Unionist Identity in Ireland

February 4, 2021

By Choyaa – A Fermanagh Orangeman

Some years ago, when I worked in the Republic of Ireland, I attended the office Christmas party, during which I got into a conversation with a colleague who was from Navan. A short time after this event I was contacted by this colleague who wanted to meet with me. We met for lunch and after some pleasantries, they cut to the chase on why they wanted to meet, it was to discuss something that I mentioned at the party which they found both “confusing and disturbing.” I was puzzled as I didn’t remember saying anything remotely controversial, then my colleague whispered – “How can you be British?” The subject of nationality had come up and I indicated that being ‘British’ was part of my identity. I attempted to explain that I considered myself ‘British’, ‘Irish’ and indeed ‘Northern Irish’, however, my colleague was visibly unhappy with this and proceeded to explain her views on the history of Ireland and how the British were the “oppressors”; some parts of the British Empire’s colonial past were also touched upon. I continually attempted to interject that I was also Irish but my colleague dismissed my Irishness completely by stating that British and Irish don’t mix and no “real” Irish person would consider themselves British. Needless to  say, the conversation was extremely awkward and my colleague later told me that she never quite understood my position.

The ‘Shared Ireland Podcast Team’ have contacted me several times over the past year to share some thoughts I have on Unionism that would supplement the wider discussions they’re having on a ‘Shared Ireland’. I should say from the offset that I am a Unionist from Fermanagh and whilst I have become somewhat disillusioned with political Unionism, I still believe in the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I also believe that Northern Ireland should be confident enough as part of the UK to have a positive working relationship with our neighbours in the Republic, and for some in Fermanagh the word ‘neighbour’ can be used in its literal sense. Today I wanted to share my perspective on identity and specifically Unionist identity.

In the story I outlined in the opening paragraph I learnt three key points:
– Don’t discuss politics in a work setting.
– The world does not revolve around Northern Ireland.
– Unionist identity can be difficult to explain to an external audience.

The third point remains very true even today; many outside of Unionism view it as a confusing concept. Nationalists in Northern Ireland sometimes bemoan the fact that people in the Republic have some sympathy but little understanding of them. However, for Unionists, the perception at least is that people in the Republic have no understanding and are slightly mistrustful of them. I am hopeful that this article can shed some light on identity from a Unionist perspective and why it is not always straightforward.

Unionism and Identity

Prior to partition, Northern Unionists considering themselves Irish was the norm, this was often coupled with an ‘Ulster’ identity which is referred to less often in recent times. The much-revered ‘36th Ulster Division’ was comprised of three regiments, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the Royal Irish Rifles. As well as being proud Ulstermen who served in ‘Irish’ regiments, these soldiers would also have identified as ‘Irish’. Another key figure within Unionism at this time was Edward Carson, one of Ulster’s ‘famous sons’, albeit from Dublin. Carson was always proud of his Irish identity whilst promoting the idea of a United Ireland aligned to Great Britain. His Irishness never diminished his Unionist or British credentials. One of many quotes from Carson on his identity include:

“I was born and bred an Irishman and I’ll always be one. The happiest days of my life were in Trinity College, Dublin, and at the Irish Bar.”

36th (Ulster) Division insignia

With partition, Unionism began to align itself to a more ‘Ulster British’ identity, although it was the outbreak of the Troubles that increased Unionism’s difficulty with ‘Irish’. Richard Rose’s Pre-Troubles survey in 1968 showed that amongst Protestants, 39% identified as British, 32% as Ulster, and 20% as Irish. But in 1989, a survey by Edward Moxon-Browne revealed that 68% identified as British, 14% as Ulster, and just 3% as Irish. Within Unionism today, those who identify as Irish, are still in the vast minority but this figure has certainly increased from the 3% of 1989. So why do Unionists have such an issue with identifying as Irish? For most outsiders, it seems like a logical conclusion that if one is born and lives on the island of Ireland then they are Irish.

