On October 1st 2014 Liverpool University awarded former President Bill Clinton an honorary degree. The citation spoke of his key role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland. In his acceptance he identified the most urgent issue facing the world as that of identity and how modern versions have eroded the most common identity: that of our humanity. As Northern Ireland lurches through yet another political crisis, stemming from the issue of budget and welfare cuts, we should not lose sight of the underlying cause of division, that of identity.
It is this notion of identity that sees one side as 'ours' and allows often the most intolerant and fanatical members of 'our side' to define it. Extreme actions are then explained away as self-defence. It is the fear of dilution or even destruction of that identity which produces excessive displays, often of its more extreme aspects.
A young person in working-class Northern Ireland has carried two histories in his head (for it was the young male who was most vulnerable): one for school assessment, the other the communal history to help him survive on the streets. The street history was everywhere in conflict zones in Northern Ireland. Wall murals have reminded polarized communities of why they are polarized and urged them not to forget. Those in republican areas told of the true Gael, persecuted and despoiled. Those in loyalist areas linked Protestantism to truth and loyalty, the Bible, the Crown, the Union flag. It is these simplified stereotypical identities which are behind the flag protests and the inability to reach an understanding over parades. Yet these simplified, sectarian identities have been the products of what the elites over the centuries wanted us to remember. The significant decline in those voting in elections in recent years is one token of how people in Northern Ireland are finding unattractive the politics based on such simplified and sectarian identities. It would be good to see some political commitment to finding another identity to which they could commit.
Understanding Northern Ireland is the subject of a 1 Day CPD Course delivered by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies at their new campus in London. Find out more about the Understanding Northern Ireland course here.