The Blanket

A Question of Identity

Billy Mitchell • 26.9.02

It has often been said that we are what we are because of an accident of birth. That is true to an extent. But it is far from being the whole truth.

To be what one is always means both accepting and modifying a range of influences that impact on our lives from childhood through adolescence and on throughout adulthood. This is not always recognised by those who accept uncritically the influences that flow towards them from their family and their community. In the movement between parents receiving influences from their parents, and they in turn transmitting them on to their children, essential changes take place.

Identity is not something that is static. It is something that is being defined and redefined as we grow to maturity. Yet this process of defining and redefining does not lead to a new identity. It should, and often does, lead to a proper understanding of who we really are and of what it means to be what we already are. If nothing else it should help us to co-ordinate and to synchronise the several strands that go to make up who we are.

We have the power to either accept in total or to modify the influences that impact upon us as a consequence of being born into a particular family, in a particular country at a particular time in history. To refuse to use that power is to do ourselves a great disservice. We have also the power to completely reject and to turn away from those influences and to embrace news ones.

In an impressive speech on the subject of anti-sectarianism to a recent Progressive Unionist Party Conference, my colleague Dugald Mc Cullough accused those within the Protestant and Unionist community who refuse to engage in fresh independent thinking and critical self-analysis as being too "terrified to think beyond the familiar" and of being "traitors to their Protestant heritage" which prides itself in being open to the influences of independent and creative thinking. To accept uncritically the influences of our parents is just not good enough. "Because my daddy says it has always been this way, is not a reason for anything", argued Mc Cullough. He went on to say that "It is indeed a mean-spirited and narrow-minded father who wants to see his son grow up in his shadow, and it is a poor-spirited and shallow son who apes and imitates his father rather than do his own thinking".

It is important that all who claim to have a specific cultural identity should engage in a critical examination of their roots. We ought to think for ourselves, so that when we act politically, culturally or religiously we are genuinely acting for ourselves. If we are to contribute positively to a cultural community we must be constantly bringing fresh ideas and new thinking to that community. The development of cultural identity is by its nature a developmental process. It is not a onetime act to which we can appeal and upon whose events a traditionalist can rest. Tradition and innovation are two elements of one process, and the development of cultural identity requires both elements.

This means that we must think beyond the familiar. It means too that we must understand exactly what the familiar really is. We may start off in life being who we are because of an accident of birth, but to understand who we are and to live our lives accordingly, we must engage in both critical self-analysis and in critical cross-cultural analysis.

I was born into an English speaking evangelical Protestant home to working-class parents of Scots-Irish extraction who supported the legislative union between Ireland the rest of the United Kingdom. My parents were born prior to the secession of the twenty-six counties from the United Kingdom, consequently they regarded themselves as Irish Unionists. My father died young and left my mother a young widow which meant that my brother and myself were brought up in relative poverty. I have often referred to this as “privileged poverty” as a protest against those nationalists who claim that because I am a Protestant I enjoyed a privileged upbringing of wine and roses with no experience of poverty.

This "accident of birth" has me boxed off into a pigeon hole labelled " Disadvantaged working class Protestant Unionist". Different people looking at me out of their own distinct pigeon holes will add their own interpretative labels. What exactly do these labels mean? Can I change the labels? Do I want to change the labels? These are some of the questions that I have had to ask myself in recent years.

Class Identity

There is little that I can do to change the label "working class". A lottery windfall might change my economic status and my lifestyle, but it would not change the class that I was born into. More importantly, I have no desire to change the label. I am what I am by an act of predestination (some may call it an act of fate) and while I have endeavoured to develop a better way of life for both my family, and myself, my roots and my heart lie with a particular class of people.

If I were to believe all that I read about being part of the privileged Protestant ascendancy I would have to reject this label. Nationalist academics and republican socialists are almost unanimous in their belief that there was no such a person as an economically poor or socially disadvantaged loyalist. Yet for many loyalists our class identity was formed out of our experiences growing up in disadvantaged families and communities. My own experience of life was one of watching my young widowed mother struggle to make ends meet. For our family, life was a struggle to obtain the basic necessities of life and to ward off the attention of the moneylenders, the tick men and the host of other parasites who fed on the misery of the poor. It is true that I had to go to Long Kesh to understand that experience in terms of class identity, but the fact is that the understanding when it did come, came from an analysis of personal and group experiences and memories, not from books by philosophers and social theorists.

It wasn’t until I went to prison and had time for both personal reflection and interaction with others from a similar background that I began to realise that the struggle that we went through as a family to make ends meet was something experienced by a great many other working class families. There was a sense of pride, fostered by the application of a suspect theology to social life that prevented Protestants growing up in my generation from complaining about their predestined lot. In Long Kesh we explored issues that we took for granted on the outside.

Of course we knew other people were getting it “as tight” as we were, and there was a genuine sense of community that encouraged you to share what you had with your neighbour. But you didn’t talk about it. You didn’t analyse it. You accepted it as part of life. Didn’t the preacher assure us that the sufferings of this life would be replaced with joys eternal in the life to come! Joe Hill summed that spurious theology up in the song “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die, bye and bye”.

