I am British.
I am not a loyalist.
I see myself as British, and as Northern Irish, but not as Irish. In my time spent travelling, people have often found this hard to understand, but you have to bear in mind that I grew up in a British country. We may share the same island as the South, but we’re not the same country. We have a different government, different customs, different accents, different school systems, different sports. We use British pounds, not euros; miles per hour, not kilometres; stones, not kilograms. I don’t speak a word of Irish. I grew up watching British TV, while the reception on the two Irish channels we could get was fuzzy and blurry at best. I’ve been across the border no more than about half a dozen times throughout the 31 years of my life. I have a British passport. The Irish flag is the flag of another country to me.
I love Ireland. I’ve recently spent a few fantastic weekends in Dublin, and although I felt very much like a foreign tourist, I could see myself living there. It’s a vibrant, modern, multicultural, exciting city in a beautiful, friendly country. But it’s not my country. It’s not my home.
When I see the green, white, and orange of the Irish flag, I see a foreign flag. Despite my lifelong hatred of politics and hardcore nationalism, I have to confess that I do recognise the red, white, and blue of the Union Jack as the flag of my country. It’s how I was brought up.
I am British.
But I am not a loyalist.
Now, I’ve written about the Twelfth before, so I’m not going to go into the history again – you can read my beginner’s version here if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about!
Once again, I find myself back in Norn Iron during the marching season, and I think my take on it has changed slightly. Perhaps being out of the country for a stretch of a few years is letting me approach it from a different perspective, I don’t know – but I’m definitely not as bitter as I once was.
I feel that I have a better understanding now of why loyalists do what they do, and why they hold on to the centuries-old tradition of the Twelfth. In Northern Ireland, we don’t have a strong national identity – not like the English, and not like the Irish. We’re caught in between. For the loyalists – those loyal to the crown and determined to remain part of the UK – there’s a fervent, almost desperate need to hold on to what the murals call “our wee country”. The fear that Ireland will one day be united is always there.
Last weekend, a couple of my friends visited Norn Iron, and we did some touristy things in Belfast, including a fascinating taxi tour around the Peace Wall and the areas on either side – the Shankill, and the Falls. In this country, those words are synonymous with “Protestant/loyalist” and “Catholic/nationalist”, respectively. They were the scene of horrific fighting, bombings, and destruction throughout The Troubles, and even today they are divided by the so-called Peace Wall. This is an actual, very high, graffiti-covered wall not dissimilar to the Berlin Wall, running between the two areas to keep residents safe from each other.
Our tour guide, a friendly, entertaining Belfast man, took us from one side to the other to walk around, take pictures, and sign the Peace Wall. At each stop, he climbed into the back of the cab with us and gave us background information, showed us old photos and newspaper clippings, and told us countless stories to help us understand both sides. It was incredibly interesting to me, having grown up during The Troubles but been largely unaffected by them as a resident of a smaller, more rural town.
What shocked me the most, however, was the difference between the loyalist and nationalist areas.
The Shankill Road was no surprise to me. In fact, in some ways it’s a lot like the area where I was raised. Union Jacks flying, red, white, and blue streamers, loyalist murals, and the familiar annual sight of the Eleventh Night bonfire (more on that in another post!) being built. Also, in addition to the loyalist elements, it’s simply not particularly attractive. Walls are covered in graffiti, several houses are boarded up and abandoned, many gardens are overgrown with weeds, and patches of wasteland are strewn with litter and broken glass. It’s not the sort of place you’d like to be wandering around after dark. The overload of flags and murals lend a feeling of aggression, bitterness, and tension to the area, even today.
What took me completely by surprise was setting foot on the Falls Road for the first time. Note that there was once a time (and not all that long ago) when, as a Protestant raised in a loyalist area, I would not have been able to do this without risking my life. Times have changed, and so has the Falls. To my amazement, it looked like any other pleasant, well-kept, tidy area. The houses and gardens were well-maintained. Flower boxes lined the windows with bright splashes of colour. The streets were clean and free from graffiti. There were no flags flying, and only the famous Bobby Sands mural gave away the fact that we were actually in what was once the scene of terrible sectarian fighting. And yet, even that mural is non-aggressive – it’s more artistic, and a genuine tribute to the sacrifice the man made in the face of the brutality of the British army.
In all honestly, I was completely expecting to see a reverse Shankill on the Falls – just as run-down, just as patriotic, but with flags and streamers of green, white, and orange instead of red, white, and blue, and IRA gunmen murals instead of UDA. It was not at all as I expected.
Our guide noted my amazement at the sheer contrast between the two areas. It’s a reflection of people’s identity, he explained. The nationalists know who they are, and they’re secure in their identity. They don’t need to shout about it or decorate the place to make sure everyone knows. But the loyalists – they don’t feel as safe. They’re fighting to hold on to their identity, because they’re not as certain of it.
And that’s when another little piece of the Great Norn Irish Puzzle fell into place for me.
For the real loyalists – and I mean the largely peaceful, non-bigoted people who feel a strong love for and attachment to their heritage, history, and culture, as opposed to the brainless hooligans who burn Irish flags and shout sectarian slurs – the Twelfth is not a crowing display designed to intimidate. It’s not. Yes, it all too often turns out that way thanks to the attitude, behaviour, and ill-informed opinions of the aforementioned bigots, but that’s not what it’s about for most loyalists. With the population balance between the formerly vast majority of Protestants and the Catholic minority not far from swinging in the other direction, they’re clinging on to their flags and their marches to make it clear that they have an identity, and that they don’t want to be swallowed up by Ireland and dropped by Britain. The parades, the flags, the banners, the marches – it’s part of their culture, part of their heritage, and part of their effort to hold on to their identity. If they were to stop, it would be like… well, surrendering.
Personally, I think they should. I believe that they should leave it in the past, and accept that they can be British without constantly making a song and dance about it. But then, I also think the English should do the same, and that’s not going to stop them waving their flags at every Royal anniversary. People long to be part of a nation; they want to belong, and to be proud of their nationality.
It’s just that, in a small country of divided loyalties, patriotism is not so straightforward as love of and pride in one’s nation: more often, it comes across as gloating or antagonistic. While the English, the Scots, and the Welsh can wave their national flags with pride and be united as a nation, the Northern Irish cannot, because it’s divisive. Whichever flag you wave, whichever colours you identify with, you’re not celebrating your identity as Northern Irish. You’re celebrating being either Irish or British. You’re not uniting your fellow citizens to celebrate your country – you’re alienating about half of them. You’re either a loyalist, or a nationalist.
The nationalists have apparently stepped down and left their flag-waving days behind them, which was a huge surprise for me to realise. I would love to see the loyalists do the same… but for the first time in my life, I now actually understand why they don’t.
They have too much to lose.