In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Claire Hanna from the SDLP, who is MP for South Belfast.
Yeah, this is way more complicated a question that it should be when you start to think about it.
I suppose everybody’s relationship with Northern Ireland is probably complex, because it’s such a frustrating and dysfunctional place. There is a seam of really bonkers views and real division in the mindset of some people that sometimes just shocks you when it comes into a conversation. But it’s home, and I do consider myself Northern Irish, and I don’t have any intention of living anywhere else.
The trajectory of this society is good — we are moving in the right direction. Albeit that change comes dropping slow, but you do get little wins of progress and you do see it arcing in the right direction in terms of attitudes and cohesion, in a way that isn’t matched, I think, with the electoral pace.
Looking at the politics as well, you know, to create for such a small population of people that we did — and I mean, you would expect me to lean in this direction — but that we created Mallons and Humes and Curries, you know, people who really were able to pull together and crystallize a lot of global currents and really meaningful politics around non-violence and progress and social justice, and to articulate that so well.
We tend towards very strong identities. And I must say, I love the growth of Northern Irishness. I’m Irish and Northern Irish and my next door neighbor is British and Northern Irish. That is grand, that’s a shared identity. But also that, I suppose, like punching, trying to punch out of the silos of this concept of other. I just love the different identities and value sets that are emerging there.
I think we’ll be in a new Ireland. I think there is change coming here. I think people realize that. And I say this as somebody who has genuinely believed in the values of 1998 and making it work, through using devolution and improving people’s lives. But it isn’t 1998 at anymore. We’re in some ways going a little bit backwards. We’re underperforming in terms of the political structures. It feels like we won’t be able to realize our potential until there is a new paradigm, and I think that’s happening over the next decades.
But I think, fundamentally — and I think this is really important to say — Northern Ireland’s always going to exist. I think there’s a perception that in a new Ireland — whatever that looks like — that this group of people in this shared identity just dissolves. And that’s not going to happen in the same way, you know, if you ever met anybody from Cork, they have a very strong Cork identity. Or, you know, if somebody from Galway, there’s a Galway identity — that regional identity. As well as the fact that in governance terms, you know, there aren’t 25,000 civil servants and teachers and cops and everything ready to just, as soon as there’s a border poll, sweep in here and run the place. We have different governance infrastructures and we have a set of interdependent relationships with the island next door, and those things won’t just change. So I think Northern Ireland will persist and exist, with all the baggage that it has. But I think we will be in a different constitutional place and I think that that transition begins now or is beginning now. It’s just how we do it in the most structured way and in the most gracious way that we can do it.
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.
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Images © Allan LEONARD