Even in prison we did not attempt a scientific analysis of our experiences. I have never read Karl Marx but I have read Other Marks - the marks of pain furrowed across the brow of my widowed mother who was at her wits end because her money and her food had run out, the marks of pain on the faces of at least a dozen neighbours or friends who died before their time as a result of industry induced cancers, the marks of shame on the face of a school friend who felt that the only marketable commodity left to sell was her own body. These marks spoke volumes.

Doctrinaire socialists may well be correct in producing their scientific analyses of the causes of poverty and deprivation. My analysis, flawed as it might be in terms of doctrine and theory, is the product of personal experience. I have been there, I have experienced it and I am entitled to wear the t-shirt. Jon Sobrino, the Latin American Liberation Theologian, has identified two classes of “the poor” for whom Jesus the Liberator had a soft spot. The first class was the economic poor - the hungry, the poorly clothed, the badly housed, the sick and the infirm. The second class included the social outcasts of his day - women, prisoners, prostitutes, winebibbers, lepers, strangers, and ‘the one who was different’; the kind of people whom the New Right have designated as the underclass. If I must wear labels that identify me within the context of class and family identity then I will accept the labels of ‘economic poor’ and ‘social outcast’.

Religious Identity

Religion plays an important part in the development of personal and communal identity. This is true even for those who reject religion. Philosophic atheism is as instrumental in developing a world and life view as is religion. Indeed many commentators have suggested that philosophic atheism is simply a religion without God.

In Northern Ireland we tend to adopt a religious or faith perspective on a broad range of issues. Thus, when trying to unpack issues about identity, the issue of religious belief is high on the agenda for discussion. I was born and raised in a Baptist home. My late mother was an active member of Glengormley Baptist Church during the forties and fifties, and my religious upbringing was heavily influenced by Baptist theology. Up until I left school and went out into the world I accepted the moral restraints and social implications of evangelical Protestantism as mediated through Baptist teaching.

Baptists belong to one of the smaller evangelical Protestant denominations. If we were to identify Baptists within the framework of Wolfe Tone’s classification of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, Baptists would be classified as dissenters. They predate the Protestant Reformation and have developed outside of the framework of what historians call the Magisterial Reformation. Consequently they were hunted down and persecuted as ‘heretics’ by the Catholic Church, the Protestant State Churches and the Reformed churches. Their belief that baptism should be by total immersion as opposed to sprinkling provided persecutors of the Baptist community with a novel method of putting them to death - they were immersed in water until they either recanted or drowned. Thus death by drowning was how many Baptists became martyrs for the faith.

Three of the core principles of the early Baptists were (1) Freedom before God in Faith, (2) Freedom of religion in the face of the State and (3) Freedom of personal conscience in the face of the Church. If the slogan “Civil and Religious Liberty” means anything to me, it is within the framework of these three Baptist principles.

Many Baptists supported the English Revolution of 1649 because they believed that only by breaking the totalitarian power of both the monarchy and the bishops could they secure civil and religious liberty for their people. Indeed it was the Baptist leader, Thomas Collier, who drafted the Somerset Petition supporting the trial of the despot, Charles I. John Bunyan, whose classic book “Pilgrim’s Progress” was written in Bedford Gaol, was the pastor of one of the more radical pro-revolutionary churches during the English civil wars. He served twelve years in Bedford Gaol at the restoration of the monarchy rather than conform to the dictates of the king and the bishops. Brian Manning, in his excellent book “The Crisis of the English Revolution”, acknowledges that “The driving force for the coup d’etat, both inside and outside the (New Model) army was provided by the religious radicals. These were mainly Independents and Baptists”.

Baptists have traditionally stood for religious freedom. Sadly, when in the course of time their hard won battle for civil and religious liberty was taken for granted, they lost their radical edge and became part of the conservative evangelical sub-culture. Instead of aligning themselves with the Levellers and the Diggers and pressing home the revolution, they became satisfied with a hollow victory that eventually led to the restoration of the monarchy and the state church.

That must be my point of departure from the church in which I was brought up. I wholeheartedly embrace the three core principles of civil and religious freedom espoused by the Baptists and the Independents during the English Revolution, but I cannot be satisfied with the limitations placed by them on the scope of that freedom. They fell short of supporting freedom for women and Catholics, and they disassociated themselves from the more radical elements of the revolutionary movement. It could be said that, once they had gained the freedom to worship as they pleased and to be included within the structures of civic society, the Baptists sold out to Parliament and deserted the cause. They moved from a position of radical dissent to a passive non-conformity that was satisfied with its own legitimisation.

Sociologists and economists have pointed to the collusion of Protestantism with the spirit of capitalism. The church into which I was born had an opportunity to challenge that collusion but it became comfortable with its hard won liberties and veered away from its radical potential in exchange for legitimisation. Freedom for “me” and for “mine” while others remain unfree is not freedom at all. Freedom for selective groups shackles others to a life of injustice and social exclusion. A religion that fails to challenge the root causes of social exclusion and injustice because it has fallen into an “other worldly” comfort zone is a parody of true Christianity.

