to be able to either spell the word or grasp it’s meaning, I can remember the concept of nationality being some clearly defined thing for which I missed the memo. A vague memory surfacing of some kid running across the primary school playground with a flag emblazoned with ‘ULSTER SAYS NO’ was baffling to a 10 year old who had been brought up in house that made little or no mention of any Troubles, but apparently I’d forgot to pay attention in ‘this is who you are’ lessons.

Similarly baffling were issues I’d go on to face through secondary school, getting called a traitor for having a Catholic best mate, then a Catholic girlfriend. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t for a second think I’m alone in this, and I’m not special because of it – but a lot my generation, who missed the worst of the Troubles, grew up still getting this expectation of ‘them or us’ foisted on us – this attitude to draw a line in the sand between two halves of our country, and it was uncomfortable on a really deep level. It was always, and never, a choice with just two options – British or Irish. Even if you didn’t know which one you wanted to pick, you knew which you didn’t want to.

A lot of this is passed down through families, and people have real reasons to be aggrieved and pick sides and all that. I won’t dispute any of that, but my main grievance lies with those who continue to perpetrate that divide from positions of authority and (poorly labelled) leadership. Looking at you here Arlene.

If you listened to the DUP and Sinn Fein the impression you’d get is that this country is still split right down the middle, but I think for a lot of us the reality is very different. Every day it’s the same old guff – closing Irish language programmes, naming parks after terrorists, putting flags up, taking flags down.

Along with all the Stormont rhetoric of various bits of culture being ‘under attack’, it all adds to keeping up this unhelpful perception that you’ve got to be on one side or the other, and the symbols of your respective side should be brandished like a sword and shield.

Like Phil Hill who wrote on this site last week,, I am unrepentantly Unionist. I’m a former Army reservist, I sing along on the last night of the Proms, I’ll mourn for weeks when the Queen departs this life. I’ve also spent the majority of my adult life living in England where, particularly since roughly the 23rd of June 2016, I’ve never quite felt comfortable with making the declaration that I’m wholly ‘British’. It’s there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s very much secondary to the nationality I’ve never had the chance to choose.

For other parts of these not so sunny Isles, there is a choice. Scots, English, Welsh and Irish can all tick their respective boxes on job applications and the rest, but not for me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stubbornly ticked the ‘other’ box and scrawled ‘Northern Irish’ proudly in the margin. Rory McIlroy spoke of similar frustrations as a Northern Irish Catholic a couple of weeks ago when talking about his decision not to go to the Olympics last summer. This, and plenty of anecdotal evidence from other friends tells me I’m not alone.

That’s where I feel the big two at Stormont are getting left behind; maybe we don’t want to pick sides any more. They’re still drawing lines in the sand that a lot of us don’t want to stand behind, and a lot of us are stood in no-man’s land between two ever more polarising agendas.

The gap the other parties have to fill is not just a political one, but also a cultural one – there are a whole lot of us in the middle, where tolerance, common decency and shared social values are a very real thing – but a clear national identity isn’t. In a bizarre twist of fate, our football team might be clearest example we have of workable Northern Irish identity. A mixture of Catholic and Protestant staff, players and now fans are getting along just fine – but they’re still forging their own way in the footballing world as a nation in their own right. Look at the Euros last summer – while others were chucking plastic chairs at each other, the NI and ROI fans were having a great time together.

We’ve got an opportunity in Northern Ireland to build something truly great. We know all too well what happens when the cultural divisions that are playing out on our TVs from the US, the UK and everywhere else go too far. It has been our past, but it doesn’t need to be our present or our future, and it’s up to us to start changing it. All of those people in the middle need to plant our non-existent flag right where we’re standing and embrace the awkward, unspecified but not totally awful future together – without those on the flanks.

We’ve been handed a chance to sense check our government after their latest shambolic attempts at running their personal agendas from the top of Stormont hill, and we can only do it by making our voices heard. Some of that lot are with us – the Alliance, the SDLP, the Greens, PBP – and even if they won’t be running the country any time soon, we have a responsibility to tell them that we’re behind them nonetheless.

So do me a favour, when the election comes round, make sure you’re registered – and instead of the DUP or Sinn Fein, put a tick in an ‘other’ box.  And maybe the next time you see a ‘Nationality’ option, have a think about doing the same.

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