The issue is much more complex than this and there are several key reasons why many Unionists feel uncomfortable with being Irish. Below are some primary examples of how Unionist interpret Irish as an identity:
– Being Irish means being a citizen of the Republic of Ireland.
– The Irish identity is associated with Republican violence in particular IRA violence, this is why during the Troubles the number of Unionists identifying as Irish dropped so dramatically.
– Being Irish is being supportive of a Nationalist viewpoint and ultimately Irish Unity.
– Irish symbols and iconography that are in some ways synonymous with the Irish identity, namely the Irish tricolour, Gaelic sports, and historically the Catholic Church are all alien to most Unionists.
– Some Northern Unionists feel there is an element of Anglophobia amongst some Irish people, therefore identifying as Irish would in their view be the antithesis to their British identity. In modern times the term ‘West Brit’ is used disparagingly against Irish people who are deemed to be Anglophilic.
– Some Irish people don’t consider Unionists who identify as Irish as “the right kind of Irish” and this, in turn, puts others off. Ironically, Northern Nationalists have also experienced this.

Currently, there is an array of different identities within Unionism and it’s not unusual to find two Unionists in the same room with very different views on this. Interestingly, Ian Paisley, the perceived ardent Ulsterman was never shy in affirming his Irish identity. In 2012, on the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, Paisley said:

“Edward Carson was a life-long Irishman, as well as being a life-long Unionist, and that made all the difference. On this 28th day of September, 100 years after his pen touched parchment, we salute the man who taught us all how to be true Irishmen and women.”

A further irony is that within the political party that Paisley founded, less than 2% of members identify as Irish. Former UUP leader and First Minister David Trimble identified as Ulster-British and on a recent ‘British & Irish’ podcast, the liberal Unionist Jeffrey Dudgeon indicated that he did not at all identity as Irish. All of the three main Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland – Arlene Foster, Jim Allister, and Steve Aiken have affirmed a British identity, although high profile UUP MLA Doug Beattie both identifies as Irish and British. This mix can be very much seen in the wider Unionist community, although it is noticeable that more people are identifying as ‘Northern Irish’; this is often underpinned with a British identity. There is also a smaller segment of the Unionist demographic who place significant emphasis on their Ulster-Scots heritage and this will form their identity much more so than Irish.

Northern Unionists are not British

This is one of the most popular tropes used against those of us in Northern Ireland who identify as British. Such statements will be “evidenced” by the fact that we were born and live outside of the island of Britain and this is usually followed with the proclamation that the “English doesn’t see you as British either”. It’s unfortunate that such statements all too often come from those who can quote chapter and verse of the ‘Belfast Agreement’ and conveniently ignore the part which specifically states that people from Northern Ireland can choose to be British or Irish or both.

I equally cringe when Unionists label people as ‘British’ whom they know all too well would not approve of this and are happily identifying solely as Irish. Such misappropriation of nationalities here in Northern Ireland serves none of us well and equally, demonstrates very little respect to both the Irish and British identity. Regarding identifying as British but not being born on the island of Britain, there are many such examples of this where populations identify with the home country of their ancestors. People in Gibraltar are British but like Northern Ireland, their part of the world will have its own unique identity. In relation to England not recognising Northern Unionists as British, this is often said as if it’s a eureka moment along with statements such as “England doesn’t want Northern Ireland”. These statements also misunderstand the psyche of Northern Unionists who are not seeking outside validation from people unaware of the complexities of Northern Ireland in the same way that Northern Nationalists are not seeking validation of their Irish identity from those in the Republic of Ireland or indeed elsewhere.

It should also be highlighted that the vast majority of Unionists know what those in England think, but it’s also not hugely relevant. I have fully witnessed these views in the past, however, whilst at University I witnessed almost the flipside. An English housemate who was arriving in Northern Ireland for the first time had fully renounced his British identity and was hoping to reclaim his Irishness (his grandfather was Irish and he had been a member of the old IRA). Suffice to say, where I was based was heavily Republican and my housemate’s attempt to integrate with local Republican students was rejected mainly due to his strong English accent and outlier views that did not always fully align with their visions; it left him very confused as he felt his Irish Republican credentials were strong.

