24 January 2013
An identity crisis
As I was preparing to write this month's article the issue of national identity has been ringing loud and clear. In October last year we learnt that there will be a referendum for Scottish Independence; this week David Cameron has promised a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU; and surprisingly in Northern Ireland both majority parties are now 'supporting' the proposal for a border poll. Even our governments are not immune to an identity crisis. The term 'identity crisis' seems appropriate when applied to what's been going on in Belfast lately and is used quite deliberately, both words lie right at the heart of the problem.
So how do our very nations define their identity? History, geographical borders, constitutional sovereignty, national anthems, flags and emblems, power? Is a border poll going to solve the Northern Ireland 'problem'? I think not. Identity would still be primarily defined through the lens of one nationality or another. For most people faith, family, community and work all contribute in some way to their personal sense of identity. But how do we see these reflected on a national scale?
A 2007 Tearfund survey into church attendance indicated higher levels of church attendance in Northern Ireland than any other region of the UK. This raises difficult questions for the church here in terms of our past and now our present context. Now don't misunderstand me, I love the church and the tangible benefit that churches bring in our communities. But is the transformational Christian message of re-identity, love and peace in Christ really getting out of the Church door and impacting the streets around us?
Research from the Relationships Foundation shows that the family unit is key to social progress: "They contribute directly to wellbeing through the experience of empathy, connection, as well as meaning, purpose, identity and belonging. They provide financial, practical and emotional support, influencing health, education and employment outcomes. When they go right they bring great benefits, but when they go wrong they have a profound impact." In 2011 in Northern Ireland 42% of births were outside of marriage, this is despite the weight of research pointing to the fact that children tend to do best in married homes. The government must do more to encourage, protect, and support families. The Evangelical Alliance is asking the NI Executive to consider a 'relational-impact assessment' for all new policies so as to identify any negative impacts on families and communities. This would be similar to the current process in place for rural proofing and equality.
News coverage has reported that the majority of those involved in rioting are from Protestant working class areas. The unfortunate economic reality is that many will come form workless homes, a further number will come from homes where little worth is attached to work or education. As Chief Constable Matt Baggott has warned rioters are facing jail terms that will only further reduce future employment prospects. Research from the Department of Work and Pensions has consistently shown that employment encourages and increases health and well being while unemployment detracts from these. These young people are throwing more than bricks and petrol bombs away, their futures are at stake.
Where we go from here
The riots have once again raised big and uncomfortable questions around national identity in Northern Ireland. Looking beyond Northern Ireland the pending referendums raise similar questions for the UK as a collective, and as individual nations. It could be said that there is a crisis of identity and relational poverty across the UK and Ireland. With too much of our identity placed in nationhood are we in danger of missing the bigger picture of purpose, relationships, and human worth? These things dramatically affect our attitudes and actions day-to-day regardless of what nation we belong to. Transferring these important but at times ethereal concepts into practical policy is really difficult but as we're in this process of determining identity perhaps now is the time to look at this. Regardless of nationality we need to see strong coherent responses from government which enshrine the idea of right relationship and wellbeing through social policy. Given the current identity crisis in Northern Ireland, what have we got to lose?
Paul Meneely, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland