Working towards Irish Unity




The Unity Debate: How do we define Irish in 2022?

Guest contributor Emma DeSousa aspires to a United Ireland, yet refuses to describe herself an Irish nationalist. Below she explains why she finds the terminology around the Constitutional debate too reductive and why we need a less binary and more inclusive terminology to better reflect the nuances and complexity of the reunification debate.

Former First Minister and DUP Leader Arlene Foster formally launched a pro-Union campaigning group in London this week. The Together UK Foundation has been set up to “promote the benefits of the Union”. The private, and rather secretive launch fell on the same week as yet another Ireland’s Future event, which saw Belfast’s Ulster Hall at capacity following the group’s large-scale conference in Dublin in October. The question of whether or not we are on the path toward a referendum on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has already been answered – the yes and no camps are already taking shape. But as is so often the way in our part of this island, reductive caricatures and assumptions of who falls into which camp – and why – are in full circulation. 

In Northern Ireland, the archaic linkage between religion and political identity endures, with acronyms such as PUL (Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist) and CRN (Catholic, Republican, Nationalist) remaining in use. This is despite at-pace shifts in identity and religious affiliation, according to the 2021 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, the majority don’t describe themselves as unionist or nationalist and there’s been a significant increase in those claiming to have no religion in the 2022 census. As a people, we continue to see our societal progress stunted by the obsessive manner by which we are boxed into two conveniently ill-defined, ill-fitting, and unnatural categories, whereby identity is reduced down to one of two arbitrary definitions. It’s a practice which serves to “other” people in the North, segregating us from each other, and separating us from our friends, families and neighbours who live on the opposite side of an invisible border.

Given this practice it can be of little surprise that the subject of constitutional change is being divided down these lines also, with the narrative that it is only nationalists engaging in the conversation – or that all those who engage are nationalists – being parroted writ-large but the concept of identity is far too broad and nuanced to be forced under one banner, each individual is a complex amalgamation of beliefs, interests, and values — some learned, others inherited. Identity can be steeped in your cultural tradition, in your community, in your faith; it can be all three, or none of the above, but it’s always a choice you make for yourself. Not an antiquated identifier arbitrarily assigned by anyone else.

As someone who grew up in an apolitical household – yes, they do exist – the terms unionist or nationalist were not mentioned, nor was politics ever discussed, at least around us. This provided the space and freedom for my siblings and I to carve out our own definition of personal identity, free from any expectation either at home or in our community as to what that identity might be. And so today, I am an Irish woman, who does not describe themselves as a nationalist, but does support a United Ireland. The reasons why each of us adopts a political ideology, or a descriptor vary greatly, my experience has taught me that the practice of categorising the people of Northern Ireland in to one of two columns is not to our benefit; these terms can be used against us, to make blanket assumptions about an individual’s beliefs or politics .

We are so much more than any single label; We are environmentalists, feminists, economists, star trek nerds. We belong to sporting communities and artistic communities, in addition to the communities we’re born into and reside within. The intricate network of factors that inform personal identity is as complex and enigmatic as what some circles would refer to as the human soul, and to reduce something of that scope down to a one-dimensional superficiality is like gazing up into the vastness of space and seeing only “the sky”. 

Whilst two different jurisdictions with divergent histories and traumas, there is a shared struggle both North and South to shake free of the outdated concepts of identity which have remained rooted in religious doctrine for generations. Key to that breakthrough is the growing new communities that call this island home. One in 15 people residents in Northern Ireland were not born in the UK or Ireland, according to the latest census, in the south its 1 in ten. Let’s not lose sight of the richness and diversity each and every community on this island can bring to the table, nor be so naïve as to think they aren’t already engaging. To claim that all 5000 guests in attendance at the Ireland’s Future conference in October were Irish nationalists is a logical fallacy – my American, Jewish, Democrat husband was but one in attendance, and he too will have a vote on the future of this island.

Constitutional change effects all of us that call this place home, it will fundamentally alter, and transform, the society that we live in. This isn’t just about reunifying Ireland, it’s about creating a new Ireland, and embracing a more inclusive concept of what it means to be Irish.

Emma Desouza is a writer and campaigner. She regularly writes for the Irish Times and The Irish Examiner, as well as other publications including the Guardian, Byline Times, Open Democracy and more.