Last week Gordon Lucy (Ulster Society), Nelson McCausland (Ulster Scots Heritage) and I, spoke at Newry Arts Centre on Identities in Ireland.
Despite differences there was surprising agreement that we are all mongrels. Identities, including national identities, are socially constructed. This means they are created and sustained in relation to other people and communities. Identities seemed more stable in the past because we lived in
relatively homogenous and unchanging communities. It was the community that gave us our identity but it was always possible to manipulate and modify it.
Frequently identity was and is defined negatively against out-groups who define who we are NOT. This negative element is particularly clear when Protestants here emphasise being NOT-Catholic while some Catholics reinforce this by describing Protestants as non-Catholics.
Some Protestants even define Protestantism as consisting of protest against the Catholic Church but, although Protestants rejected aspects of Catholic belief and practice, early Reformers wished to remain Catholic. Protestantism was a positive movement geared to the recovery of lost roots in Christianity and the removal of accretions perceived as incompatible with the New Testament. Today however religious identities are less tolerable and people emphasise national, ethnic or cultural characteristics.
The decline in stable identities coincides with a loss of the sense of place and belonging. Peter Berger, an American sociologist suggested this had positive and negative consequences. On the one hand it led to greater creative possibilities and a sense of being in control but on the other it can produce a "homeless mind". We build new worlds seemingly according to our own designs but the down side, as Berger suggested, is that our constructions are more fragile and may fall apart leaving us in Limbo. Fluidity engenders uncertainty and may also promote aggressive identities as people determine to return to old certainties. But older structures were built on inequality and in some cases human victims were literally buried beneath buildings.
Today we live in a global village but generally have few real relationships with peoples in far away places or even across ethnic and sectarian divides. This makes us vulnerable to stereotypical images, which may reflect the worst features of people who are "not like us". They easily become our scapegoats people we blame in an attempt to rebuild unity and stability. But this process is no longer workable and today we really must make peace with strangers and enemies to survive.
Those who most vociferously proclaim their identity almost inevitably demonise others. They/we seem to need scapegoats to maintain the sense of who they/we are. In this sense some experienced the Good Friday Agreement as destabilising because it entailed making peace with enemies and placed negatively based identities at risk. Instead of coming together in mutual respect and tolerance some of us therefore struggled to impose our versions of truth on a changing Northern Ireland. Generally today we have greater freedom to create new identities foreign to those of our parents and community.
Yet here this freedom is restricted because of the force field between our antagonistic traditions.
The enmity limits choice and almost forces us into the boxes provided. Despite the fluid and changing nature of identity some things seem incontrovertible.
To deny we are Irish, when we live on this island, or Northern Irish/Ulster people when we live in this part of the island, or British, when we live in these islands is surely to deny aspects of reality. But rejection is usually based on what these identities are perceived to mean. To be Irish is too often taken to imply being nationalist and Catholic, being Northern Irish may be taken to imply being Protestant or unionist, while to be British can still be associated with past imperialism. But all parts of our islands are changing rapidly with old assumptions becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The future lies in inclusion and diversity but paradoxically the forces making for change also lead us to seek roots. This is part of the genesis of interest in Irish and UlsterScots language and culture but such reversions necessarily involve choices given the complexity and that culture itself is socially constructed. We are pulled towards the modernity with its apparent freedom but the sense of homelessness pulls us towards the past and the sense of community and belonging. We need both and we also need to understand where our neighbours are coming from and this implies a continuing need for dialogue.