In addition to this, I have siblings who live in Great Britain who have never had an issue expressing themselves as either British or Irish. It should be noted that the word ‘identify’ can be misleading and I am sure Unionists reading this will state that they don’t identify as British, they are British and many are the ancestors of those who arrived here during the plantation. It’s perfectly normal for people from other countries to identify with their ancestor’s heritage and Northern Unionists are doing nothing different by maintaining their Britishness.

Like many people across Northern Ireland, specifically Unionist families, many in my family have served in the British military – often in Irish regiments represented with very devoutly Irish symbols including the shamrock and harp. This is a good example of Irishness and Britishness coming together, I recognise that many Irish people reading this will find this definition of Irishness at best ‘alien’ to them but it won’t be for many from a Unionist background. Perhaps because of past British military experience, it is not uncommon for ex-soldiers from Northern Ireland to identify as Irish.

Northern Unionists are not Irish

This is something that Unionists who are Irish will sometimes get told and ironically Northern Nationalists can be on the wrong side of this too. When discussing identity recently with a colleague from Dublin, they asserted that I could not be Irish as I had a UK passport instead of an Irish passport. Passports are not a firm indicator of nationality on this island and it’s noticeable that a large number of Unionists who do not see themselves as Irish have acquired Irish passports to ensure smooth travelling post-Brexit. I know fellow Unionists who have been told they are not truly Irish due to their Unionist credentials, very akin to what I encountered in the story at the beginning of this article and it is something I have encountered from time to time. Unfortunately, some within Unionism use this as a justification for renouncing Irishness, but if this logic was followed, we would also not be British.

Global Perspective

There was much interest in Ireland when Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the USA. Biden is proud to be Irish as his great, great, great grandfather lived in Ballina until 1851. Such links amongst Unionists can be considered tenuous and even cringeworthy, but the irony is not lost in the fact the Biden having only visited Ireland once would be considered more Irish by some of our fellow citizens than those Unionist born in Ireland. The caution that Unionism has shown towards Biden is not without merit; some feel that he will use his presidency to put undue influence on the British government to “sacrifice” Northern Ireland for a trade deal. I don’t believe that Northern Ireland will be on the radar of the President, however, some here in Ireland expect an intervention and certainly, the administration is more pro Unity than at any point in the past. House of Representatives member Kevin Boyle who will be no stranger to many who frequent social media is like Biden in that he has Irish roots. Boyle is very openly pro-Unity with a certain and at times ill- informed romanticism for the IRA and a strong, unhealthy disdain for the British. It’s almost beyond question that he would find my Irishness and that of many other Unionists a paradox. Kevin Boyle came up in conversation with a Nationalist friend of mine recently who admitted that his tweets were “embarrassing”, however, I was advised that Boyle is considered useful because of his connections (and in particular his brothers’ connections) to the White House administration – there is a “soft power” there that Irish Nationalists can wield. This explanation makes sense and will come as no surprise to any Unionist, but it will disappoint many when Nationalists with huge influence here and who are trying to promote the conversation of a “shared island” will not challenge such an individual due to the potential “soft power” he possesses.

