I’VE always thought of my homeland, Northern Ireland, as a dark looking glass.

If you stare into it, long and hard enough, truths will appear which you never wanted to learn. Too many of us, though, are scared to peer into that mirror. We’d rather break it.

I stared into that mirror so long I dissolved my own sense of identity. It was painful but I’m better for it. My tortured country is 100 years old this week – conceived in blood, born in blood, raised in blood, aged in blood. We’ve been killing each other for a century over who we are and who we want to be, over the curse of identity.

I never knew who I was growing up in Northern Ireland. I was born in 1970 at the start of the Troubles – what a craven euphemism for ethnic civil war. My father came from the Ulster, Protestant, loyalist tradition; my mother from the Irish, Catholic, republican tradition. So what was I?

Even then, this muddle of identity wasn’t as clear cut as just another ‘mixed marriage’. It’s a cruel absurdity that my country even had a term – ‘mixed marriage’ – for love that crossed religious boundaries in the 20th century, though in many ways we’ve never escaped the 1600s.

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To complicate matters, my Irish republican family had some English swirled in, and the Ulster loyalists had a Catholic smattering. There were Scots too – both Catholic and Protestant. Growing up I thought I was unique. I wasn’t. There were thousands like me, confused, lost because their blood wouldn’t accord with Ulster’s ‘us or them’ hatreds.

In Ulster you had to pick a side, though. My maternal grandmother had fought for the Irish Republic in the War of Independence between 1919-21; on the other side, family had fought to keep Ulster British. As a boy, with the land soaked in blood – Irish blood, British blood, Ulster blood – I couldn’t pick a side. If I picked one, I felt I’d be acquiescing in the murder of the other. Until, my mid teens – when I studied the history of my island and was able to make as dispassionate a judgement call as I could on where right and wrong lay – I tried desperately to reject everything connected to my homeland.

My name became very important to me as a boy. I could find a hiding place in its Scottishness. I didn’t want the baggage of Ulster or Ireland or England – each bound up in brutality and murder in my eyes. But Scotland seemed like ‘us’ – like Irish or English or Ulster folk – but ‘not us’, a ‘safer us’.

I remember, with a twinge of hot shame now, trying to obliterate my sense of ‘Ulsterness’ and ‘Irishness’. I recall Scotland at the 1978 World Cup as a moment when I really tried to latch on to the idea that I could be Scottish – as if Scotland was some sanctuary of identity.

The irony is, I never liked football. Perhaps, in some subconscious way, this played a part in me deciding to move to Scotland 25 years ago – a place where I could raise my children, safely sheltered from history.

HeraldScotland: Belfast, 2021Belfast, 2021

In Northern Ireland, identity cuts so deep you can die for it. By my late teens, I’d reasoned with the history of England and Ireland, employing as much equanimity of mind as I could muster amid a sea of blood. Britain, I felt, should never have come to Ireland. Ireland should be united. This I still believe. I want to see my island whole again. Britain’s involvement in Ireland has but one boast: centuries of suffering.

I don’t identify, though, as an Irish nationalist or republican – there’s too much blood there, just as there’s too much blood when it comes to Ulster unionism or loyalism. In truth, I don’t really identify as anything anymore. If you push me – hard – I’ll say I’m Irish and an adoptive Scot, but I’d sooner burn any flag than salute it; show me a patriot and I’ll show you danger.

Irish unity, though, is a long way away. If Ireland is ever united, I pray it comes without a whisper of violence. The ballot box is the only path. I’d like to take all the guns in Ireland and drown them in the sea. But while I may wish to see Ireland united, I don’t want my many friends and family who cherish their Britishness to feel robbed, humiliated. Let unity come gently for everyone.

If the last century taught us anything it’s that we must put our arms around each other; if we’re to speak of the end of Northern Ireland in its 100th year, that’s the only way to walk toward change: in friendship, the past buried. I fear that’s wishful thinking by an exile – and exiles, while they see their countries clearly, are always utopian.

I’m not alone, as a child of the Troubles, in my struggle with identity. The Scots, Welsh and English, think all us Ulster folk can be pigeonholed as one side or the other. That’s patronising ignorance. There’s a silent majority of people in the north who are quite simply nothing other than human beings who want to get on with their lives, without hurting or being hurt over something as meaningless and fictional as a flag or a border.

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If Northern Ireland is a mirror, though, the British state is scared to look too, fearful of what it will see. If the British people had the courage to stare deep enough, they’d be shaken to their core. They’d see how a country which claims to be the mother of democracies, shredded democracy through its actions in Northern Ireland for the last century – first, propping up a sectarian state, then unleashing state violence against civilians.

If the people of Ireland and Ulster are soaked in blood, Britain bathed deep and long too. That Britain still refuses to acknowledge its sins in Ireland – that it celebrates, with bloody hands, impunity for soldiers who shot civilians – shows how terribly Britain warped and corrupted itself through its dreadful history with my troubled country, a history which has diminished us all.

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