On Tuesday night I took part in what was termed ‘The Leaders’ Debate’ St Mary’s College on the Falls Road in west Belfast.
Other participants included the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Gregory Campbell MP, Mary Lou McDonald TD, Daniel McCrossan MLA, Naomi Long MEP, and Brendan Smith TD.
As an Ulster Unionist politician and someone who served three decades in the British Army it was not perhaps the type of venue or audience where your readers would normally expect me to make an appearance, but it provided me with an opportunity to take my message to a part of the city of Belfast where it isn’t often heard.
As I told the gathering on Tuesday night, I am an Irishman and I am also British, having served in an Irish Regiment of the British Army since 1982.
My identity and culture is proudly represented by the Union Flag, God Save the Queen, Ulster and Ireland rugby, Gaelic games, the shamrock, Guinness, St Patrick’s Day, Derry and Londonderry, the Sash my father wore, poets and authors, actors and artists. I support all the home nations football teams unless they are playing Northern Ireland and I support the Republic of Ireland unless they are playing the home nations.
I am an Ulsterman, I am Irish and I am British – I am made up of many things and I share many things with those who live in the same space as me, yet view themselves purely as Irish, British or as an Ulster Scot.
If I look at all those things that I believe define me, my identity and culture, I find it hard to accept anything that will divide me from those who view themselves differently yet hold many of the same things dear to them.
I absolutely reject anything or anybody that seeks to impose a binary straightjacket on me that excludes any part of my identity and narrows it down to some false binary either/or choice.
If we seriously want to examine the question of identity, we need to ask just how many people on this island can truly lay claim to being purebred Gaels or sons and daughters of Planters? This reality is that this island has been subject to waves of immigration throughout its history. Scotland is visible from the north coast and people have travelled back and forth across the Irish Sea for thousands of years. The Vikings were regular visitors on raids and many of them settled in Ireland. Once the Norman French had secured control of England, they turned their attention to Ireland and in 1169 they landed, supported by both King Henry II and Pope Adrian IV.
From then we move on to Queen Elizabeth I, James 1, the Plantation, Cromwell and the Williamite Wars.
The bottom line is that today we have unionists with Irish surnames, nationalists with English surnames and many people with family connections to the so-called ‘other side.’ And England is home to literally millions of people with Irish surnames.
How many people from republican or nationalist areas of Northern Ireland have sons, daughters, nephews and nieces studying or working in cities such as Liverpool Manchester, Birmingham or London?
How many republicans and nationalists follow the fortunes of the likes of Manchester United or Liverpool as avidly as if they had been born and bred in those English cities?
Thousands of families from Coleraine to Cork have relatives living in Great Britain and it is simply foolish for republicans to attempt to deny these links and pretend that the English are some kind of alien race and that unionists are ‘invaders’ who should ‘go home’.
Identity is multi-layered, and the reality is often much more complex that people allow themselves to admit.
Certain Sinn Fein politicians need to dial down the rhetoric and consign the mantra and mindset of ‘Brits Out’ to the bin. Shrieking “Tiocfaidh ar la” from a platform in Strabane will do nothing to promote reconciliation or respect .It won’t help create any jobs or attract any investment. It will not help reduce our hospital waiting lists or tackle the crisis in our children’s education system.
Sinn Fein have no right to call for anybody to be sent ‘home’. The fact is that unionists are already home. This is the only home we have ever known and we aren’t leaving it.
What is needed in Northern Ireland is a greater understanding of each other’s viewpoint and an acceptance that we all have a right to live here and seek to work together and ensure a better life for our children and grandchildren.
l Doug Beattie is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann and received the Military Cross for bravery while serving in Afghanistan with the Royal Irish Regiment