On my recent trip to France with the Green and White Army to support Northern Ireland one topic kept raising its head: the national anthem.
For all of my life the singing of God Save The Queen (plus the wee No Surrender bit) at Northern Ireland matches was sacrosanct; not anymore. More and more GAWA are arguing for a neutral anthem and I am one of them. The sight of the team lining up before a game with the prods mumbling away and the micks looking nervously at the ground is not a unifying or inspiring time for the players. Sure the Scots have Flower of Scotland and Wales have Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, while the Irish rugby team have the unifying Ireland’s Call so surely the time has come to get our own anthem. And while we’re at it why not get a new flag? There is no great desire, north or south, for a united Ireland so why not get on with making our wee country less hostile to the non-British that live here. I don’t need flags or anthems to remind me of my nationality. The NHS and the pound in my pocket do a better job of that. A neutral anthem and flag is a no-brainer for me. The IFA will be discussing it soon so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
This debate throws up the wider issue of what it is to be Northern Irish. Many of our young people have grown up after the Troubles or in areas unaffected by the Troubles. With the wonderful slow death of religion, many of these young people have no regard for past loyalties. In the 2011 Census 48% of respondents put their nationality as British, 28% put Irish while an incredible 29% put Northern Irish. Given the figures on religion it is clear that the biggest proportion of these “Northern Irish” are from a catholic background and the press were quick to call them the “Rory McIlroy Generation”.
Rory is the product of a mixed marriage, brought up in a secular home in a protestant area. He went to a catholic primary school and a protestant grammar school. He regularly attends the Northern Ireland football games and the Ulster rugby games like many young people from a similar background. He always claims to be Northern Irish and proud of it.
This desire to designate as Northern Irish seems to be growing within the younger generation. Queen’s University has recently added a course to their part time curriculum to study this phenomenon. NI21 tried (unsuccessfully) to ride this particular wave with Basil McCrea claiming that both unionism and republicanism was hostile to “Northern Irelandism” growing. Unionism fears that the emblems of British rule will be removed in a “greening” of the North, while republicanism fears the entrenchment of partition.
In my opinion both sides are wrong. Unionism needs to think outside of the sectarian box. Religion is dying and the old certainties no longer exist. Unionism needs to convince people from both sides that staying in the UK is better for us all. With Bexit and the rise of the SNP we live in interesting and uncertain times. By encouraging the Rory McIlroy generation and improving community relations Northern Ireland can only get better. Why would unionism be against that?
Republicanism should not fear the Rory McIroy Generation either. With no real push for a UI, better community relations will only help their case further down the line. If a UI does come it will not be a 32 county republic, that’s for sure. We will still be ruled from Stormont in a 23 + 9, 26 + 6 or Eire Nua type arrangement. Better community harmony will only make any transition easier. I suspect many republicans feel Northern Irish anyway. Partition and then the Troubles have made Northern Ireland a place apart from the rest of the island in many ways. Belfast is closer to Glasgow than Cork and not just geographically. Eamon Collins (not the IRA’s favourite son) wrote in his book that he felt more at home in Glasgow than in Dublin, but always longed to come back to the North. It would be interesting to hear other exiles’ opinions!
For me there is nothing more depressing than seeing streets carved up with tattered union Jacks and Irish tricolours on lampposts. The younger generation cares little for our old battles; we have all let them down. It is time to move on and while we work things out we might as well have a neutral space to live in with emblems that we can all identify with. If that means an anthem and flag that both Niall Maginn and Steve Davis can get behind then bring it on.