In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Joseph Nawaz, who is a writer and performer.
The concept of Northern Ireland, to quote the late great Peter Cook, fills me with inertia. The framing of the centenary as a celebration, kind of illuminates for me the schizophrenic essence of Northern Ireland, or Norn’ Ireland, or the occupied six counties, or our wee country, depending on who you talk to.
I think it’s because even outside of the swatch of the population that feels directly alienated from the idea of Northern Ireland, there’s always been a sort of identity crisis that’s lurked at the hearts of this entity. I grew up here, born and bred, with a working class, Catholic mother and a Pakistani, Muslim father, and I went to a Protestant school and spent my childhood years at a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood. You could argue that would make somebody like me the poster child of the new Northern Ireland. But the fact both my parents came from parts of the empire that were crudely carved up by the British can’t help but bring its own perspective to me being from here.
I think in many ways, Northern Ireland is the last smouldering ember of that fractious empire that never quite went out. I think there’s a grand tragedy also to the idea of the fact that the one political group here that most wants to keep Northern Ireland existing seems to be doomed to be the one to undermine its legitimacy, time and time again.
Brexit was obviously the most recent example of that. Brexit also highlighted, I think for me, the bizarre antimatter nature of this place; it’s a state and not a state at the same time. It’s like Schrödinger’s state, I think — it becomes fixed only in the eye of whoever happens to be observing it.
There’s a sense of cyclical tragedy — a sense of being an unloved bit on the side to the mainland — Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s always separate; it’s always the adjunct, isn’t it? We have this courtesan’s loyalty, which is often rewarded with casual betrayal by our beloved master. And yet we still persevere. Still in love with this unloving block of ice and still place of pursuits of the love of this toxic relationship, over the wellbeing of the kids [and] the rest of us living here. A marriage guidance counsellor would say it’s an unhealthy relationship.
Personally, because of my mom, and also maybe because of my dad, my knee-jerk, emotional reaction is to feeling Irish, but when I stop and think, it’s not a tag I can commit to comfortably, any more than Northern Irish, again, probably because of my dad. When it comes to identity, I say, first of all, I’m a Belfast [man] and I hail from the north of Ireland. Northern Ireland just throws up so many notions of ambivalence and ambiguity.
The legacy of the past hundred years here has been great hurt, I think, on a social, communal, and cultural level. There’re wounds that haven’t ever been allowed to heal here. But the fact that we seem to be insistent on continually picking at the scab, rather than letting it heal is part of the problem, isn’t it? The fact that the molecular integrity of Northern Ireland is still wobbly after a hundred years is maybe the greatest tragedy and ultimately the legacy. A hundred years’ time from now, a century on from here, I hope we’ve allowed that scab to heal, at least. What is more likely — we’re so obsessed with the semantics of definition of this place, that we haven’t noticed that we’re all under water.
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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