What is national identity in postmodern Great Britain?
21st century Europe. Postmodernism. European Union. Capitalism. Fragmentation. In search of a new identity. Divided and together facing the rest of the world. History turns to be an invaluable source for the researchers to tackle properly the term. But history was written by the conquerors. The truth is probably in-between. In The importance of not being English, David McDowall states that national identity nowadays might have different perceptions. “A Canadian recently touring Britain discovered, in his own words, ‘There’s no such thing as the British, only English, Irish, Welsh and Scots.’ Ethnic minority communities apart, there is considerable truth in his remark. The sense of difference is more than 1,000 years old and dates from when Anglo-Saxon invaders from the European continent drove the Celtic people out of what we now call England and into what we now call Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In fact, almost one in five of today’s British is not English.
The English habit of considering Wales and Scotland to be extensions of England is an old one. In the sixteenth century William Shakespeare spoke of England as ‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle’, even though much of this isle was not English. Since 1945 there has been a growing dislike in the Celtic countries of the habit of defining the ‘island race’ as English, a growing sense of difference, and a desire to have more control over their own affairs. The English, for their part, have sometimes felt resentful that, as the wealthiest member of the United Kingdom, England subsidises the others.
Nowhere has the sense of conflict with the English been stronger than in Northern Ireland, where the population is composed of Protestants and Catholics. The Protestants do not feel English, though some would call themselves British and almost all claim Ulster (as most Protestants prefer to call Northern Ireland) as an integral part of Britain. They are known as ‘Unionists’ or ‘Loyalists’, a more militant term implying support for a paramilitary group. The Catholic population feels more Irish than British and most, calling themselves Nationalists, would prefer to be more clearly separate from Britain, or at any rate with closer links with the Irish Republic. Some call themselves Republican, implying support for Sinn Fein (pronounced ‘shin fayn’) and the IRA (the Irish Republican Army). Today there are approximately 900,000 Protestants and 680,000 Catholics in Northern Ireland. There are 3.5 million Irish south of the border, in the Republic, with whom many Catholics feel an affinity. Both communities, and the people of the Republic, have felt great frustration with British policy.
England’s involvement with Ireland has been an unhappy one. English adventurers colonised parts of Ireland over 800 years ago. In the sixteenth century England brought Ireland under systematic rule. When England became Protestant, Ireland did not. In order to strengthen its hold on the most rebellious part, Ulster, London encouraged English and Scottish Protestant settlers, or ‘Planters’. These took the best land and soon outnumbered the indigenous people of Ulster. The English deliberately tried to destroy Irish language, culture and Catholicism.
Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the Irish began their long struggle to be free. The majority of Protestants, particularly in Ulster, reacted to this struggle by forming the Orange Order, a solidarity association of ‘lodges’, or branches. The title refers to the Dutch Protestant, William of Orange, who seized the English throne from the Catholic King James II in 1688, and who defeated an Irish rebellion at the River Boyne in 1690.
The Irish finally forced England to concede independence in 1921. Ulster’s Protestants warned that they would fight rather than be part of a Catholic-dominated Irish state. Partly to...