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Do young Northern Irish people still feel British?

25 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, increasing numbers of young people in Northern Ireland are questioning how they define their national identity

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. Over the course of this week, we will be celebrating the good that is happening all across the country – the culture and the creativity, the artists and the activists, the positive forces for change. But we will also be confronting the reality that life is getting increasingly challenging for British youth, and that Britishness itself is in flux, or even crisis. Stay with us as we lift the lid on modern Britain and ask whether this really is a horror nation.

This April marked 25 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty which ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland. The Troubles, as the violent conflict was known, pitted unionists (who were mainly Protestant) against the nationalists (who were mainly Catholic), resulting in an estimated 3,500 deaths. 

While the country’s ‘peace babies’ – those born around or after 1998 – grew up without witnessing the kind of unrelenting bloodshed that their parents experienced, they’re still navigating complex questions of nationality and identity. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2020 found that 49 per cent of young people define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. And while Northern Ireland is still technically part of the UK, just 17 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds identify as ‘British’, putting them firmly in the minority (35 per cent identify as ‘Irish’, while 43 per cent feel ‘Northern Irish’). 

21-year-old Gemma’s family lives in Northern Ireland and identify as British, but she now sees herself as “equally British and Irish” since going to Belfast for university. “Most Protestants go across the water for uni, so 70 per cent of the students in Belfast are Catholics,” Gemma explains. She didn’t know anyone Catholic before moving and, although Gemma would still like Northern Ireland to stay in the UK, now appreciates its Irish influences after listening to nationalists’ viewpoints at uni. Segregation endures as a problem in Northern Ireland, with 93 per cent of schools remaining segregated by religion which inhibits children from mixing with peers with opposing religious viewpoints.

22-year-old Hannah also didn’t know many people from a nationalist background before moving to Belfast for uni too, and would now vote to leave the UK if given the choice. Like Gemma, her family identifies as British. “There are good reasons to stay part of the UK, like the NHS, but when I thought about Hawaii and the USA and how American people came in and wiped out a culture, I realised that’s what’s happened here,” she says.

Hannah acknowledges that prior to living in Belfast, she didn’t know much about Irish politics – and even now she is aware of the serious gaps in her knowledge. “To be honest, I don’t know much about Ireland,” she says. This is unsurprising, given that Ofcom reported that the majority of Northern Irish people used BBC News as their main news outlet in 2022, which very rarely covers issues in the south and even lacks coverage on Northern Irish issues. “It’s difficult to get any news about Ireland here [...] When all that stuff about abortion laws was going on in Northern Ireland, it was like that was the first time English people heard about the DUP,” Hannah adds.

“The money that comes out of this country never comes back in. You can see that from our education to our roads” – Ian

When the worst violence since the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland to protest a trade border down the Irish Sea after the UK left the EU in 2016, the BBC didn’t report on it for a week. Neither Gemma or Hannah had a clear understanding of the debate around the trade border – but since the crux of the debate was whether Northern Ireland should be created as separate from the rest of the UK in trade, it had huge implications for the status of the country within the British union. As I speak to Hannah and Gemma, I wonder if the lack of media coverage encouraged their ignorance of political issues, and if this has impacted their hesitancy to subscribe to one nationality.

The line between identifying as British and being perceived as an extreme unionist can be thin – something which Ian, 27, experienced after playing in the Twelfth parades with his dad. The Orange Order, which holds these parades, is a Protestant, unionist group, which has been accused of being sectarian, since it does not allow non-Protestant members or members who are married to Catholics (I know someone who was kicked out of the Orange Order just for entering a Catholic church, to be best man at his friend’s wedding). The marches can cause tension, particularly within Catholic communities, and on occasion have resulted in violence.

I ask Ian if he thinks they really are bolstering the unionist cause. “Northern Ireland is a burden to the UK. The politicians in Westminster don’t want to see Northern Ireland represented,” he says. “The money that comes out of this country never comes back in. You can see that from our education to our roads.” He pauses. “But nobody else wants us, and we’re not strong enough economically to be an independent state.”

Ian enjoyed going to the marches growing up, with their colours and band music, but says he didn’t understand the ideology behind them until he was a teenager. He didn’t spend any time around children who weren’t from unionist families until his third year of secondary school, where he made a friend who gave him a different point of view to consider. “I don’t want to use the word ‘sectarian’,” he says of the Coleraine estate he grew up in, “but it was.”

He says now that he “respects everyone’s beliefs”, but I ask him if still attending the marches is at odds with this feeling. He says everyone should express their culture in whatever way they want, and it’s not for any other group to comment on how unionists do that.

I can understand why Northern Irish people who identify as British choose to shout about their identity. Their voices have to reach across the Irish Sea to a nation that is apathetic about their existence. But with Northern Irish young people tending towards nationalism and Sinn Féin making sweeping gains in local elections, and the mainland itself pulling away from traditional ‘Britishness’, young Northern Irish Brits are on one side of an increasingly wide chasm.

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