What Are You? The Curious Case of Reinforcing Identities in Northern Ireland

I live with a Catholic and a Protestant.

This may seem underwhelming to most, but in Northern Ireland, it could mean everything. It could mean cold stares. It could mean the end of a friendship before it even begins. It could mean war. And indeed, between 1968 and 1998, it did. Nearly 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the spectacularly violent conflict, communal divisions still exist largely along religious, political, and cultural lines—denominational terms "Protestant" and "Catholic" are still regularly (and respectively) conflated with political terms "unionist" and "nationalist" or "British" and "Irish." However, religion is the single most salient difference, deriving intensity from its overlapping with political, social, and cultural divides. 

Several months ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Catholic boy and a Protestant boy in my flat, both of whom vociferously insisted that they can identify a person’s religion simply by his or her appearance. In the words of the Protestant boy:

"If he’s wearing O’Neill’s shorts, or a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) shirt, he’s definitely Catholic. Catholics are also the people who don’t come out on the Twelfth of July [which celebrates the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II]. But my dad swears he can tell a Catholic just by looking into his eyes."

In response, the Catholic boy promptly asserted that “Prods usually have sallow skin and wear rugby stuff.” When I explained I still couldn’t tell the difference, I was greeted with loud scoffs and the claim that it “takes years of experience,” which apparently I sorely lacked. 

What stood out to me was the fact that the religious divide had less to do with doctrinal differences than political and cultural divides. Catholics and Protestants tend to play different sports, with the former playing Gaelic football (which is of Irish origin) and the latter playing rugby (a popular sport in England). Moreover, Catholic towns tend to fly the Irish tri-color, while Protestant towns fly the Union Jack. In a fascinating expression of religious division, a city in Northern Ireland has a contested name to this day—Derry/Londonderry. Catholics choose to call it Derry, while Protestants choose to call it Londonderry, exemplifying the political divide in Northern Ireland as well. While listening to the boys discuss religion, not once did differences such as the Bible they read or their religious rituals in church come up.

I’ve now lived in Belfast for five months, and I still can’t tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant. In fact, daily expressions of religion are few to none, and religious tensions don’t appear to affect social interactions between students at Queen’s University. However, one would expect tensions to grow when considering the fact that the Catholic population has grown exponentially from a small minority to 45 percent of the population in Northern Ireland, and many expect them to dwarf the Protestant community by the time of the next census in 2021. The playing field has been leveled, and yet, there are signs that religion is not quite as critical a factor as it once might have been. Despite the growing Catholic population, a BBC poll showed that only 25 percent of Catholics support reunification with the Catholic Republic of Ireland. As the political and religious spheres drift apart, is it possible that one’s religious identity might grow increasingly insignificant?

The Protestant boy identifies as Northern Irish, and the Catholic boy identifies as Irish, but if the changing religious climate amongst the students at the university is anything to go by, the political identities might soon become the more salient form. The deepest division is shifting and maybe soon, the two boys will be discussing what makes a person unionist or nationalist, rather than Protestant or Catholic. The theological and doctrinal differences are marginal, which makes the departure of religion from the primary debate likely and necessary. With Brexit talks in progress and nationalists clamoring to reunify with Ireland as a means of staying in the European Union, the question of identities in Northern Ireland is crucial to its eventual status as either a British or an Irish state. As these events unfold, it will be interesting to note the primary line along which people will choose to mobilize, keeping in mind that the tendency of identities to reinforce each other will almost always prove to be devastating for this tragically beautiful province.

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