My sense of identity as an evangelical Protestant remains in a state of tension because the evangelical community to which I belong, and from which I cannot in conscience divorce myself, refuses to leave its bunkers and engage with the real world. Thus my spiritual life is being developed on the fringes of mainstream evangelicalism and I tend to identify with liberation theology and the new leftist brand of evangelicalism that is slowly emerging (unfortunately not at a great pace in Northern Ireland).

Cultural Identity

Born and raised in south-east Antrim to parents who came from Scotch-Irish dissenting stock I have a natural affinity with what has become known in recent years as the Ulster-Scots tradition. The Ulster-Scots culture has its own particular modes of expression and celebration - language, literature, drama, dance, music, ritual, symbols and emblems. However, as I have written elsewhere,

“Both the Anglo-Irish and the Ulster-Scots cultures have been in Ireland long enough to have assimilated elements of the Irish-Gaelic culture and of each other’s culture. The same is true for the Irish-Gaelic culture. It has embraced elements of both the Anglo-Irish and the Ulster-Scots cultures.”

Prior to the politicisation of Irish culture by the republican community my family were always comfortable with regarding themselves as Irish and with enjoying traditional Irish culture. Indeed the several elements of both the Irish and the Scottish cultures that merged in County Antrim have provided us with a richness in cultural expression and enjoyment that the family circle has always cherished. Thus, I have no problem whatsoever in accepting and embracing my sense of Irishness. The term Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scot is no more contradictory than the term Irish-American. It is a term that keeps alive the historic cultural strains that my family have enjoyed for generations.

This country is as much my country as it is the country of Gerry Adams or Anthony Mc Intyre - now there’s two good old Scotch sounding surnames - it is the land of my birth and it’s soil holds the bones of generations of both my maternal and my paternal family lines. views on culture generally are expressed in my article Culture & Identity and need not repeat them here.

Where I differ from Adams and Mackers is that I am an Irish person who wishes to see a social and political union established and maintained between all of the peoples of the islands commonly called the British Isles (but any other name would do) whereas they desire a smaller union between the peoples of one island. I would certainly differ greatly from Adams, but perhaps not so much from Mackers, on the issue of nationalism. A single identity confessional state where the terms Irish, Gaelic and Catholic mean the same thing has no appeal for me. Nationalism - whether it be British or Irish, Protestant or Catholic - is something that I just cannot reconcile with my belief that the value and worth of each human being should be based on our common humanity and not on ethnicity, cutlure or religion.

I differ from Adams and from most nationalists and Irish republicans in that I just cannot accept the notion that by forcing the unionist community into an all Irish state we will bring an end to sectarianism and the vicious cycle of alienation, conflict and violence that goes with it. Geographical unity will be meaningless without the unity of the people and that sort of unity cannot be brought about by force of arms or by the decree of London and Dublin. Adams, in particular, is naïve to believe that once geographical unity is achieved the scales will drop from the eyes of the unionist community and, miraculously, we will all realise that we were closet nationalists all along. A united Ireland, whether by force or by stealth, does not mean a united people and without a united people nothing will change in terms of that vicious cycle of alienation, conflict and violence that we have been so used to. Culturally I remain an Irish Unionist.


Keeping my sense of identity under critical examination is something that I believe is part and parcel of daily living. This may mean redefining some of the beliefs and values that have been passed on to me. It could even mean rejecting beliefs and values that were one time considered precious and indispensable to those who went before me. But if I am to be “me” rather than being what is expected of me by others who have shared my journey in the past then I must expose myself to critical self-examination. If I remain committed to my working class identity it is because that is where I personally want to be. If I remain an evangelical Protestant, albeit a of a radical kind that may not be accepted within conservative or liberal evangelical circles, it is because that is where my faith and religious convictions have led me. If I remain an Irish Unionist it is because I believe in the social and political union of all the peoples of these islands. Others can take these labels and place their own interpretation on them, and on me, all I can do is live by what I believe and present my identity to others the way I personally see it.





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Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment--the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is.
- Jorge Luis Borges

Index: Current Articles

26 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


IRA Volunteer Charlie Hughes and the Courage of the Brave
Brendan Hughes


A Question of Identity

Billy Mitchell


Road Kill
Liam O Ruairc


Pakistan and Military Dictators

Anthony McIntyre


Baghdad's Think-Tank Bomb
John Chuckman


Solidarity: 2 Notices
Sam Bahour and Fred Schlomka


22 September 2002


Pipedream Peace
Joe Graham


Can The Course of Labour Afford to Wait?
Billy Mitchell


Easily Annoyed
Peter Urban


Academics on Independence, Part 1

Paul Fitzsimmons


Sabra & Shatila

Anthony McIntyre


Palestine & Iraq
Brendan Hughes


Not In Our Name
Davy Carlin


Death Fasts and Oppression Continue in Turkey




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