Migrant identities in Northern Ireland's divided society: British, Irish or 'Other'?

Despite being in a state of "post-conflict" transition, Northern Ireland remains a divided society. Violent conflict no longer rages, but vast differences continue to separate Catholic-nationalists and Protestant-unionists. Educational and residential segregation remains widespread. Most children in Northern Ireland attend schools that are overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant. In nationalist and unionist enclaves, territory is demarcated by flags, banners and murals, often containing stark militaristic imagery.

During its century of existence, Northern Ireland’s intense social and cultural divisions have provided an ominous context for incoming migrants. Historians of have largely ignored the region’s immigrant and minority ethnic communities, instead concentrating their analysis on sectarianism and the Troubles. As sociologist Robbie McVeigh notes, throughout the twentieth century, politicians and the public subscribed to the lazy and inaccurate assumption "there’s no black people in Northern Ireland". However, the region has been home to migrants and ethnic minorities since the nineteenth century. This paper will outline some key conclusions from my upcoming monograph, exploring how contested national, political cultural identities have shaped over 100 years of Northern Irish immigration. The talk will draw upon a body of forty oral history interviews with first, second and third generation migrants, incorporating perspectives from the Italian, Indian and Chinese communities.

Migrant populations existed largely on the periphery of sectarian divisions. Most first-generation migrants found sectarian disputes parochial and bewildering, remaining steadfastly neutral to Northern Ireland’s internal divide. This impartiality allowed them to steer clear of conflict and avoid being targeted by paramilitaries. However, neutrality also excluded migrants from membership of both the Catholic and Protestant communities, relegating them to the unsatisfactory and marginal social category of “other”. This paper explores where migrant communities have fitted within the unique structure of Northern Ireland’s divided society. It asks how migrant populations navigated a confusing backdrop of militarisation and violence, probing the social and economic impact of three decades of the Troubles. More fundamentally, the paper asks how supposedly “other” communities cultivated and achieved a sense of identity and belonging amidst binary sectarian division.

a stack of old maps

Presenter: Dr Jack Crangle

Wednesday, 17 November 2021 at 5pm


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