Overall I am an Irishman, I am a Northern Irishman and I am British, each of these three elements are hugely important parts of my identity. It is my hope that Unionism can continue to reclaim its Irishness with confidence and Unionists should feel buoyed that their British identity is fully protected within the ‘Belfast Agreement’. At a time when debates on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland are growing, there have been many calls for Unionists to engage in the conversation. However, it’s not always clear if a Unionist voice is actually wanted or if those calling for dialogue really seek an echo chamber. There are clear examples of proponents seeking such dialogue and then either disregarding moderate Unionist opinions or indeed blocking them, this certainly tells its own story. I don’t believe Unionism should have anything to fear from entering the ‘Shared Island’ discussion, however, those calling for such discussions must expect to hear authentic Unionist voices, some of whom will have vastly different views and experiences. Chants to Unionists of “you’re not really British” and or “you’re not really Irish” create their own problems and there is merit in the suggestion that Unionist identity is both misunderstood and too often ridiculed. Creating a dialogue around a ‘Shared Island’ must be based on respect for Unionist identity, Unionism must also show respect in return – not only in how it treats other identities but in how it exhibits its own identity. At a time when terms such as “West Brits” is applied to those Irish people who have views that don’t comply with the perceived norm, it is also worth noting that if Irish Unity does come to pass it will not mean “Brits Out” but will mean a huge number of Northern Brits in.


A Fermanagh Orangeman. Sometimes out of step. You can follow me on twitter here.





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13 comments on “Unionist Identity in Ireland

  1. Barney o'Loughlin Feb 22, 2021

    It’s good to see a well thought out analysis and personal testimony. We need to hear more of this. And we need to respect this. Thank you. My difficult part is to hear and listen. There is no listening when drums are beating. And I don’t need to bat the ball back.

  2. Barney o'Loughlin Feb 22, 2021

    It’s good to see a well thought out analysis and personal testimony. We need to hear more of this. And we need to respect this. Thank you. My difficult part is to hear and listen. There is no listening when drums are beating. And I don’t need to bat the ball back.

  3. Bernard Feb 11, 2021

    “they are British and many are the ancestors of those who arrived here during the plantation.” Shouldn’t that be descendants rather than ancestors.

  4. Southerner Feb 7, 2021

    Interesting article. A minor quibble before I get to the bigger issues: I think Kevin Boyle is a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, not the U.S. one. Now for my broader observations:

    – I understand your point on the role of the Plantation in Unionist identity.I would suggest though that looking at surnames, there are a fair number of Unionists with Gaelic ancestry too. Terence O’Neill was one example but there are others. There are also some Nationalists who may have some Planter ancestry. Also I’ve noticed some Huguenot surnames where the current holders are often Catholic. So I think there was some intermarriages and some conversions along the way. I think the conversions of many Catholic landowners in Ulster after the defeat of King James II to hold onto their lands may have been a factor aswell. William Connolly, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, was the richest man in Ireland and made his fortune selling off confiscated Jacobite estates in the area around Derry city. But even going back earlier than, there were also the earlier Hiberno-Norman lords, some of whom had converted during the Tudor reconquest. Most had remained Catholic and lost their lands under Cromwell, but many regained their lands under Charles II before losing them again under William, except for some who saw the way the political winds were blowing and became Anglicans to hold onto their laws as the Penal Laws were introduced. So I would argue ancestry within Unionism and Nationalism is a bit more complex than is popularly believed.

    – I agree that many who take out Irish passports in NI from the Unionist community are doing so for reasons of international travel. I don’t attach the same level of political significance to it as some Republicans do, except perhaps that those Unionists who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum are probably those who travel in Europe more.

    – I recognise that many Unionist families have a tradition of military service in the British armed forces. This was also the case to some extent in Nationalist Ireland in the Home Rule era, and to a lesser extent in WW2 when Southerners of both traditions fought in Allied armies. They were not well treated when they returned if they had left the Irish army to join the Allies. This was wrong. There is sometimes a “year zero” attitude down here that forgets the Irish Catholic role in the British army or the British empire. Some point to the defection of a large number of such people to the Boer side during the Boer War. I think for Unionism, military service was in part about loyalty to the Crown, whereas for Nationalists, it was about fighting fascism in World War II and in the case of WW1, sympathy for ‘Catholic Belgium’. John Redmond, the Home Rule leader, also encouraged members of the Irish Volunteers to join the war effort, arguing they were fighting for Home Rule, as well as for Catholic Belgium. It is also a reality that when the ban on Catholics joining the British army was lifted around 1782 (though it was later in the case of higher up officers) many did join up. In the 1798 rebellion, Catholics in the North Cork Militia and Monaghan Militia played an important role in suppressing it, alongside the largely Protestant yoemenry. It should also be noted though that Irish Jacobites provided possibly tens of thousands of recruits for French in the 18th century, notably at the Battle of Fontenoy at 1745, and Napoleon Bonaparte recruited an “Irish Legion”. So I think for some Nationalists, serving in the British military was just part of a wider mercenary tradition, and not necessarily an indication of our political views regarding the Union. It was seen as a way out of poverty. The Home Rule MP Thomas Kettle called it “the secret scripture of the poor”.

