IDENTITY is a touchy issue on this island where nationalities overlap and sometimes clash. Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, those born in Northern Ireland have the right to be British, Irish or both. I am proud to have an Irish passport which confirms my rights as a citizen of the European Union and Ireland which is the island where I was born. But I also have a passport which confirms my status as a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is the jurisdiction where I have worked and paid taxes for 45 years. To my Venezuelan friends, who are understandably confused, I explain Northern Ireland as a kind of no-man’s land where you can keep a foot in each camp if you don’t mind dodging the crossfire.
But it is not as simple as that for while I consider myself Irish, and so does the rest of the world, I am first and foremost an Ulster-Scot. Ulster is an Irish province where my forebears have lived for generations. It is so full of people with a Scottish heritage that a leading Glasgow historian once told me it is ‘Scotland’s only successful colony’. I have as little in common with the Kerryman as I have with the Cardiffian or the cockney and I share more than DNA with my Caledonian neighbours. The variety of the English language that is my native tongue is full of old Scottish words and the religion of my fathers is the liberal Presbyterianism of the New Light kirk. The backbone of my politics is the socialism forged in the mills, mines and shipyards of the industrial Scottish lowlands.
Yet I have no time for those people who seek to exploit my Scottish background and make petty politics out of tartan trivia. They conveniently ignore the dramatic rise of Scottish nationalism and the inconvenient fact that many of the Calvinists in the highlands and islands are gaelic speakers, an ancient tongue which they mock with childish glee. Their purpose seems to be to score points over their rivals and to milk the UK taxpayer for cash to squander on their supporters. The true Ulster-Scot is a tolerant man of independent mind, as the poet Robert Burns might say, and will have no truck with them.
For centuries the peoples of northern Britain and the north of Ireland spoke the same language and shared the same laws and customs. In times of trouble they sought refuge in each other’s houses and when faced with a common threat they fought together. The clans squabbled and married among themselves, ate the same foods and drank the same uisce beatha. The North Channel, which is just 13 miles wide at its narrowest point, was a highway not a barrier. My wife Clare and I followed in the footsteps of generations who have gone before us when we joined our houses in matrimony across this short seaway. I will apply for a Scottish passport if Nicola Sturgeon gets her way and Scotland becomes an independent country, so that I can add another one to add to my collection. So will Clare, for though she is an Irish-Scot whose forebears came from Mayo, she was born in Glasgow and suffers from passport poverty. She is currently entitled to a UK passport only.
It came as no surprise to me that the majority of people in Northern Ireland and the majority of people in Scotland voted to remain in the European Union. It came as a shock to me that a misguided majority in England and Wales voted to leave. It is their right to express this view and I am compelled to respect it but I believe they blame the wrong people for their woes. I was in Galway at the time of the referendum result in 2016 and people kept shaking their heads and asking me to explain. I shrugged my shoulders and could offer little guidance. Brexit, which is scheduled to happen this month, will cause lasting damage at so many levels, economic, social, political and personal. It raises barriers between peoples after generations of effort to break them down. It has even put barriers between my wife and me. We have just spent an enjoyable week in Croatia and Montenegro, which have their own identity issues. But when hen next we go on holiday Clare will probably have to apply for a visa and stand in a different queue at the airport. Though we have been together for 30 years and live in the same country our status will be different. I will be welcomed as a member of the European family and she will be treated as an alien who must be processed.
We are all mongrels of one kind or another. The warped concepts of racial purity and national superiority come with an echo of the jackboot. They are the root cause of violence, hate and discrimination all over the world. The most pressing and important challenges facing the next generation are global: climate change, conflict, disease and hunger. These issues require concerted action at global level by courageous leaders who can see over their own walls. I do not share Theresa May’s view expressed at the 2016 Tory Party Conference: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word citizenship means.” If the UK government has its way I will be classified as ‘British’ to simplify the Home Office paperwork. I could lose many of my rights as a European citizen. Human rights lawyers have vowed to fight this as a breach of the Good Friday Agreement and I will take to the streets to support them.
We Ulster-Scots and Scots-Irish are thoroughly scunnered by Brexit which has placed the destiny of our children in the hands of the ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’ of English nationalism. In Ulster we know that it is perfectly plausible to be more than one thing and that showing respect for the views and identities of others brings more rewards than problems. Cooperation is always better than conflict and bridges are better than walls. I am happy to respect Boris Johnson’s wish to be an Englishman and a British passport holder. But I must insist that he respects my right to be a European citizen, an Irishman and a proud Ulster-Scot, forbye.
© Maurice Neill 2019