    – Identity is intrinsic and noone has a right to tell you what your identity is or that you can’t be Irish because of not being a Nationalist.

  5. Paul (IFA, not FAI) Feb 4, 2021

    What a lucid, thoughtful and fair analysis. If only those in RoI (where I am) could acknowledge, rejoice and welcome the Ulster British identity into a new greater Irish identity. We have Polish days, Nigerian days, Muslim holidays, I don’t know what else, but we seem to be lacking a basic generosity to those we proclaim as our kin. If we’re ever to achieve an accommodation on the island it means (1) new flag (2) new anthem (3) IFA (not FAI, please) (4) lots and lots of other stuff (5) Commonwealth (6) NATO (7) new national holidays, in brief true, true respect, rather than condescension. There has been a kulturkampf of sorts since 1922: accommodate Gaelic culture and you’re a Provo; accommodate respect for Ulster British culture and you’re a West Brit. Chill out, reach out and be patient and positive.

  6. John Nally Feb 4, 2021

    The Question to the author is what exactly defines them as British and why is it even important? Not a derogation but as a genuine question. They mention “ancestors from the times of plantation” but would the need for Britishness even exist if the Free-State hadn’t come to pass and the whole of the island of Ireland had of stayed in Union with Great Britain?

    What defines the author as British when others of the same ancestry may simply define themselves as Northern Irish (regardless of religion, or political allegiance).

    Is it a need for something stronger than the politics of unionism? Or is is it something less practical and more ethereal?

    Thank you for the enjoyable piece.

  7. Stephen Montgomery Feb 4, 2021

    Great input.

    I totally “identify” with everything expressed in the article by Choyaa.

    I am equally saddened that I have no representation within political unionism, and so, undoubtedly am like many others who has switched to supporting Alliance.

    While all my instincts tell me I wish to maintain the Union, I see nothing wrong in entering the debate about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

    I feel it should be abundantly clear that it is voters like myself, “the middle ground”, who will ultimately determine the outcome of any border poll. What I find peculiar, is how the major political players on both sides cannot see this, and rather than take the opportunity to appeal to the middle ground, continue with their old syle rhetoric to buoy up their support from their traditional extremes. By softening their respective positions, and becoming more centrist, they could be much more powerful and ultimately successful, without losing their extreme votes, (where else could they go anyway?)

    Look forward to hearing from more contributions, and glad to have a little bit of balance introduced.

  8. Alastair Rae Feb 4, 2021

    A thoughtful piece capturing the paradox of people who don’t identify as Irish objecting to being told they are not really Irish.

    • And happy to mention Republican violence while overlooking Unionist’s.

  9. TE Lawrence Feb 4, 2021

    Good article, but your statement “those calling for such discussions must expect to hear authentic Unionist Voices, some of whom will have vastly different views and experiences” There lies the challenge for this Blog ? It will be interesting to see if it seeks other Unionist Views or only wishes to hear nice respectable Unionist Views as yourself Choyaa, just to make it look good that it is being seen to be talking to Unionism (But does it really give a hoot about what they say or what their political concerns are ? )

    • William Feb 7, 2021

      Go and engage and you’ll find out.
      You can’t change nothing from the outside.

  10. Oggins Feb 4, 2021

    Great read. Maith thú Choyaa